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Thoughts From John McMillan- Salmon & Steelhead Part 1

From the Instagram account of Keepemwet Fishing Science Ambassador John R McMillan. @rainforest_steel


Let’s begin! Steelhead are a species of #PacificSalmon, which includes sockeye, coho, chum, pink, chinook, steelhead and cutthroat trout – in addition to cherry/masu salmon. They all descended from a common ancestor millions of years ago. Despite the shared genetic heritage, each species has evolved a unique set of characteristics, such as optimal range of temperatures, metabolisms, age at smolting, time spent in ocean, size at maturity, and whether or not they go to the ocean. These attributes differentiate the species, in addition to a variety of other features. The challenge with steelhead is that they are often managed in the same way we manage salmon such as coho, sockeye and kings. In those management schemes we tend focus almost solely on abundance, aka: How many fish do we get back each year? Though an important metric, for a species like steelhead their abundance does not exist within a vacuum, it is partly – and sometimes strongly so – a function of their diversity. The question is then: What is the big difference between steelhead and salmon?


The Skagit River in Washington state provides a good starting point for comparing salmon and steelhead because it has so many species of salmon. I start with #pinksalmon. Here we have the total annual run size of pinks, the number of fish for pinks is on the axis on the right. Below we have #chumsalmon, and their abundance is depicted on the axis to the left. I separated pinks from other species because they are incredibly abundant and make it almost impossible to see the variation in lesser abundant fish. In any case, wow, that is a tremendous amount of variation from year to year in both species. In some years you have over 1.5 millions pinks, in other years you have less than 100k. Similar variability with chum. In some years over 500k return to the Skagit, in other years it is less than 20K. The point is we see a lot of variation among years in terms of run size for these two species. This is probably not a surprise to most anglers. Chum and pink – and sometimes sockeye – have evolved to rely heavily on their abundance as a means of sustaining themselves. Next post I focus on the other species of salmon, and then finally, steelhead, before we get into looking at the diversity within the diversity.


Day 2 of the presentation. Here we have all the other species of salmon and steelhead for the Skagit. The abundance of #cohosalmon#kingsalmon, and #wildsteelhead is found on the left axis. We can see there is more variation in coho annual run sizes than there is for kings and more variation for kings than there is for steelhead. For instance, coho run sizes have exceeded 400k fish in one year, but are lower than 10K in others. For kings we run sizes from about 7k up to 25k, rarely more, while steelhead are basically going from 3k up to 12k. Essentially, steelhead display the least amount of variation year-to-year in terms of population size. The big question is: Can we attribute any of this variability among species to some aspect of their biology? That is what I will cover in the next slide.


time to look for potential explanations. Life history diversity is one feature that could help explain such variability. For example, in recent years scientists have coined the term “Portfolio Concept,” which basically means that different life histories survive at different rates at different times and places. Such diversity can potentially help dampen annual variability in run sizes by spreading risk across time and space. To determine if that is one cause, we first must identify how many life histories each species displays. Here is a table that describes the number of life histories found in each species. First, I have freshwater life histories: the number smolt age classes in each species. Steelhead have four because smolt ages range from 1-4 years old – though one-year olds are rare in the Skagit. Kings have two, yearlings and sub-yearlings. There is only a single strategy for all other species, sub-yearlings for chum and pink, and yearlings for coho. Next I considered ocean ages, which ranges from 1-4 years for steelhead. For kings we have 2,3, and 4-salt fish, though historically there were also 5-salt. Chum and coho also generally have about 3 age classes for adults, though they tend to be younger than kings. In contrast, all pinks do the same thing – go figure! They are putting all their eggs into one basket each year. Last we have run timing. There are two for steelhead, summers and winters. Same for kings, summer/spring and fall, while there is only one run timing for coho and chum. I gave pinks two run timing because while most are odd year fish, there are a few even year. I was being generous. I think multiplied freshwater life histories by ocean life histories, and then that number by run timing. The result is a total number of potential life histories for each species, excluding repeat spawners for steelhead. And what we see is that #wildsteelheadhave many many more life histories than the other species. Back to my original question: Can this diversity help explain the variation in annual run sizes? I dive into that tomorrow, until then, may the diversity be with you.



Ambassador Profile: Steven J Cooke

“I first met Steve in the Bahamas when he came down to visit the field lab where I worked.  After a week on the flats and countless Kaliks, a group of us hashed out a plan for a multi-year project on bonefish.  Steve quickly became a mentor and friend, and we have since spent many hours talking about fish, going fishing, doing science on fish, and taking our kids fishing.  Steve not only has an amazing grasp on the science, but also the ability to apply his work – to get it out of the ivory tower and into the rivers, lakes, and oceans where it can do good.

Today, Steve is one of the world’s foremost experts on the science of recreational fisheries.  His lab at Carleton University contains a 40’x20’ room called ‘the fishing cage’ which is full of fishing and research gear, including a baitcaster that no one but Steve is allowed to touch.  It is an honor to have Steve as the first official Keepemwet Science Ambassador.”

-Sascha Clark Danylchuk
Keepemwet Science Liaison

Steve Cooke releasing a snook.

Steve Cooke releasing a snook.

Dr. Steven Cooke is the Canada Research Chair in Fish Ecology and Conservation Physiology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.  He is an integrative biologist, conducting fundamental and applied research on the ecology, physiology, and behavior of wild fish.  Much of this work is focused on developing strategies to ensure the sustainability of recreational fisheries.  His research covers freshwater and marine systems and spans the globe with active collaborations in over 15 countries.  To date, Cooke has over 500 peer reviewed publications on topics such as environmental policy, human dimensions of fisheries, stress biology and natural resources management, among others.  He co-authored the UN FAO technical guidelines for sustainable recreational fisheries.  Cooke holds leadership positions such as Chair of the Sea Lamprey Research Board of the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission and Chair of the Science Advisory Committee of the Ocean Tracking Network.  He is Past President of the Canadian Aquatic Resources Section of the American Fisheries Society and President Elect of the International Section of the American Fisheries Society.  He is a Subject Editor for the Journal of Animal Biotelemetry, FACETS, Fisheries Research, Environmental Biology of Fishes, and Endangered Species Research, and is Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford University Press journal “Conservation Physiology”.  Cooke has received a number of awards including the Award of Excellence in Fisheries Management from the American Fisheries Society, the Medal from the Fisheries Society of the British Isles, an Early Research Award from the Ontario Government and the NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Fellowship.  Cooke was recently selected to be a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists.  Cooke is an avid angler who enjoys spending his money on fishing gear and his time chasing fish with his kiddos.
@SJC_Fishy - twitter




Ambassador Profile: John McMillan

John was raised along the banks of the Washougal River in Southwest Washington where he spent most of his youth fly fishing for trout, steelhead and salmon.    His favorite fish were the summer steelhead, from the early June rains through the late Indian Summers. All other interests were set aside during this period.  Only steelhead mattered.

His early interest to steelhead carried over to adulthood.  He has lived much of the past twenty years on the west-side of the Olympic Peninsula, and for over a decade he fished an average of 340 days a year.  He spent that time adapting a style of casting and fishing in isolation -- wading deep, casting far, and swimming the fly broadside rather than solely swinging -- to solve the unique challenges of catching large winter steelhead in the brawling rainforest rivers.

He also spent 100's of days snorkeling the rivers, not only to inform his angling but also because he is a fisheries scientist. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, the vast majority of which has focused on the biology and ecology of steelhead and rainbow trout.  In addition, he has authored two books and several book chapters on steelhead and other topics, and his underwater photography and videography has been broadly published in books, magazines, newspapers, movies and television.  His latest publication is the book May the Rivers Never Sleep, which was a collaboration with his father Bill McMillan and pays homage to the strong conservation influence of Roderick Haig-Brown. 

He now works as the Science Director for Trout Unlimited's Wild Steelhead Initiative after spending the previous five years studying steelhead and salmon recolonization in the Elwha River. Much of his professional scientific study has focused on the biology, behavior and ecology of steelhead and rainbow trout, with a particular interest in the mechanisms influencing why individual fish adopt particular life history strategies -- such as anadromy and residency.

He also focuses on educating citizens about science and believes that every angler owes it to themselves – and the fish – to minimize their impacts by handling fish well.  That is why he is so excited to be an Ambassador for the Keep-em-wet movement.  Not only does the movement include some of the best scientists and advocates, but it also focuses on doing what we can as anglers to ensure that the fish swims away in the best shape possible.  That is something he fully supports the movement by Bryan Huskey and others, because it is up to each generation to do what they can to ensure the next generation has a chance to fish for the incredible wild steelhead.

John McMillan's Instagram page (@rainforest_steel) is perhaps the most fascinating, interesting and inspiring as anything we've ever seen.  View his underwater adventures and captivating narratives here.

John McMillan's Instagram page (@rainforest_steel) is perhaps the most fascinating, interesting and inspiring as anything we've ever seen. View his underwater adventures and captivating narratives here.

Ever thankful for his understanding and lovely wife, Laurel, and his sidekick Gordon Setter, Honey, much of his free time is spent casting Burkheimer spey rods, snorkeling and taking underwater photographs of juvenile and adult steelhead.