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‘Any evil you can commit on a river has been done to the Nooksack’

Decades of effort to bolster Nooksack River salmon have been unsuccessful. Much of the river’s watershed has been logged, farmed and paved since the arrival of the first white settlers and now lacks the natural log jams that once provided deep, cold-water pools for migrating fish.
Decades of effort to bolster Nooksack River salmon have been unsuccessful. Much of the river’s watershed has been logged, farmed and paved since the arrival of the first white settlers and now lacks the natural log jams that once provided deep, cold-water pools for migrating fish. Getty Images

Editor’s note: Research, tenacious advocates and $16 billion have lifted Columbia salmon from the brink of extinction. But the Northwest has yet to figure out a sustainable plan to save the fish that provides spiritual sustenance, food for the table, and hundreds of millions of dollars in business and ecological benefits. This is part of a continuing series exploring the plight of the region’s salmon.

Decades of effort to bolster the Nooksack chinook runs have failed to get those runs above a few hundred returning spawners per year.

While a $50 million “fish gulper” in Baker Lake has made progress bringing Baker River sockeye back, the measures don’t translate to the Nooksack, the Columbia, or most other river systems where many salmon runs have dwindled to dangerously-low levels, according to Brett Barkdull, district biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

There’s only one dam in the Nooksack system: the City of Bellingham’s small dam on the Middle Fork, built in 1962 to divert water from the river into Lake Whatcom, the city’s drinking water supply. It seals off 26 miles of potential spawning grounds that might otherwise be used by chinook salmon. That has made it a concern for Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe, which have treaty-guaranteed salmon fishing rights on the river.

Clare Fogelsong, environmental policy manager for Bellingham’s public works department, said he’s optimistic years of study of possible alternatives to the dam will bear fruit in the next few years. Eventually, Fogelsong expects the existing dam to be removed and replaced with a diversion system that doesn’t block salmon.

Fixing other issues confronting Nooksack salmon won’t be so simple. Much of the river’s watershed has been logged, farmed and paved since the arrival of the first white settlers. Natural log jams that once provided deep, cold-water pools for migrating fish were removed.

Barkdull said these habitat issues are probably limiting the success of recent efforts to restore the fish.

Barkdull said the river is unstable in its present state. Rainstorms cause sudden, dramatic increases in river flows, followed by sudden drops. The flood stage destroys redds – the salmon egg nests – washing them away in the current or suffocating them with mud deposits. The drops destroy other redds the salmon laid when the water was higher, leaving them high and dry.

“Our biggest problem is egg-to-fry survival,” Barkdull said. “There’s basically no habitat left in the main stem … The Nooksack has been diked, ditched, straightened. Any evil you can commit on a river has been done to the Nooksack.”

salmon
A salmon swims up Issaquah creek. Fish caught at the hatchery are often killed for their eggs and sperm, which will be used to create more salmon. Staff Getty Images

On the North Fork of the river, the 10-year average for returning chinook salmon is 178 fish, Barkdull said. On the South Fork, it’s 60.

Tribal and state programs to restore habitat, while spawning some native fish in the protected environment of a hatchery, have done little more than keep the fish from being wiped out completely, Barkdull said. But he held out some hope that these hatchery programs could jumpstart these chinook runs in the years ahead.

400 habitat restoration projects in Whatcom County completed by the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association

50 miles of breeding grounds for fish created by NSEA

Volunteers have played an important role in helping to restore more natural habitat along the creeks that flow into the Nooksack – creeks that serve as spawning grounds for salmon.

NSEA
Columbia Helicopters ground crew members watch as a log is moved onto the Nooksack River to create salmon habitat. The 2010 work was a project of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association. Philip A. Dwyer The Bellingham Herald file

The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association began as a volunteer program in the 1980s, and now receives state recognition and partial funding as one of 14 Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups around the state. On its website, the association says it has completed about 400 habitat restoration projects in Whatcom County, while also removing barriers to fish passage in tributary creeks. That provided another 50 miles of breeding grounds for fish.

Members of the Upper Skagit Tribe fish for sockeye salmon on the Baker River near the town of Concrete, Washington, Wednesday, July 5, 2017. What was once a summer long tradition of living on the river and fishing has been reduced to four to six

David Beatty, retired zoologist and board member of NSEA, said the cooperation of private landowners has been essential in getting streams back into shape. But he cautioned that volunteer efforts, even when bolstered by public funding, are not keeping pace with the ever-increasing stress placed on habitat by the growing human population of the region.

In Whatcom County and many other places in the state, that population increase is putting pressure on the volume of water that gets into creeks that support salmon. A Washington state Supreme Court ruling out of Whatcom County, known as the Hirst decision, has made it much more difficult for landowners across the state to get permits to drill wells to serve planned new home construction. That’s because too much underground water extraction reduces the flow in nearby creeks, affecting salmon as well as other water users downstream.

In position papers published online, officials from Lummi Nation and other Northwest tribes say they want to work with state and local officials to resolve these issues. But for the moment, any movement toward solutions has bogged down amid polarized state politics.

Our biggest problem is egg-to-fry survival. There’s basically no habitat left in the main stem … The Nooksack has been diked, ditched, straightened.

Brett Barkdull, district biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife

Meanwhile, the most recent version of the state’s “State of Salmon” report says that while the Legislature has allocated $179 million to salmon recovery projects since 2007, that hefty sum is about 15 percent of what is needed.

“Overall, Puget Sound is not improving,” Beatty said.

Asked if he was optimistic that salmon recovery efforts will succeed, Beatty replied, “Yes, one should be optimistic if the human element can get it together, but that hasn’t completely happened. Unless we have that, no – you can’t be optimistic.”

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