Tribes in long effort to restore Noocksack chinook

By John Stark
Bellingham, Washington (AP) 8-08

Wild chinook salmon runs in the south fork of the Nooksack River have lingered on the brink of extinction for decades, but Whatcom County tribes are persisting in their efforts to restore a thriving population.

This summer, that means spending hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring logjams and accumulations of woody debris that earlier generations worked hard to remove.

“We’ve had a tremendous loss of wood out of all our Puget Sound rivers,” said Ned Currence, habitat biologist with the Nooksack Tribe. “Only fairly recently have we realized how important the wood is to the habitat that fish prefer.”

During July, Lummi Nation completed a project in the stretch of river known as Nesset’s Reach, stabilizing and enlarging natural debris accumulation with pilings and larger logs, some of which had to be taken to the site via helicopter. This week, the Nooksacks and their contractors are finishing a project near the mouth of the south fork’s Todd Creek tributary, building new logjams and streamside piles of debris. 

Why are logjams important? As Currence explained it, the barriers cause the river to scour out deeper pools in its gravel bed, where fish can rest in the cool, still water as they move upstream to spawn. That’s especially important for the south fork’s spring and summer chinook runs. Those fish often spend months in fresh water before spawning.

The logjams and pools also provide shelter for juvenile fish after they hatch, and they snag the carcasses of spawned-out fish that would otherwise wash downstream out of the spawning area. The decaying carcasses nourish the food chain, feeding smaller organisms and insects that in turn feed small fish.

Money for the projects comes from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board, as well as from federal grants awarded to the tribes, which also contribute their own funds to salmon recovery efforts.

Currence said the Nooksack tribe’s project will cost about $500,000.

Designing and constructing an artificial logjam is no simple process. The structure near Todd Creek uses pilings sunk 30 feet deep into river gravel, with interlocking logs set among those vertical shafts according to a precisely engineered design. Then the wood is partly covered with gravel and rock. Today, it sits in a dry gravel bed next to the cool, quiet stream of summer. But if all goes as planned, the river will surge around it as its waters rise during the fall and winter, and natural debris will accumulate on it, making it a more or less permanent feature that will shelter fish.

This and other debris structures along the south fork must be designed with care to make sure they don’t contribute to erosion or flooding.

“You don’t just come in and do these things willy-nilly,” Currence said. “We make sure we don’t increase the flood risk.”

Making the river more hospitable to fish is just one part of an ongoing effort to restore wild south fork chinook. The tribes are also involved in an ambitious effort to net juvenile fish, then rear them to adulthood in captivity for several years so that they can be spawned in hatcheries. The resulting offspring will then be released in hopes of jump-starting the run’s recovery.

Currence said efforts to trap wild adult fish for hatchery spawning have not been productive, partly because so few adult fish are available. Last year, an estimated 29 chinook returned to the south fork.

“This is a native population here that<s in tough shape,” Currence said. “It’s going to take time to heal.”

On Wednesday, Aug. 6, tribal workers positioned booms to contain silt from the construction work, while project superintendent Harlan Harvey of Nooksack Tribal Works used an excavator to maneuver logs into place between pilings along the riverbank. Workers exchanged pleasantries with tubers who basked in the warm sun as they drifted downstream toward Van Zandt.

Despite the chinook run’s desperate straits, Currence has faith in the future of this salmon run, and others up and down a Nooksack River watershed that once supported hundreds of thousands of fish. That was before overfishing, logging, pollution and channel-clearing projects brought things to their present state.

“I think we can get an appreciable portion back if we have the will to do it,” he said.