When coho and chum salmon return to spawning grounds in Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula, “salmon docents” are there to greet them.
The docents provide streamside education about the salmon’s life cycle, migration, and habitat needs, helping local residents appreciate and protect the natural wonder in their midst.
“Many people in our community have never seen the salmon runs,” says Anna McClelland, interim water stewardship coordinator for Washington State University’s Kitsap County Extension program, which trains the docents.
Each fall, the coho and chum return to fertilize and lay eggs after spending their adult years in the ocean. Male coho turn a brick red as spawning approaches, while the chums’ olive-brown bodies are streaked with purple. The salmon swim up small streams in search of gravel for nests. Sometimes, half the fish is out of the shallow water as they navigate from pool to pool.
“Once you show someone these big, flashy fish, they get really excited,” McClelland says. “When they learn about the struggles these fish face, they’re more interested in the conservation side.”
Docents complete a two-day training, where they dissect hatchery salmon and study the fishes’ life cycle from newly spawned alevins to adulthood. They also learn how the ocean, streams, and estuaries support salmon at various life stages, and the importance of cold, clean water to the fishes’ survival.
Several dozen docents graduate from the program each year. Many volunteer at the Kitsap Salmon Tours, an annual event put on by local agencies, WSU Extension, nonprofits, and tribes. Some docents go on to volunteer for other organizations supporting salmon restoration.
“We provide research-based information to individuals, and they go out and share it, creating a ripple effect,” McClelland says. “It builds community awareness and advocacy for the salmon.”