Effort to preserve dwindling species is a team effort

January 18, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Darin Combs, Issaquah Salmon Hatchery manager, lifts a screen to reveal a tray of 3,100 fertilized Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon eggs. By Greg Farrar

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 wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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3 Responses to “Effort to preserve dwindling species is a team effort”

  1. Dallas Cross on January 19th, 2011 12:43 pm

    Kudos to the Kokanee Work Group and the state Fish and Wildlife department to recognize and take action to remedy the plight of these signature and iconic native fish in the Sammamish watershed. Trout Unlimited of Bellevue-Issaquah is one of the conservation groups mentioned in the article. They are holding a fundraiser Saturday, January 22, starting at 5:30 pm at the Lake Sammamish Elks Lodge in Issaquah to continue their support of kokanee restoration in the lake. There will be a $50 donation per family entry for which guests will get an Alaskan cod and chips meal. There will also be poster and audio visual displays of the chapter’s activites. A silent auction will go on during the evening with rods, reels, flies, clothing and gear up for auction. In addition paintings and other art, some from local artists, will be auctioned. Capping the evening will be a fun poker tournament with a $20 entry fee that will be returned to the winners as cash and prizes. Everyone is invited to join Trout Unlimited for a fun and rewarding evening.

  2. Bill Pierce on January 21st, 2011 8:28 am

    This is a laudable effort. These “little red fish” are a delight to see in our creeks in the Fall. I’d like to see a companion piece on the sustainable development efforts that are being undertaken by the cities and county to raise the water quality to the point that it can sustain the population naturally. Historically, we’re pretty good at hatchery efforts but less willing to alter our operations to achieve the habitat requirements. Without the sustainable development and habitat efforts, the hatchery efforts will only delay the decline.

  3. Join leaders to release threatened kokanee salmon : The Issaquah Press – News, Sports, Classifieds in Issaquah, WA on April 16th, 2011 9:05 am

    […] push to restore the dwindling salmon species is a team effort combining local, state and federal […]

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