77,000 Young Salmon Were Dumped Into the Wrong Creek After a Truck Crashed in Oregon

The spring Chinook salmon smolts should still be able to find their way to the Pacific Ocean and help boost the threatened population of the fish, officials say, though another 25,000 salmon died in the accident

Overturned tanker truck
Fortunately, the driver suffered only minor injuries when a tanker truck of salmon rolled onto its roof in Oregon. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Tens of thousands of baby salmon lived to see another day after a tanker truck transporting them crashed near a creek in northeastern Oregon.

Unfortunately, another several thousand of the young salmon being transported in the truck did not survive the accident—and those that lived ended up in the wrong body of water. But Oregon wildlife officials are counting their blessings: The driver of the vehicle suffered only minor injuries, and the salmon fatalities could have been much higher.

The accident occurred on the morning of March 29. Crew at the Lookingglass Hatchery in Elgin, Oregon, had loaded up a 53-foot tanker truck with water and 102,000 18-month-old spring Chinook salmon.

The plan was for the driver to transport the juvenile salmon—called smolts—about three hours away to a spot in the Imnaha River. From there, the fish would spend a few days acclimating in a pool built into the river, then begin their 650-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean.

But as the driver rounded a sharp corner, the 80,000-pound truck rolled onto its passenger side. It skidded on the pavement, then fell down a rocky embankment, which caused it to flip onto its roof. It’s not clear what caused the accident, but the New York Times’ Christine Hauser notes that it happened around 10:30 a.m., while there was still dew on the road.

When the truck flipped, water and fish poured out of its tank. About 77,000 of the smolts made it into the water of Lookingglass Creek below—but 25,529 were not so lucky. Wildlife officials found their carcasses on the streambank or still inside the tanker.

Dead fish on stream bank
Officials estimate that 25,529 of the smolts died as a result of the accident. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

“The smolts lost represent about 20 percent of the total that will be released into the Imnaha River this year,” according to a statement from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Fishery managers expect to see about 500 to 900 fewer adult fish returning in 2026 and 2027 due to the loss.”

Members of the Nez Percé Tribe—which co-manages the fishery along with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation—helped wildlife officials collect and count the carcasses. They also scanned the dead fish for tracking tags called passive integrated transponders (PIT) that help wildlife officials keep tabs on animals in the wild.

“Information collected from PIT tags, including those that weren’t released, will help ensure the best possible estimates of survival and future adult returns,” per the statement.

For decades, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has reared juvenile fish to help boost the creatures’ numbers in the wild. They’re doing so under the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan, an initiative that aims to replenish Chinook salmon and steelhead populations, after four federal dams built on the lower Snake River in the 1960s and early 1970s took a toll on their numbers.

Front view of overturned semi
The 53-foot truck weighed about 80,000 pounds. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Spring Chinook salmon in the Snake River are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The designation applies to naturally spawned fish that originate in the Imnaha River and other tributaries, as well as those from the Lookingglass Hatchery and other artificial propagation programs.

Chinook salmon begin their lives in freshwater rivers and streams. Eventually, though, their instincts tell them to head downstream to the ocean, where they spend their time feeding and growing.

After living in saltwater for one to six years, they return to their original freshwater habitat upstream, where they spawn and produce the next generation. Scientists believe the fish navigate over such long distances using a combination of their keen sense of smell and the Earth’s magnetic field.

The smolts that unexpectedly ended up in Lookingglass Creek will ideally make their way to the Grande Ronde River, then to the Snake River, then to the Columbia River and, finally, to the Pacific Ocean. Fishery managers expect the out-of-place fish to one day return to Lookingglass Creek and produce approximately 350 to 700 additional adults.

“The silver lining for me is 77,000 [salmon] did make it into the creek and did not perish,” says Andrew Gibbs, the Eastern Oregon fish hatchery coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, to the New York Times. “They hit the water running.”

The Oregon incident comes on the heels of a mass Chinook salmon smolt die-off in Northern California. In late February, hundreds of thousands of juvenile fish died after being released into the Klamath River. Wildlife officials suspect they were killed by pressure changes as they swam through a dam tunnel, which is slated to be removed as part of the nation’s largest dam demolition project in history.

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