Salmon and climate change

The river rushed swiftly over the rocks in its usual fashion. The blue sky reflected off the surface of the water, while tree branches cast shadows along the river’s edges. The scene was picturesque – a perfect early fall day on the river. There was only one catch, no salmon.

emily parentEvery year, my students and I make an annual trip to Packsaddle County Park in Gates, OR along the North Fork of the Santiam River to participate in the local Salmon Watch program put on by Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District staff and volunteers. Students learn about water quality testing, riparian areas, and the salmon lifecycle through hands on program activities. A highlight of the trip each year is the opportunity to view salmon spawning in the river. However, this particular year, as students shuffled off the bus and huddled together to listen to the education director introduce students to the day’s activities, they were instead greeted with a challenge – find out what happened to the salmon.

This was in September of 2015, when low flows and the heat of the summer had left much of the migrating salmon stressed and unable to return to their spawning grounds. Many fish died without ever reaching their natal stream, and those that made it the distance found unfavorable conditions. My students were able to confirm this sad truth as they gathered temperature data that consistently fell out of the ideal range for salmon spawning. Salmon Watch without salmon…what’s next?

This is just one of the many stories and experiences that I have encountered over the last several years living and teaching in the Pacific Northwest. From ocean acidification affecting the shellfish industry, to wildfires putting homes and the health of community members at risk, to water shortages creating conflict between competing interests, climate change has made itself known in Oregon. And though many of these challenges have not had a direct affect on my personal health or livelihood, they have had an affect on my mind and my heart.

I like to ask my students each year to create a list, “What are the things that you hope will still be around for future generations to see and experience?” Many of them list things from nature: trees, clean water, wildlife. What I don’t tell them is that I have a list too. Like my students, I hope future generations can experience the natural world: hike through an old growth forest and, of course, watch salmon return to spawn. But my hope extends far beyond that. What I hope for the future lies in the people, people like my students, that feel a connection with the natural world. As an educator, I hope to empower my students with the wisdom and experiences that will allow them to be leaders and advocates for the future of our planet. We need a whole generation of climate ambassadors – put that on the list.

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