Category Archives: Salmon

Granny, a killer whale unlike any other, stayed graceful to the end

If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of a killer whale known as Granny.

Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life. Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the Salish Sea.

For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.

In 1997, a group of 19 orcas from L pod spent a month in Dyes Inlet between Bremerton and Silverdale. (Check out my stories in the Kitsap Sun.) There is pretty good evidence that their record-long stay in one location was at least partly because they were not comfortable going under the Warren Avenue Bridge, which was their only way out.

If something about the bridge spooked the whales, then how did those 19 orcas make it under the enormous structure when they first entered Dyes Inlet? Although it has never been confirmed, observers at the time reported seeing two groups of whales coming into the inlet.

I’ve always wondered whether Granny had visited Dyes Inlet long before the Warren Avenue Bridge was constructed. Could she have led both the J- and L-pod whales into the inlet, where chum salmon were abundant? Did the L-pod whales choose to stay behind to catch fish only to become confused later when they tried to make their getaway? I guess we’ll never know.

When a beloved friend or relative dies, it is hard to keep going as if nothing has changed. I know there is sadness about Granny’s passing among longtime whale observers, orca researchers, educators and whale-watch boat operators.

I can’t help but wonder how the orcas in J pod are coping with Granny’s loss. How long will it take to rally around a new leader? How will Granny’s knowledge be missed as the whales struggle to find bountiful salmon runs? How will her sudden departure affect cohesion among the whales, which were already breaking into smaller and smaller hunting groups.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research ponders some of these questions in a tribute to Granny, a story that appropriately recognizes the important discoveries of the late Mike Bigg, the first person to realize that orcas could be identified individually and that each whale has a story to tell.

I was also touched by a report from Ken’s associate, Dave Ellifrit, who spent time on the water with J pod on Dec. 28 near the San Juan Islands. Dave, who knows the whales as well as anyone, found them spread out and spending significant “down time” as they foraged for food. In a scientific tone, Dave dispassionately described the actions of all the whales he could find, then he concluded his report:

“This was CWR’s first encounter with J pod in several months where we felt like the coverage was good enough to find all the whales present, and we could not find J2. Many have suspected for the last couple of months that she might be gone, and it is looking like that is the case.”

Jeanne Hyde, a longtime orca observer, offered a number of interesting observations in her blog “Whale of a Purpose,” including this:

“Late this past season I noticed Granny with the J16s. That was very curious. It was out of the ordinary. Slick J-16 in the lead with Granny behind her a ways, and Mike J-26, Slick’s oldest male, on the offshore side…hum…highly unusual…

“In the late part of the year, the J Pod whales acted, to me, like they were lost…like they didn’t know which way to go or they didn’t know what to do…their travel also seemed unusual….they have lost their leader…how will that impact this community who has not ever been without a leader?”

Another longtime observer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, wrote a piece on her Facebook page with this observation:

“Even in her death Granny leads by example. ‘This is how it should be,’ she tells us, even now. ‘This is when we should be parting ways … at the end of a long life.’ The tears in our eyes and on our cheeks are for the loss of a whale — a beloved friend — who has led a life whose length alone is worthy of remembrance and of celebration.

“The times ahead are ones I cannot predict, for I do not have the gift of foresight. But whatever they bring — be it triumph, tragedy, or something in the middle — may we face them with the same tenacity and dignity as Granny. She lives on in the whales that still remain, in the calves that have yet to join us. She lives on in our hearts, and more importantly in our deeds.

“She is epic and awesome and impressive and she will always be.”

In 2006, M.L. Lyke, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote about how she perceived Granny’s life in a series called “The Sound of Broken Promises,” now featured on the Orca Network webpage.

Death toll for 2016 includes six orcas
from the Salish Sea

UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as “Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in 1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100. Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research website. More to come.
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When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca calves over the previous 12 months. See Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.

J-34, named DoubleStuf, with Mount Baker in the background. Photo taken last February before his death this month. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
J-34, named DoubleStuf, swimming last February with Mount Baker in the background. The 18-year-old male died this month.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar year.

The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an 18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the tribute and wonderful photos on Orca Network’s webpage.

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Congress authorizes five restoration projects throughout Puget Sound

Five major Puget Sound projects have been given the provisional go-ahead by Congress in a massive public works bill signed yesterday by President Obama.

It seems like the needed federal authorization for a $20-million restoration effort in the Skokomish River watershed has been a long time coming. This project follows an extensive, many-years study of the watershed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which winnowed down a long list of possible projects to five. See Water Ways, April 28, 2016, for details.

In contrast, while the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project (PSNRP) also involved an extensive and lengthy study, the final selection and submission to Congress of three nearshore projects came rather quickly. In fact, the Puget Sound package was a last-minute addition to the Water Resources Development Act, thanks to the efforts of U.S. Reps. Rick Larson, D-Lake Stevens, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, along with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

The three PSNRP projects moving forward are:

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Interactive map brings together extensive salmon information

When I first started covering the environment for the Kitsap Sun in the early 1980s, I convinced a state fish biologist to make me a copy of a notebook containing information about salmon streams on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound from SalmonScape. Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound, as shown in SalmonScape, a GIS-based interactive map.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Hand-drawn maps of streams, both big and small, along with field notes about the migration of salmon, stream blockages and other information were listed in that notebook. Through the years, the information was updated, combined with other data and eventually transferred to electronic databases for wider access.

A few years ago, much of this little-known information was digitized into a map that could be accessed by anyone from a web browser. The map, using a geographic information system, is such a valuable tool that I wanted to make sure that readers of this blog are aware of it.

It was given the name SalmonScape, and the map shows salmon streams across the state (click “hydrography”); salmon migration by species (“fish distribution”); stream blockages (“fish passage”); and hatcheries, fish traps and major dams (“facilities”).

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Harper Estuary project gets started following years of discussion

Excavation started today on a $1.3-million project to reshape and restore Harper Estuary in South Kitsap.

Work began today on access roads for the Harper Estuary restoration project. Photo: Doris Small, WDFW
Heavy equipment begins work today to build access roads for the Harper Estuary restoration project.
Photo: Doris Small, WDFW

It is a project that I’ve been discussing since 2001, when former Harper resident Chuck Hower first introduced me to the idea, a concept that he had been promoting with state and federal officials. (See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 2, 2001.)

Orion Marine Contractors was the successful bidder among six companies that offered bids on the project to remove much of the fill material placed in and around the estuary. The amount of soil to be removed is estimated at more than 15,000 cubic yards, or enough to fill roughly 1,000 dump trucks.

“The work will restore (the estuary) to levels conducive to marsh establishment,” said Doris Small of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The project will recover a spit, reconnect saltwater to an impounded wetland and remove a bulkhead and old “relic” road that impounds the wetland, she said.

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Annual salmon watching is now on the fall agenda

Early and continuing rains in October have increased streamflows and brought coho and chum salmon into their spawning territories ahead of schedule this year.

Dickerson Creek
Dickerson Creek is undergoing restoration at the new bridge on Taylor Road. // Photo: Dunagan

I was out and about today, taking a look at some of the streams in Central Kitsap. I couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy the sunny and warm weather, and I was pleased to encounter a lot of other folks doing the same thing. Adults of all ages, some with children, were out looking for the elusive salmon. That’s not something I ever saw 10 years ago while making my rounds to public salmon-viewing spots.

I believe the growing interest in salmon may result from ongoing promotions of salmon watching by governmental and volunteer organizations, as well as the news media. Why shouldn’t we go out to watch salmon swimming upstream and possibly, if one is lucky, catch a glimpse of spawning behaviors? After all, we live in one of the best areas for this enjoyable pastime.

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Death of female orca with young son raises worries about the future

It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead — even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will not survive either.

On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head.” Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and her son is probably dead as well, researchers say.
On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head” and related to malnutrition. Her 11-month-old son, shown with her, also was struggling to survive. Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and researchers say her son is probably dead as well.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks, including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of Puget Sound orcas.

Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.

Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the distinctive mark when she was nine years old.

At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other hormonal systems.

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Amusing Monday: New art exhibit shows how glass can be like water

The similar properties of water and glass are explored in more than 50 pieces of artwork in an exhibit called “Into the Deep” at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass.

Undulation, kiln-cast crystal by Taliaferro Jones. The piece is 13 by 54 by 8 inches. Photo: Taliaferro Jones
“Undulation,” kiln-cast crystal by Taliaferro Jones. This piece is 13 by 54 by 8 inches.
Photo: Taliaferro Jones

The art captures the movements, shapes and colors of creatures and objects in the beautiful underwater world. For a closer look, click on the images on this page.

“By creating artwork inspired by the ocean, each artist has captured both the fragile beauty of the marine environment and the delicate nature of glass,” Katie Buckingham, exhibit curator, said in a statement on the exhibit’s webpage.

Persian Sea Forms, blown glass by Dale Chihuly. This piece is 67 by 120 inches. Photo: Terry Rishel
“Persian Sea Forms,” blown glass by Dale Chihuly. This piece is 67 by 120 inches. // Photo: Terry Rishel

Buckingham said she hopes visitors will not only enjoy the art but also feel inspired to celebrate and protect the natural environment. The 16 national and international artists featured in the exhibit include Alfredo Barbini, Dale Chihuly, Shayna Leib, Kelly O’Dell, Kait Rhoads, Raven Skyriver, and Hiroshi Yamano.

Fifteen of the pieces were produced in the workshop at the Museum of Glass, including some produced by apprentices.

"Tyee," hand-sculpted glass by Raven Skyriver. This piece is 21 by 32 by 7 inches. Photo: Kp Studios
“Tyee,” hand-sculpted glass by Raven Skyriver. This piece is 21 by 32 by 7 inches. // Photo: Kp Studios

The exhibit opened on Sept. 24 and will remain through September 2017. Visitors will be able to access information linked to each piece of art by using a cell phone and scanning the STQRY QR codes. Three virtual tours are available, one with scientific information, one about the creation of the sculptures and one on the artists. Bonnie Becker, a biologist at the University of Washington-Tacoma, wrote the scientific narrative.

"Red Polyp" blown glass with mixed hollow murrine woven with copper wire by Kait Rhoads. This piece is 45 by 49 by 19 inches. Photo: Kait Rhoads
“Red Polyp,” blown glass with mixed hollow murrine woven with copper wire by Kait Rhoads. This piece is 45 by 49 by 19 inches. // Photo: Kait Rhoads

A list of other exhibits can be found on the Museum of Glass webpage. Activities, including hands-on workshops and lectures, can be found on the Museum of Glass calendar. A separate webpage lists admission fees and hours.

Speaking of glass artwork, I am impressed with the intricate salmon sculpture with the glass salmon eggs used to create a kiosk at the east end of the new Bucklin Hill Bridge over the Clear Creek estuary in Silverdale.

Salmon and more than 200 glass eggs are part of a sculpture that makes up a new kiosk at the east end of the Bucklin Hill Bridge. Photo:
Salmon and more than 200 glass eggs are part of a sculpture that makes up a new kiosk at the end of the Bucklin Hill Bridge. // Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun

Driving across the bridge, one can see the bright orange salmon eggs, more than 200 in all. A closer look reveals three salmon figurines in a swimming posture above the eggs.

“I do believe that when you drive along and you have artwork alongside the road, I think it lifts your spirits,” said Lisa Stirrett, the designer of the kiosk, in a story written by Christian Vosler for the Kitsap Sun.

Extensive floodplain restoration brings new hope to Clear Creek

A giant piece of a cedar log stands erect in a barren landscape north of Silverdale, where a new channel for Clear Creek stands ready to receive water.

An old cedar log was recovered during excavation for a new channel for Clear Creek. Photo: Dunagan
An old cedar log was recovered during excavation for a new channel for Clear Creek.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Well, maybe this channel won’t be entirely new. Designers working to restore this portion of Clear Creek studied old maps. They tried to align the new man-made channel to the meandering stream that existed 150 years ago, before farmers diverted the creek around their fields.

During excavation, workers uncovered buried gravel — remnants of the old streambed — along with chunks of cedar that had lain along the edge of the stream. Buried and cut off from oxygen, these pieces of wood survived for decades underground, while cattle grazed in the fields above.

Workers excavating for the new channel used their heavy equipment to pull out what remained of a great cedar log. They stood the log vertical and buried one end in the ground — a monument to the past and future of Clear Creek.

A restored Clear Creek floodplain (before plantings) north of Waaga Way in Central Kitsap. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
A restored Clear Creek floodplain (before plantings) north of Waaga Way in Central Kitsap.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Chris May, manager of Kitsap County’s stormwater program, showed me the new channel this week. He said it was rewarding to uncover some buried history and realize that the stream would be restored in roughly the same place.

“We found the old channel,” Chris told me, pointing to a deposit of gravel. “We are pretty confident that we got it right.”

This $3-million project has been conceived and designed as much more than a stream-restoration project. The elevations of the land around the stream have been carefully planned so that high flows will spill into side channels and backwater pools. That should reduce flooding in Silverdale and help stabilize the high and low flows seen in Clear Creek.

Before photo: This was the farmers field as it appeared before restoration. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Before photo: This was the farm field as it appeared before restoration. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

The engineers did not calculate the reduced frequency of flooding, but floodwater storage is calculated to be 18.4 acre-feet, the equivalent of a foot of water spread over 18.4 acres or 29,700 cubic yards or 6 million gallons.

In all, about 30,000 cubic yards of material have been removed across 21 acres, including the former Schold Farm on the west side of Silverdale Way and the Markwick property on the east side. Native wetland vegetation will be planted along the stream and in low areas throughout the property. Upland areas will be planted with natural forest vegetation.

The topsoil, which contained invasive plants such as reed canarygrass, was hauled away and buried beneath other excavated soils to form a big mound between the new floodplain and Highway 3. That area will be planted with a mixture of native trees.

Graphic showing area before restoration. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
Graphic showing area before restoration.
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

Plans call for removal of 1,500 feet of an existing road with upgrades to two aging culverts. Adding meanders to the straightened channel will create 500 feet of new streambed that should be suitable for salmon spawning.

Plans call for adding 334 pieces large woody debris, such as logs and root wads to the stream. Some of that wood will be formed into structures and engineered logjams to help form pools and gravel bars.

Graphic showing area after restoration. Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works
Graphic showing area after restoration. Notice stream meanders near beaver pond habitat
Graphic: Kitsap County Public Works

“This will be one of the first streams to meet the Fox and Bolton numbers,” Chris told me, referring to studies by Martin Fox and Susan Bolton of the University of Washington. The two researchers studied natural streams and calculated the amount of woody debris of various kinds needed to simulate natural conditions, all based on the size of a stream. (Review North American Journal of Fisheries Management.)

The elevations on the property were also designed so that high areas on opposite sides of the stream would be in close proximity in several locations.

“Beaver will pick that spot,” Chris said, pointing to one location where the stream channel was squeezed by elevated banks on each side. “We want to encourage beaver to come in here.”

Beaver ponds will increase the floodwater storage capacity of the new floodplain and provide important habitat for coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater and need places to withstand both high and low flows. Because the county owns the flooded property, there won’t be any complaints about damage from beavers, Chris noted.

Aerial photo showing project area with Silverdale in the background, Silverdale Way to the left and Highway 3 to the right. Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Aerial photo showing project area with Silverdale in the background, Silverdale Way to the left and Highway 3 to the right. // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

Clear Creek Trail (PDF 390 kb), which begins on the shore of Dyes Inlet, will be routed along the higher elevations as the trail winds through the property. Three new bridges will provide vantage points to watch salmon after vegetation obscures other viewing areas from the trail. Viewing platforms, as seen along other parts of Clear Creek Trail, were not included in this project but could be subject to further discussions.

Count me among the many people — experts, volunteers and users of Clear Creek Trail — who are eager to see how nature responds when water (now diverted) returns to the new stream channel. For decades, the lack of good habitat has constrained the salmon population in Clear Creek. The stream still has problems related to its highly developed watershed. But now a series of restoration projects is providing hope for increased coho and chum salmon and possibly steelhead trout as well as numerous other aquatic species.

In a story in the Kitsap Sun, Reporter Tristan Baurick described work this week on the Markwick property, where fish were removed in preparation for final channel excavation.

Here are some details (including photos) of various Clear Creek projects, as described in the state’s Habitat Work Schedule for restoration projects:

Washington Department of Ecology provided $2 million for the project. Kitsap County’s stormwater and roads programs each provided $500,000.

A difference between chum and coho salmon may be in their blood

On the outside, chum and coho salmon don’t seem all that different from one another, not when you consider the variety of fish in Puget Sound — from herring to halibut along with dozens of other odd-looking creatures (EoPS).

But we know that if you place coho in stormwater taken from a heavily traveled roadway, the coho are likely to die within hours. But if you do the same thing with chum, these hardy fish will barely notice the difference.

In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
In this photo taken two years ago, Jenifer McIntyre describes her discoveries about rain gardens at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Researchers began to observe the varying effects of pollution on different species of salmon years ago. In 2006, I reported on studies by researcher Nat Scholz of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who discovered that coho would swim into Seattle’s heavily polluted creeks to spawn, but they wouldn’t get very far. Within hours, they would become disoriented, then keel over and die. (Kitsap Sun, June 10, 2006)

Later, Jenifer McIntyre, a researcher with Washington State University, collaborated with Scholz to refine the studies, exposing adult coho and later young coho to stormwater under controlled conditions. Much of that work was done at the Suquamish Tribe’s Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. The researchers also measured the physiological effects of pollution on zebrafish embryos during their early stages of development.

Working at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup, Jen made a remarkable discovery that has dramatically changed people’s thinking about stormwater treatment. She found that if you run the most heavily polluted stormwater through a soil medium containing compost, the water will no longer have a noticeable effect on the sensitive coho. Rain gardens really do work.

Jen’s findings and related stormwater issues were described in a story I wrote two years ago for the Kitsap Sun, “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.” The story is part of a two-year project we called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Now, Jen, who recently joined the faculty of WSU, is beginning a new phase of her research, probing deeper into the physiological responses of coho salmon when exposed to polluted stormwater. She told me that the varying responses of coho and chum offer clues about where to look for problems.

“It is very interesting,” she said. “As biologists, we understand that there is variability among species. But we would expect, at least among salmon, that things would be pretty much the same.”

Researchers in Japan have discovered that different kinds of fish have different subunits in their hemoglobin, which are the proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen to the vital organs. Since coho and other salmon may have different forms of hemoglobin, oxygen transport in the blood is a good place to start this investigation, she said.

From there, the issues of blood chemistry get a little technical, but the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen can depend not only on the form of hemoglobin but also on the pH (acidity) of the blood, she said, and that can be altered by drugs and other chemicals.

Another thing that researchers may be seeing is “disseminated intravascular coagulation,” a condition that results from clotting in the lining of the capillaries. DIC can reduce or block blood flow where it is most needed and eventually cause organ damage. That’s an area for more research, Jen said, noting that these investigations are moving forward in collaboration with researchers at NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Meanwhile, Jen is working with chemists at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma to figure out which substances — out of hundreds of chemicals found in stormwater — could be causing these deadly effects on fish.

If isolating the dangerous compounds proves too difficult, researchers might be able to start with the original toxic sources, perhaps exposing fish to chemicals found in tires, oil, antifreeze and so on, Jen said. For those effects, it might be good to begin the investigation with the well-studied zebrafish embryos, which are transparent and can be observed closely throughout their embryonic development.

Needless to say, this is a field of intense interest. If researchers can discover what is killing coho, they might begin to understand why the recovery of chinook salmon in Puget Sound has been so slow. Chinook, which could be added to Jen’s studies, are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and are the preferred prey of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which are listed as endangered.

Two recent articles discussed the relative hardiness of the chum compared to coho salmon: