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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

August 19, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Honoring first salmon caught below Elwha dam – for the last time

With song and ceremony, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe this week honored the first chinook salmon caught below Elwha Dam this year by tribal fishermen. Just five chinook salmon in all, this small catch nonetheless had big symbolism: it’s the tribe’s last chinook harvest before two dams on the Elwha start coming down next month in the largest dam removal project ever, anywhere.

Last year saw a record low run of chinook return to the Elwha River. The five chinook caught and honored in the First Salmon ceremony Monday are from a remnant of the once mighty run of kings on this river, the largest fish of their kind in Puget Sound.

The fish will be cut into pieces and gifted to the tribe’s approximately 70 elders said Lower Elwha Kallam tribal member Rachel Hagaman, who helped lead the ceremony by banks of the Elwha.

As a thick marine fog ghosted over the river, Hagaman and her sister Lola Moses wove a raft of cedar bows atop a folding table set up on the banks.

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Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Rachel Hagaman, right, helped bring the first salmon ceremony back to Lower Elwha after it had not been practiced for many years. Hagaman, right, and her sister Lola Moses wove rafts of cedar boughs to float the carcasses of chinook salmon, ceremonially returning them to the Elwha, and, as their teachings instruct, to the Salmon People, dwelling in houses under the sea.

Steve Ringman, photo

Ahousaht First Nation member Pat John and Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Mark “Hammer” Charles raised their voices in a song to honor the first chinook caught this year. The tribe will forgo all fishing in the river for five years once the dams come down, so its next chinook will be harvested from an open river, for the first time in more than 100 years.

The song twined with the mist as Hagaman and Moses worked, preparing a ceremonial platform for the carcasses of the fish. Joining in was four year old Roger Tinoco Wheeler, Charles’ grand nephew. Charles has been teaching him traditional songs since he was born.

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Aniak has been feasting on lots of clams. Here she is having a snack and a swim at the aquarium Monday. Video by Pam Lamon, courtesy, Seattle Aquarium.

Based on normal gestation rates, Aniak is right in the middle as far as her expected delivery date, with delivery typically between 200 and 250 days after implantation of the embryo. Aniak is estimated to be at about 220 days, which puts her right in the comfort zone of normal.

Captive births of northern sea otters are rare and special, so the level excitement around her imminent delivery is high. “All her hormone levels point to this week,” Larson said.

“We must get asked 20, 30 times a day: Well? Well? It’s getting crazy,” Casson said.

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Aniak reposes with her paws above an expectant tummy. Photo by C.J. Casson, courtesy, Seattle Aquarium

The pregnancy was not an intended breeding, but a surprise.

The aquarium’s goal was to limit breeding to make room for stranded sea otter pups, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. To do that, Aniak’s breeding was suspended, using birth control.

No one knew the longevity however of the birth control method being used with sea otters. So, aquarium scientists were keeping track of Aniak’s hormone levels for the past four years. They were surprised to discover her pregnancy last June. Hormone levels had lead biologists to believe she was not capable of becoming pregnant.

Aniak was born of Lootas, one of the aquarium’s other sea otters, who came to the facility as a rescue. The three sea otters are among the most popular exhibits at the aquarium and if all goes well with the birth, the public will be allowed in to see the pup right away.

Baby sea otters are rare in captivity, the aquarium was the first facitlity in the world to successfully breed a northern sea otter.

Birth for any mammal is a perilous time, and so it is for sea otters, who deliver breathing young into water.

The baby otter’s eyes will be open and it will be capable of floating right away, buoyed by a special natal pelage that is extra fluffy, to keep the baby otter afloat — when it’s not snoozing on Aniak’s belly as she floats on her back.

Delivery at first seemed likely over last weekend, but it came and went with no pup. More clams anyone?

“Any day now,” Casson said. “Keep your flippers crossed.”

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