Coho salmon begin their trek

POSSESSION POINT — Standing in the cold waters of Possession Sound Friday night, Bruce Barchenger and Dan Maxwell were happy campers.

Happy fishermen, that is.

The occasion was the release of up to 17,000 salmon from a holding pond near Possession Point Park at Dan and Angie Cooper’s bait company. The coho fingerlings had been trucked in on

Feb. 13 from streams near Gold Bar by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, all part of a fisheries enhancement program sponsored by the Whidbey Island Chapter of the Puget Sound Anglers.

During the last three months the little fry had been fed a special fish meal designed to make them grow stronger and better able to survive their two- to three-year trek out to sea.

The Coopers used a huge net to round up the salmon Friday so they could be whisked through a pipe into the Sound. The salmon weren’t especially cooperative, roiling the waters into a froth as they attempted to jump back over the net.

After the short 50-yard trip, it was time to be free.

“Their memory is being imprinted to remember where they started,” Angie Cooper explained. “They believe this is their home, where they need to come back and spawn. Once released they’ll discover they aren’t confined and in a day or so head out to the Pacific.”

In the ocean, the salmon will mix in with the wild population. But instead of returning to the mouth of the Snohomish or Stillaguamish rivers, they’ll hang out for a few months close to where they were released before heading back to their natural spawning ground upstream.

With the help of her children Kyle and Sydney and their friend Noah Winn, Cooper held the outlet hose up so the fish could squirt into the Sound.

For a few fish, the future looked a little intimidating.

As the salmon spewed forth and began to realize their world had greatly expanded, they started to jump out of the water, almost as if they wanted to climb back into the hose itself.

Salmon are unique in that spawning is the last act of their life cycle. How they manage to find their native stream after spending years in the ocean migrating for thousands of miles has been studied for decades. Some scientists believe that smell is a factor that enables a salmon to hone into the stream it was born in. Other studies indicate that the brain of the salmon is sensitive to the magnetic field of the earth and that this may be a factor in the homing instinct. Regardless of the mechanism that enables a salmon to do this, their ability to find the origin of their birth after migrating thousands of miles from home is a truly remarkable feat.

“It is amazing that these guys will find their way back here,” Barchenger said.

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