Salmon Carcass Tossing Time

January means getting a little stinky and slimy with some of our beloved salmon carcasses. Already harvested for eggs and milt, they are held frozen in large ice cubes at Nisqually Indian Tribe’s Clear Creek Hatchery from fall to January. These cubes of fish are then dropped from a forklift to quickly break them up. All this work leads to service learning opportunities for students. And their job is simple: toss salmon back into the stream!

Totes at Clear Creek Hatchery waiting for the forklift. Each tote holds just over 100 salmon.

It may seem an odd act at first glance, but salmon carcasses have moved marine derived nutrients upstream for thousands to millions of years. The nutrients benefit the stream side vegetation, which in turn improves salmon habitat. Stream insects munch on carcasses, and then provide food for future fry. Predators fertilize the forest by dragging salmon away from the stream. In fact 137 species depend on salmon for food! This dependance makes salmon a keystone species; both in the Pacific Northwest ecosystem and in Washington’s economy.

Students receive an in-class presentation explaining these important reasons for salmon tossing before joining us in the field. We also explore the salmon life cycle and the impact declining salmon runs have on the ecosystem. Those lower runs increase the importance of these service-learning trips. In 15 years students have helped toss a whopping 148.4 tons of salmon back into the Nisqually watershed. That’s about the same weight as 25 orca whales or 2 airplanes!


We found two or three eagles enjoying a meal of cold salmon just downstream of our tossing site

Students arrive on site knowing they will make am impact. More importantly, the students walk away with both this knowledge and the memories hand in hand. Catch a glimpse of salmon tossing through this Northwest Treaty Tribes video.







Watch a salmon cube crash to the ground!


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