By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News
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SEQUIM — The biggest run of pink salmon in the Dungeness River since 1963 is underway.
The biannual summer run of pink salmon, also known as humpbacks or humpies, has filled the river with spawning fish so full that people easily can see the fish just about anywhere in the Dungeness River, said Scott Chitwood, natural resources director of the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe.
“Our pre-season forecast was for a return of Dungeness pinks in the 30,000-to-40,000 range. To date, spawning ground surveyors have counted more than 100,000 in the Dungeness,” Chitwood said.
And they're still coming, he said.
The 1963 run included more than 400,000 salmon, a number Chitwood said the current run is not expected to reach.
There are so many of the fish they easily can be seen just about anywhere that roads cross the river at the Dungeness Fish Hatchery, he said.
Good places to watch the fish migrate upstream are from the bridge at Railroad Bridge Park, 2151 W. Hendrickson Road, or from river trails near the hatchery, at 1261 Fish Hatchery Road, both in Sequim, Chitwood said.
All of the pinks returning to the Dungeness are wild-born, as there are no pink salmon hatcheries in the area, he said.
The late-run pinks are just beginning to arrive and are expected to be seen in the Dungeness for at least two more weeks, after which the run of fall coho salmon (also known as silver salmon) begins.
The Dungeness is now closed to all fishing. The sport fishing season begins Oct. 8 — but only coho silver salmon (not pinks) can be kept. The daily coho limit is four; each coho must be at least 12 inches long. The river will be open for fishing through Dec. 31.
The Dungeness River is the only large producer of pink salmon on the North Olympic Peninsula, though many smaller creeks and streams on the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the Hood Canal may see some of this year's largesse of fish, said Michael Gross, district fish biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
At one point, pink salmon also spawned in the Elwha River, Gross said, but they have not been seen there in significant numbers since records had been kept.
Dungeness pink salmon are split into early and late runs, said Neil Turner, hatchery operations manager for Fish and Wildlife.
Similar numbers of pink also are being seen in other rivers in the region, Turner said.
“Everywhere you look, they are there,” he said.
A perfect storm of conditions, including high survival rates for 2011 hatchlings, reduced predation and increased food sources, have produced spectacular results in rivers throughout the region.
The huge return of pinks includes most of the major rivers on the Canadian side of the Strait, Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, such as the Frasier River, where Turner and Chitwood said fish managers have counted pink salmon in the millions.
Chitwood cautioned against speculation that the numbers are a sign of overall salmon recovery.
He believes this year's return is an anomaly.
Of all the Pacific salmon species, pink salmon are the least dependent on freshwater habitat and spend nearly their entire lives in saltwater, Chitwood said.
“Once they are born and exit the gravel, juvenile pink salmon swim immediately downstream to saltwater and begin their marine life history at a very small size,” he said.
“As a result, abundance is driven substantially by marine survival.”
Two years of nearly ideal conditions for pink salmon in Puget Sound and nearby waters might not be repeated, he warned.
The number of pink salmon in the Dungeness fell off after the record 1963 run, at one point falling to fewer than 10,000 returning fish, Gross said.
The Elwha has the potential to be a good pink salmon river, Gross said, and historic accounts of pink runs are similar to those of the legendary chinook runs in which the fish were described as being so thick in the river that a man could walk across it on their backs.
Gross said that once Glines Canyon Dam is removed, the pinks are expected to recolonize the Elwha River.
Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at email@example.com.