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Emergency repairs underway at Skagit River jetty after hundreds of dead baby salmon found

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: June 2, 2023, 9:54am

McGlinn Island Jetty, SKAGIT COUNTY — Heather Spore got down on her hands and knees on the soft sand, peering through a gaping hole in a more than 80-year-old rock wall at low tide.

The Swinomish biologist and environmental policy leader has been out here several mornings each week since April 13, when she and federal officials first found dozens of dead baby chum salmon trapped in a cove on the north end of the jetty.

After hatching in the Skagit River or its tributaries, juvenile salmon typically swim toward the mouth and would turn north toward Padilla Bay, a massive nursery for young fish to find refuge from predators and fatten up before heading to the ocean.

But the jetty has extended their migration route and recently proved to be a fatal obstacle. As baby fish swim alongside the dilapidated jetty, they are sometimes sucked through its holes at higher speeds than they can sustain, leaving many injured or dead.

Emergency repairs are now underway as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responds to demands to fill gaps in the jetty to protect endangered salmon. The work, however, is no more than a Band-Aid, as Swinomish, state and federal agencies study the potential for breaching the jetty and restoring the river delta.

From April 13, the number of dead fish climbed. Some days, Spore and her team would find more than a hundred dead chum and endangered Chinook salmon. The biologists scooped out dozens of stranded live salmon after being battered around in the jetty.

“It’s disheartening actually seeing it firsthand,” Swinomish Sen. J.J. Wilbur said of the fish kill. “If you look at a historical picture, the Skagit had [one of] the biggest delta systems in the state — [thousands] of acres of salmon habitat. But the pioneers and settlers that came diked this river from stem to stern and all of that habitat is gone.”

Wilbur pulled up a June 1955 clip of the Mount Vernon Daily Herald on his phone. “Indians Give Final Evidence in $130 Million Claim,” the headline read. Nearly seven decades ago, Wilbur’s great-grandfather had testified that the Army Corps’ jetty had affected the Skagit’s once plentiful salmon runs.

Swinomish leaders were requesting compensation for the damages done to habitat and treaty rights by building the jetty and dredging Swinomish Channel.

“They’ve ruined our fishing ground by changing the natural flow of the Skagit River,” Tandy Wilbur told the Herald. “We cannot catch as many fish as we used to.”

When the river basin was diked and drained for agriculture, the river became rigid and channeled, acting as a firehose for sediment headed downriver from the stream’s upper reaches. So in 1938, the Army Corps built the jetty from Goat Island to McGlinn Island, aiming to prevent sediment from filling Swinomish Channel and making it impassible for boats.

The jetty has not been maintained since 1963, according to the Army Corps.

Army Corps crews are working at high tides to dump about 1.7 million gallons of rocks and gravel on the river side of the jetty near McGlinn Island. They’re hoping to plug the deadly holes and gaps.

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The $500,000 project should wrap up June 9, ahead of the anticipated release of juvenile Chinook salmon from the Marblemount Hatchery.

Swinomish, state and federal staffers first noticed the fish kill on a scheduled site visit last month, but that doesn’t mean it hadn’t happened in previous years when fish passage near the jetty wasn’t monitored.

Swinomish has been collaborating with the Skagit River System Cooperative, NOAA fisheries and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to study long-term restoration and alternatives to the jetty.

The goal is to restore habitat connectivity and quality, Spore said. Project partners are studying the feasibility of breaching the jetty in several places or removing it all together. A report on the options is expected this summer.

The Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency, has reported that the Nooksack, Samish, Stillaguamish and Skagit deltas “have experienced the greatest absolute loss of tidal wetlands” in Puget Sound. What was once a marshy tangle of creeks and wetlands has mostly been converted to farmland in the Skagit basin.

Standing near the jetty at low tide, Swinomish Chair Steve Edwards recalled the splash of fish breaking the silence. Here, he spent some of his youth learning from his parents’ and grandparents’ generations of fishers.

“I was blessed to be able to spend that time with a lot of great fishermen and women. They were looking out for me,” he said. “Now here we are: we’re out here on the river looking out for the next generations of fishermen trying to figure out how can we fix this issue, how can we set the table for them.”

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