Islanders watch for salmon, ways to help orcas

Cataloging island salmon species helps to inform restoration efforts meant to support them.

Brody Keenan measures a chum salmon found along Shinglemill Creek in November (Kelly Keenan Photo).

Brody Keenan measures a chum salmon found along Shinglemill Creek in November (Kelly Keenan Photo).

More than 40 volunteers and staff of the Vashon Nature Center ended 2018 with the largest count of salmon in island streams and creeks in several years.

But more important than the numbers, said director Bianca Perla, is assembling a catalog to help identify salmon species, their spawning tendencies and range, all of which inform continued restoration efforts meant to support them.

“We have 75 creeks on the island that have fish in them, and we’re trying to figure out how many of those are supporting salmon as well as trout,” said Perla.

New last year, she added, is a partnership with Cedar Coast Field Station in British Columbia, Canada, to contribute to the genetic research of Salish Sea salmon populations by collecting their DNA. Perla said she was excited to learn more about some of the salmon tallied on Vashon from the samples, obtained by clipping their fins after they have spawned and died. That information will be compiled into a community database and used to verify how unique a given species is to island waters, establishing whether the salmon are offspring of previously released fish on the island or from a wild population in the Salish Sea. The DNA samples can be used to track migration runs for the year and help those researching understand the habits and patterns of salmon, devise more precise ways to intervene on the behalf of individual populations and possibly learn how many Vashon salmon contribute to the diet of southern resident orcas.

The official salmon monitoring season wrapped up on Jan. 1 and yielded intriguing results, according to Perla. More chum salmon, she said, were found during the most recent tally in the north end’s Shinglemill Creek than previously recorded.

“It’s great to know that wherever they’ve come from, they have decided that Shinglemill can support them, which I think says a lot about the restoration the county and Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust have done in recent years,” she said.

While the southern resident orcas primarily eat chinook salmon, they tend to switch to chum in the fall and early winter, said Perla. But she emphasized that as the orcas continue to forage for food in Puget Sound, their behavior does not necessarily indicate that they are finding it. And recent reports have circulated that two of the whales are expected to die from malnourishment by this summer.

One preliminary conclusion of the latest island salmon watch found that fewer coho salmon — which Perla said are less common on Vashon — were represented in the count than in past roundups, suggesting they are in scarcer numbers on Vashon. But in Christensen Creek, near Lisabeula Park, a coho was found there for the first time in 16 years. At least one coho and chum were also found in Fisher Creek, which flows into Quartermaster Harbor just south of Burton; in the past, it has been disputed as a location where salmon have spawned.

Volunteers have not yet reported all of their findings, and the final count will not be totaled for some time. Perla said that the nature center hopes to collate all of the information gathered from the last tally and from previous years to create a report that will then be made available to land managers and the public, summarizing the paths salmon take on the island while assessing their general condition along the way.

Perla said she made the observation of the coho at Christensen Creek on Oct. 29.

“I watched it for a really long time,” she said. “It was exciting to see it in my neighborhood watershed. After such a long absence, it was really exciting to see them checking out our watersheds.”

Last October, looking ahead to the start of the salmon watching season, program coordinator Kelly Keenan expressed her gratitude to past and current salmon watching volunteers who have logged other discoveries while combing island waterways.

“They’re putting their time in. Sometimes they see salmon and sometimes they see other cool things,” she said, recalling that one volunteer had been fortunate to spot an American dipper — a songbird that submerges itself to feed from streams.

Keenan has been a watcher herself for some time. She said that during one of her first experiences, staked out near the famed Jesus Barn by Judd Creek, she was rewarded mightily for her patience.

“The first time I ever salmon watched, I was pregnant with my third child,” she said. “I was there, and 22 coho salmon went rushing by me. That was my best memory. … To have seen so many salmon my first year got me hooked immediately.”

She added that the volunteer watchers program is an opportunity for islanders to get up close and personal with the salmon as they determinedly carry out their annual crusade to ensure the survival of the next generation.

“I wish people knew how cool they were because they’re amazing,” she said. “All they sacrifice just to pass on their genes.”

As part of the 2019-2020 budget for King County approved last November, $12.5 million was designated for the completion of 36 fish passage projects, with three culvert remediation projects slated for Vashon.

“In many cases, [culverts] were installed without the view for allowing fish to move upstream past them,” said Evan Lewis, a marine biologist who was appointed by King County Executive Dow Constantine to manage fish passage projects for the Water and Land Resources Division. “In some cases [the passages] were immediately blocked when they were too high, or too steep so fish couldn’t get through, or too shallow.”

The locations targeted on Vashon for restoration include a culvert under Chautauqua Beach Road SW on Ellisport Creek, a culvert under SW Pohl Road on Tahlequah Creek and a culvert under Dockton Road SW into Portage Marsh. Lewis said that $420,000 has been reserved in the budget to evaluate project feasibility at those sites and to evaluate the scope of work needed there.

“The idea is to position these projects to be competitive for funding for construction in 2021 or 2022,” he said.

At least two of the projects, said Lewis, would replace existing pipe culverts with something large enough to allow salmon to swim under the road to upstream areas, in addition to removing other obstacles. He noted that the Portage Marsh project is unique because it will serve maturing salmon at a critical point in their migration.

”That [project] is one that’s not so much for letting fish upstream, but for letting more young fish into marsh areas to feed, so it’s solving more of a different problem,” he said.

Beyond making a local difference, Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, maintains that the fate of the salmon — and the orcas that depend on them — hinges on the Snake River and removing the four dams there, which are known to impede young salmon migration.

“The restoration of the lower Snake River, and restoring access for currently endangered salmon populations to the upper watershed of the Snake River basin, is our greatest restoration opportunity for a river and salmon anywhere on the West Coast,” he said. “The removal of the lower snake river dams and restoration of the river and salmon is not a silver bullet for orca recovery, but there is a strong scientific consensus that the protection and restoration of orcas cannot occur without that action.”

He added that it is imperative for elected leaders and the public to continue to engage with the issues at every level they can.

“We in Washington and in our region have some, I think, very important decisions to make as to what our legacy will be and what the Northwest is going to look like over time,” he said. “I hope that Washington state, its political leaders and people, rise to that occasion.”

To find out more information about becoming a salmon watcher for the Vashon Nature Center, visit bit.ly/2VyK8GO.

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