Of all ocean-going Pacific salmon, spring Chinook are the first to return to freshwater each year. They arrive in their home rivers as early as March, holding enough energy reserves in their flesh to allow them to fast for months before spawning.
This remarkable behavior stems from spring Chinook’s unique genetic coding, which has survived for millions of years despite ice ages and floods, competition and predation. By hopscotching up river systems still swollen by meltwater and rain, spring Chinook travel into a watershed’s highest reaches.
These early returners are the beating heart of complex food webs that sustain species like the Salish Sea’s resident orcas and center salmon communities like the Yurok and Karuk people of Northern California. In the Pacific Northwest, spring Chinook transcend the iconic. They are our identity. And after 150 years of increasing, unprecedented threats, they are on the brink of extinction.
How we got here is a complicated story, full of dramatic roadblocks and scientific discoveries, hard realizations and reasons to hope. That’s the story we explore below in First Salmon, Last Chance—our four-part investigation into why spring Chinook are king, and what it will take to save them, before it’s too late.
Read the four-part WSC series First Salmon, Last Chance.