Lake Sammamish Kokanee - A Partnership Success Story
“Overall an incredible year so far for Lake Sammamish kokanee...nothing we've really encountered before. They are returning to creeks they haven't been seen in for at least a decade and in numbers not seen before. If this is any sign of future returns, with the continued efforts of the existing partnership, we may be on our way to recovering this population.“
Jeff Chan, USFWS Fish Biologist,
speaking about the remarkable returns of
Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon,
November 16, 2012
Only a few years ago, Jeff Chan, Brad Thompson and other federal, state, tribal and local fisheries biologists were worried that Lake Sammamish’s once-plentiful kokanee salmon were headed for extinction. Kokanee are land-locked sockeye salmon that live in lakes, returning to spawn in surrounding streams much as their ocean-going relatives return from the ocean to coastal rivers.
“Decades of human development, including an extensive localized road system that severely hampered fish passage from Lake Sammamish to vital spawning grounds in surrounding streams, had contributed to the loss of two seasonal kokanee runs, leaving only the late run,” said Brad Thompson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologist. “We were at the point where it was not uncommon to find only 50 or less fish in all of the spawning streams around the lake.”
“This year we’re seeing hundreds in a given day, repeated in multiple creeks, some streams where we haven’t seen fish in decades.” Thompson and his colleagues are ecstatic.
What biologists believe has made the difference has been a strategic habitat conservation partnership that has recently begun working to protect the remaining existing habitat, reconnect historical habitat through fish passage efforts by removing barriers such as undersized or non-functional road culverts, and restoring degraded fish habitat to increase the ability of young kokanee to survive in their natal streams. This partnership, made up of King County, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the cities of Issaquah, Redmond, Bellevue, and Sammamish, Trout Unlimited, Snoqualmie Tribe, and local landowners and businesses such as Darigold, has also developed an emergency hatchery supplementation program to prevent near-term extinction.
For the last three years, biologists have been collecting wild kokanee from three spawning streams along Lake Sammamish, spawning them and rearing their offspring for release back into the Lake Sammamish system. Thompson cites the observation and reporting by local landowners of the presence of spawning fish in the streams each fall as essential to capturing the adult fish for the program. When landowners report the presence of spawning fish, King County sends out biologists to capture the fish and transport them to the Issaquah State Fish Hatchery, where they are spawned and reared for release back into the wild the following spring.
“The supplementation program is really an insurance policy to prevent some random catastrophic event from wiping out the remaining wild fish while we work to protect, reconnect and restore the habitat,” said Thompson. “We really want to get to where we don’t need to rely on the supplementation program. We want the day to come when habitat conditions allow these fish to flourish on their own.”
Thompson said the program, slated to run only until 2021, is based on a successful program to restore ESA-listed Hood Canal summer chum salmon. Thompson says the partnership is utilizing a biological marking system to mark the fish so they can determine if the supplementation program works. That process, which requires bursts of cold water to create tiny marks on the ear bones of the developing fish, depends on the availability of large amounts of well water donated by the Darigold Dairy processing plant in Issaquah. Thompson says the donation is worth at least $50,000 over the life of the supplementation program.
The real success, Thompson says, is that local communities have stepped forward, made kokanee recovery their own, and begun taking steps to protect, reconnect, and restore the habitat around the lake.
“Kokanee got a nice down payment on that this year with the completion of an important habitat restoration project by a local landowner on Ebright Creek,” Thompson said. “There was an old culvert that was blocking fish passage to upstream historical spawning habitat. The landowner, Wally Pereyra, working with the partnership, replaced the decades-old culvert with a new fish-friendly version that allows kokanee unfettered access to the best remaining habitat in the Lake Sammamish basin for the first time in 70 years.”
Thompson said biologists began seeing hundreds of kokanee spawning upstream of the replaced culvert within weeks of project completion.
“It’s a perfect example of how one person, taking the initiative to work with the partnership, can make a difference,” Thompson said. “He did the project this summer and already this fall he can see it working. That’s progress!”