Some salmon take the low road to get back home to spawn

“Why did the salmon cross the road?”

OK, I’ll admit that I used this line once in a story many years ago when I first observed the Skokomish River overflowing its banks. I was amazed at the number of chum salmon swimming through farm fields and across pavement in the Skokomish Valley as they tried to get back to their spawning grounds.

Despite extensive work in the Skokomish River estuary, the waters still back up and fish still swim across roads during heavy rains and floods.

I was not the first to bend the old joke to ask, “Why did the salmon cross the road?” And I was definitely not the last, as two new videos went viral the past few days, resulting in news reports across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people must have been surprised to see Puget Sound salmon skittering across the pavement in a most unnatural way.

I even received phone calls from relatives in other parts of the country wanting to know more about this phenomenon. All I can say is that it’s not a good thing to have salmon swimming across fields in an uncertain effort to find their way back to the stream channel. Many of them never make it.

“Salmon are known for jumping up waterfalls to get to their spawning grounds, but crossing a flooded road? That’s a new one,” wrote someone on the Facebook page of CBS Los Angeles. (In the Skokomish, it is not a new thing.)

“Why did the salmon cross the road?” wrote reporter Amir Vera of CNN. “Simple. To have babies, at least according to Alexis Leonard, a fish hatchery specialist who recorded the video of more than a dozen salmon swimming across a flooded US Highway 101 in Shelton, Washington, on Saturday.” Leonard was making the video for her sister, who had never seen the sight. The video and story are posted on CNN online.

The other viral video, which is shown at the top of this page, was featured by Ben Hopper of UPI, who credited Terri Sue Potter for the video.

“Why did the salmon cross the road?” One clever response has been “to get to the other tide,” although we know that adult salmon are actually swimming away from tidal waters.

One of the most impressive videos of fish swimming across a road was made two years ago by videographer Terrence Allison, who captured a low-angle shot on a sunny day. The fish can be seen gathering at the edge of the road, then shooting across one by one. Part 2 of his two-part show can be seen in the second video player on this page. Part 1, which better shows the surrounding area, can be seen on Terrence’s YouTube channel.

Jim Ames, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2006, was as impressed as anyone with these road-traveling salmon. To him, salmon are an icon of our state, culturally revered by both Native Americans as well as anyone who appreciates nature. Salmon provide a commercial resource, a sporting adventure and a critical food supply for fish and wildlife, including our endangered orcas. Not everyone loves to eat salmon, but for many they are a good-tasting, healthy meal.

“Salmon deserve their special status for all of those reasons, but more than anything because of their indomitable spirit,” Jim wrote for the WDFW website. “Salmon are the embodiment of a willingness to ceaselessly struggle, and ultimately succeed, against seemingly overwhelming obstacles.”

Jim put an optimistic spin on a still photograph of a salmon swimming across a flooded road. “At this point, it is not possible to determine the ultimate outcome of this particular chum salmon’s struggle,” he said. “However, it seems likely that he will make it across the road and continue upstream to spawn.

“The fate of the other fish waiting in the road ditch is even less clear. The longer they wait to attempt the road crossing, the lower the water will drop… If the receding waters leave no alternate passageway upstream, the salmon will not give up… The salmon will continue to fight to find a way upstream until they are successful, or until their energy resources are totally expended and they die. But, they will never quit.”

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