Effort to preserve dwindling species is a team effort
January 18, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon used to turn the creeks branching from the lake to the color of rust as thousands of fish headed upstream to spawn.
The once-plentiful fish has declined in recent decades, perhaps due to construction near the tributary creeks, increased predators, disease or changes in water quality.
But the imperiled fish has received a boost from local, state and federal officials in recent seasons.
Scientists started to comb the tributary creeks for spawning salmon late last year and, during the ongoing spawning season, King County and local, state and federal agencies coordinated efforts to restore the species.
Lake Sammamish kokanee — a landlocked cousin of sockeye salmon — return to creeks near the lake in the rain-soaked months from November to January.
King County, state Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers deployed along creek banks throughout the season to collect fish in creeks near the lake and spawn the salmon at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery.
The local hatchery receives half of the eggs to raise to juvenile salmon and the other half is shipped to the Quilcene National Fish Hatchery on the Olympic Peninsula. Scientists hope to harvest 110,000 eggs before the spawning season wraps.
“Incubating fertilized eggs in a hatchery’s controlled environment greatly increases their chance of successful hatching,” state Regional Hatchery Operations Manager Doug Hatfield said. “The goal is to jumpstart this very low population of fish and bring them back from the brink of extinction.”
Fate remains uncertain
The fish is a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Kokanee conservationists — including environmental organizations, local governments and the Snoqualmie Tribe — petitioned in 2007 to list the species as endangered.
The petition remains under consideration, Doug Zimmer, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman in the Western Washington office, said in late December.
Kokanee used to thrive in Lake Sammamish. The freshwater salmon species formed the foundation of a robust ecosystem and a recreational fishery. Snoqualmies fished for the plentiful salmon as a staple.
In recent years, the number of salmon in the late-fall and early-winter run has dwindled to less than 1,000 in some seasons. Kokanee return to only a handful of creeks — Ebright, Laughing Jacobs and Lewis — to spawn.
Teams collect adult kokanee from the streams and then spawn the fish. Then, hatchery staffers place the fertilized eggs in incubators to mature and hatch.
The hatchery program trucks in water from the tributary creeks in order to help the tiny fish “imprint” on the streams and then return to spawn in the tributaries instead of the hatcheries.
Scientists hope the technique provides the opportunity to boost the natural runs in Lake Sammamish tributaries.
“Salmon show a strong attachment to the streams and water in which they hatch,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist Jeff Chan said. “Our assumption is that if we use the water from the streams that their parents returned to, the next generation will seek out that same stream during their own spawning run. It would be a big step forward if we get this approach to work.”
The next generation
The time the BB-sized eggs spend at the hatcheries eliminates some lethal risks, including the threat from flood flows. The eggs could be scoured from nests or smothered in silt, sand and rocks.
“When you bring them into the hatchery, what it does is remove that early part, the dangerous part where they take the high losses due to silting, predation and diseases,” Dan Magneson, assistant manager at the Quilcene hatchery, said in late December. “The hatchery is a protected environment, so you can get them up to the release size without that loss.”
Conservationists hope the hatchery program helps sustain kokanee in the short term. The effort to preserve the species also includes long-term habitat restoration projects. The goal is to create a species able to be sustained through spawning in the wild and, perhaps, restore a kokanee fishery in Lake Sammamish.
The effort includes dollars from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state and the county, plus lakeside cities, including Issaquah and Sammamish.
Creekside residents and other citizens also contribute to the program. Residents alert scientists and other staffers to returning kokanee. Plans call for agency staffers and citizens to release kokanee fry into creeks in the spring.
“During this time of extremely tight budgets, we have to work together even more closely and find ways to economize while we maintain our focus on our goals,” David St. John, chairman of the Lake Sammamish Kokanee Work Group, said in a statement.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.