More kokanee return as community works to restore species

December 4, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Homeowner funds $175,000 culvert project

Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon swim Nov. 27 in the restored stretch of Ebright Creek at Wally Pereyra’s property in the 100 block of East Lake Sammamish Parkway Southeast. By Greg Farrar

Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon — a landlocked cousin of sockeye and a species noted for distinctive red coloration — dwindled in recent decades, since before Wally Pereyra moved into a house along Ebright Creek in 1973.

The streams snaking from Lake Sammamish once ran red as mature kokanee fought the current in a primeval effort to spawn upstream, but the number of kokanee dwindled to fewer than 1,000 in recent years.

The freshwater salmon species once formed the foundation of a robust ecosystem and a recreational fishery. Snoqualmie Indians once fished for the plentiful salmon as a staple.

Kokanee long captivated Pereyra, so the former fisheries biologist joined the effort to restore the species. The most recent restoration project he completed — replacing a culvert spanning Ebright Creek — represents Pereyra’s passion.

Unable to secure public dollars for the project because the culvert does not sit along a public road, Pereyra decided to pay about $175,000 out of pocket to complete the project.

“Finally, I just said, ‘OK, I’m going to do it,’” he recalled Nov. 27.

Pereyra received a hand from government agencies to receive permits for the project, and throughout the summer, crews removed the culvert in Ebright Creek and installed a 40,000-pound concrete replacement. The major construction project routed the stream through a pipe around the construction site.

The old culvert channeled the stream and made fish passage difficult, but the replacement allows the creek to flow uninterrupted.

“It was obvious that it was an impediment to the passage of fish going up the stream,” Pereyra said. “We were looking at things we could do in the creek, and this was one that we all identified had to get done.”

The project illustrates the partnership between public agencies, community groups and residents to restore the flailing fish species. The long-term goal is to restore the species so kokanee return to many Lake Sammamish creeks to spawn each autumn.

The number of fish counted in Lake Sammamish streams reached more than 1,000 in recent weeks, but kokanee restoration organizers said the species still faces a difficult future and they emphasized the partners’ contributions to the effort.

“I don’t think we could do this without folks from the community being involved,” said David St. John, government relations manager for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “I don’t think it’s sustainable. We need people in our community to really own the work.”

‘I just got hooked on kokanee’

The year Pereyra settled on a bucolic stretch along Ebright Creek not far from Lake Sammamish, no kokanee salmon reached the stream next to the house.

“When I first arrived here, they weren’t here because there was a blockage down at the lake,” he said.

Tangled roots created falls at the creek mouth into Lake Sammamish, and fish could not head upstream to spawn and die.

In later years, after landslides made the creek more accessible to the fish, Pereyra watched as kokanee trudged upstream to spawn.

“I just got hooked on kokanee,” he said, pun intended.

Nowadays, kokanee usually return to only a handful of creeks to spawn — Ebright, Laughing Jacobs and Lewis. The once-abundant species’ decline is perhaps due to construction near creeks, increased predators, disease or changes in water quality, although the exact cause remains a mystery.

The partners in the Lake Sammamish Kokanee Work Group — a group uniting the federal, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and residents — aim to reverse the decline through a program to collect spawning kokanee from the streams and raise fry at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery.

The program is funded primarily by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and King County and state Department of Fish and Wildlife contribute to the effort as well.

The effort is meant to last a dozen years — from the launch in 2009 until biologists release the last fry in 2021. Organizers expect the last mature kokanee raised in the program to return to local streams in 2025.

Partners join forces to restore species

Darigold joined the kokanee restoration effort by donating water from a well to the Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer for the hatchery to use in the ongoing effort to restore kokanee. The contribution from Darigold should save the hatchery about $50,000 over the program’s anticipated lifespan through 2021.

Experts said the Darigold water is ideal for kokanee due to consistent quality and temperature. Using the water allows hatchery teams to prevent the fish from imprinting on Issaquah Creek water, and instead allows fry to imprint on Ebright, Laughing Jacobs and Lewis creeks.

Hatchery workers adjust the water temperature to alter the otolith — a tiny bone inside the ear — to later determine if mature fish came from the supplementation program.

Someday, kokanee could even return in abundance to Issaquah Creek.

So far, organizers counted more than 1,000 kokanee in recent months along Ebright, Laughing Jacobs and Lewis creeks. Pereyra followed Ebright Creek into the forest to see the salmon spawn.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Can you believe how far up they are?”

Biologists also recorded, unusually, hundreds of fish in Pine Lake Creek, a small stream branching from Lake Sammamish.

“We usually don’t have enough fish back there in numbers to really sort of witness much, if any, spawning,” St. John said.

The program is not collecting fish from Pine Lake Creek, in part because the system is smaller and cannot sustain as many kokanee as Ebright, Laughing Jacobs and Lewis creeks.

“We just have more fish in those creeks, so we feel like it’s less of a risk to take some fish out of the place where we have more,” St. John said.

Come autumn, teams deploy along Ebright, Laughing Jacobs and Lewis creeks to collect 3- and 4-year-old fish. Then, Issaquah hatchery employees and Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery members spawn the fish at the hatchery and tend to the eggs as the fry mature.

Ongoing threats, both manmade and natural, illustrate the species’ fragility.

Hazards abound in the creeks and the lake, especially birds and other fish — cutthroat trout and sculpin snack on salmon fry. In March 2011, a landslide into Ebright Creek entombed the nascent kokanee in the stream.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials declined last year to list the species as endangered. The agency determined the Lake Sammamish kokanee population did not meet the definition of a “listable entity” under the “distinct population segment” policy.

St. John said the decision not to list the species as endangered did not interrupt the restoration effort.

“We know what partners we need to make this work, and let’s just go do that,” he said. “All of the people that were there are still there, and we still need to work well with people.”

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3 Responses to “More kokanee return as community works to restore species”

  1. Eric Bartrand on December 5th, 2012 10:55 am

    I grew up near Pine Lake Creek and witnessed residential development in the latter 70′ s and 80’s that anecdotally resulted in and coincided with declining spawning in the creek by chinook, coho, and kokanee (salmon). It’s a little gutless or naive to report that the causes of decline are a mystery. Anyhow, I’m heartened to hear that the kokanee may be on the upswing.

  2. Russ on December 6th, 2012 8:43 am

    What a great project – it’s heartening to read of landowners who also view themselves as stewards. Bravo to all concerned for helping out!

  3. Glenn on December 9th, 2012 8:37 am

    Great to here. I fish on Lake Sammamish on the East side of the lake near Elbright creek all the time and one Sunday this September my son and I got into a school of Kokanee and caught 4 in an hour. They were so big (2-3lbs) I first thought they were sockeyes…bright Silver..I took pictures and showed the guys at trout unlimited at salmon days. They confirmed they were Kokanee and said they weren’t surprised at the size.

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