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Rock opera puts focus on elusive sea-going trout ; it's called 'The Last Steelhead: An Eco Rock Opera,' by Chris Santella

COURTESY PHOTO - Portland writer, musician and steelhead fisherman Chris Santella loves to be out on the water, regardless of the catch. He created a rock opera'to call attention to the steelhead's decline. Chris Santella went fishing recently at his favorite spot on the Deschutes River, near Bend.

How was it? The Portland writer has a favorite saying: "The fishing was great. The catching was a little slow."

Sadly, Santella says, the decline in steelhead and wild salmon runs in Oregon and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest these past few years are a sign of the changing environmental times.

In particular, experts note four major impacts: hydropower dams that make fish passage more difficult; hatchery fish that use spawning habitat in the river that wild salmon normally would use; loss of habitat due to development; and commercial fishing harvests that accidentally snag the fish in their nets.

As a lifelong musician, Santella decided to use his skills to call attention to the plight of steelhead — a sea-going rainbow trout — in particular in hopes that a bit of education will slow the decline.

"People in the fishing community, especially fly-fishing community, are pretty aware of some of these issues, but the larger public has no idea at all," says Santella, who's called Portland his home since 1999. "I think steelhead is one of our totemic species in the Pacific Northwest."

After penning a recent story on declining steelhead returns in the Columbia Basin for American Angler, a fly-fishing magazine, and talking with experts, he decided to create a collection of songs called "The Last Steelhead: An Eco Rock Opera."

He wrote 11 songs (accessible to the public for free streaming) and recorded them with his band, Catch and Release, as well as other Portland musicians earlier this year. Three conservation groups supported the project: Trout Unlimited, The Conservation Angler, and The Wild Steelhead Coalition, based in Washington state. Simms, a leading fly-fishing brand based in Montana, also lent support.

The songs are available to the public along with a booklet Santella created, titled "What you can do to save wild steelhead."

"The hope is that the music will draw some folks who might not typically be interested in such conservation issues and tell the story in song," Santella says, "The booklet will help educate visitors on how we can take more meaningful, concrete action to save these iconic fish."

For instance, several ways to help include: volunteering for stream restoration projects with a local group, attending a public hearing to show support for salmon-safe development practices, learning what you can do at home or work to decrease daily impacts to fish habitat, and connecting with groups like Save Our Wild Salmon for alerts on how to lobby elected officials to remove "deadbeat dams" and to make others as steelhead-friendly as possible.

Santella is not making any money off of his Eco Rock Opera; he hopes people will show support for the conservation groups backing the project.

To stream the songs and learn more, visit www.steelhead-communications.com/thelaststeelhead/

• Interested in salmon?

Bring the family to Salmon Homecoming Saturday, Oct. 13, at Oxbow Regional Park in Gresham.

The celebration is a collaboration with the Native American community to honor the salmon by sharing traditional stories, songs and salmon bakes.

Join Metro staff, volunteers and community members from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at the river's edge to try to spot salmon in the Sandy River. Learn about spawning salmon and the life cycle of salmon.

Borrow a pair of polarized glasses for the best fish viewing, then explore the trails, river beaches and wildlife among the fall foliage.

Enjoy a cup of hot chocolate or cider around the campfire; first come, first served. All ages are welcome. The event is free and open to all; parking is $5 per vehicle.

From 2-4 p.m., the public is invited to explore a salmon restoration site with Metro scientist Brian Vaughn.

Metro is working along the banks of the Sandy River to improve water quality and restore habitat for native fish, including salmon, steelhead and Pacific lamprey.

The two-mile hike will include a stop at a recently constructed log jam, viewing of native fish spawning in the river, and learning the characteristics of healthy fish habitat.

The hike is suitable for ages 8 and older; meet at Group Picnic Area A at 1:45 p.m.

Fore more details: www.oregonzoo.org/events/salmon-homecoming-oxbow-regional-park.

@jenmomanderson

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