Kokanee salmon recovering, not yet safe

July 17, 2014

By Ari Cetron

New: July 17, 1:24 p.m.

Local groups have been working to save the Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon, and while the news over the past few years isn’t tremendously better, it is less bad.
“We’re doing better, but it’s still verging on extinction,” said David St. John of the King County Department of Natural Resources during the July 8 City Council meeting.
St. John spoke about the work being done to preserve the fish by the Kokanee Work Group. Sammamish is a member of the group, which includes representatives from other cities, the county and the state.
St. John explained about the kokanee, a variety of salmon native to the area. Unlike its more commonly known cousins, such as coho or sockeye, kokanee do not go to the ocean.
The only living members of the species spawn in streams in Sammamish and live their lives, about three years, in Lake Sammamish before returning to spawn.
There used to be kokanee living in other streams in the region and a population in Lake Washington. Those have all gone away, leaving only a few streams in Sammamish, and some shoreline areas around the lake, as the only spawning grounds.
The species is genetically unique, St. John said. Though scientists have made efforts to plant other kokanee in the lake, they cannot find any indication that they survived.
The fish is increasingly challenged, St. John said. He noted that since there are only three streams, and they are all fairly close together, they could easily be affected by the same events. For example, a hard rain in the winter could cause enough water runoff into those streams that an entire year’s worth of eggs could be washed away.
“It’s easy to see one storm just coming in and wiping it all out,” St. John said.
Additionally, climate change is becoming a problem. The lake’s temperature is rising, meaning the fish can only survive in an increasingly narrow band in Lake Sammamish. As a result, it makes it easier for predators to find them.
The fish are now at only 20 percent of their historic levels, St. John said, and are illegal to keep if they are caught.
On an average annual basis, he noted they find just a little more than 500 fish coming downstream – 500 is considered the bare minimum need for a species to survive.
But the efforts of people are helping improve the fish’s odds, St. John said.
In particular, he cited the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, which has been helping plant fry, baby fish, in the streams each spring, with helping keep the numbers up.
He noted that the efforts won the attention of the federal government, which designated the lake an Urban Wildlife area, qualifying it for $30,000 in federal funding to help with education efforts.
St. John said the ultimate goal is to use the hatchery fish to supplement the population until there is a self-sustaining number. Then let the population continue to grow until eventually, they might be able to be caught.
“This is going to be decades long,” he said.

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