Kokanee salmon make their return in greater numbers

December 6, 2012

By Caleb Heeringa

New: Dec. 6, 12:17 p.m.

Wally Pereyra is used to seeing the red backs of Kokanee salmon working their way up the stretch of Ebright Creek that runs through his property, but nothing like this.

“I’m ecstatic,” Pererya said. “When I see so many fish going through here, it reminds me of Alaska.”

While it will take several months to determine official numbers, King County Department of Natural Resources government relations administrator David St. John said this year’s Lake Sammamish Koaknee run is a bumper crop – well over 1,000 fish compared to fewer than 100 in recent years.

That’s still nothing compared to the 10,000 or more that made the journey before development of the area brought road projects that channeled the lake’s streams into narrow culverts that were impassible to fish. But it’s a promising sign for salmon advocates who have been monitoring the fish populations and working to restore streams and salmon habitat.

It’s especially welcome news to Pereyra, who spent $175,000 to replace a large culvert on his property, giving the fish better access to more than a quarter mile of pristine breeding waters upstream.

For Pereyra, a former fisheries biologist, it’s an investment that will have a lasting effect on Kokanee populations and, hopefully, the community’s appreciation of the fish.

“At this point in my life, giving back is a wonderful thing,” Pereyra said.

Biologists won’t know for sure until they complete an analysis on fish carcasses recovered from local streams, but the higher numbers could also be the first tangible sign of success for the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery’s Kokanee program. The hatchery has been planting fry for the last three years and, given the three-year lifecycle of the fish, the first year’s worth of farm-raised fry should be showing up full-grown in local streams this fall.

St. John said identifying the hatchery fish from natives is similar to telling the age of a fallen tree. The hatchery moves fry from warmer to colder water at various points in their growth, hurrying or slowing their development at different rates. Those changes are reflected in the rings inside the ear bone of the fish, which biologists can then analyze under a microscope.

In addition to the healthy returns in Ebright Creek, Kokanee have been sighted in Laughing Jacobs, Lewis, George Davis and Tibbetts creeks. Pine Lake Creek is also seeing returns — a first, St. John said.

Despite the promising signs, St. John said there’s much work to be done as far as habitat restoration.

“We’re not doing well, but we’re doing better than we have been doing in the recent past,” St. John said. “We’re at a fraction of what the historical numbers are.”

 

Restoration work

Continuing the gains that have been made will require collaboration between private landowners, non-profits, the county and cities like Sammamish. Sammamish has $2.5 million worth of salmon passage projects on its long term plan, though only $100,000 worth of that money is currently scheduled to be spent — and not until 2018. Eric LaFrance, senior stormwater program engineer, said the city is keeping the projects on the plan, but on the backburner, because they are hopeful that much of the work can be funded by grant money from nonprofits. Crews are currently doing habitat restoration just downstream from Pereyra’s new culvert thanks to a $75,000 grant from Forterra.

Pereyra has lofty goals for another stream on his property — Zaccuse Creek. The creek was historically salmon-bearing and has prime spawning habitat, except for three culverts in the way – under East Lake Sammamish Shore Lane and East Lake Sammamish Parkway, which are owned by Sammamish, and East Lake Sammamish Trail, which is owned by the county.

St. John said the county is hoping to replace the Zaccuse culvert under the trail at the same time it paves the trail — likely in 2014 or 2015.

Doug Williams, spokesman for the county Department of Natural Resources and Parks, said the trail paving project — for the entire stretch between Redmond and Issaquah — is likely dependent on a countywide parks levy next year.

LaFrance said he’d also like to see Zaccuse Creek restored to prime salmon habitat. However, he said continuing to improve habitat in streams that are already producing fish — by removing invasive species and adding large logs and other nesting habitat, for example — is a priority. Work remains to be done on Ebright, George Davis and Pine Lake creeks.

Sammamish Councilman Don Gerend said this year’s fish returns are a sign that regional efforts are making a difference.

“It’s delightful,” he said. “We’re starting to see them coming back in Pine Lake Creek, Laughing Jacobs Creek, Tibbets Creek – places they’ve never been in in the past. It’s exciting.”

 

Reporter Caleb Heeringa can be reached at 392-6434. ext. 247, or cheeringa@isspress.com.

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