Wallace River Hatchery, SNOHOMISH COUNTY — A year-old Chinook, no bigger than a Swiss army knife, zipped through a clear tube as it was siphoned into a massive whirring machine where thousands of salmon are automatically measured and sorted, and get their adipose fins clipped.
Biologists release millions of these hatchery fish into the stream each year to bolster struggling wild runs, and anglers can typically enjoy fishing all summer long. But officials from tribes and the state closed nearly all fishing on the Snohomish River and its tributaries this summer to protect the few wild Chinook making their way back to spawn.
For decades, tribes with treaty-protected fishing rights on the river have forfeited some fishing to preserve what runs remain. The state and tribes have invested millions to raise hatchery fish, restore critical habitat, keep rivers cool and clean up industrial and agricultural pollution.
Yet the efforts haven’t been enough to keep the river open to fishing this summer as climate change drives warming stream temperatures and lower flows, compounding risks to endangered fish across the state.
This year’s closure on the Snohomish, once a powerhouse among Puget Sound’s Chinook-bearing rivers, can be linked to 2015, when record low stream flows and a subsequent deluge devastated the habitat.
That generation of Chinook after four years at sea returned in 2019 to spawn, in record low numbers. Another four years have elapsed, and the outlook is grim.
“A drastic change”
Hundreds of anglers flanked the banks and hit the waters of the Skykomish River, a tributary of the Snohomish, over Memorial Day weekend. They reeled in more than two dozen hatchery Chinook, according to preliminary estimates from the state.
Each year, thousands of people from Snohomish County and the Seattle area make the short trip up Highway 2 to the river to seek out premier summer Chinook fishing.
But after a warm dry spell in 2015, Washington’s snowpack was gone and most glacially fed streams in the basin shrunk, others went subsurface and dried up. Rescue efforts began across the state, with some biologists for the state and tribes scooping out-migrating juvenile fish out of pools that became disconnected from the streams.
When adult salmon came back to the river to spawn, stream flows hit the lowest on record, forcing them to drop their eggs downstream in less stable habitat. That fall, heavy rains flooded streams and wiped out many of the eggs.
Four years later, the fish born amid the destructive conditions returned to spawn. It was the lowest run of Chinook, also known as king salmon, ever recorded in the Snohomish: 1,023. Just 569 fish returned to the Skykomish, and 443 to the Snoqualmie, another tributary. It was the lowest observed wild returns since at least the mid-1980s.
Now, as their offspring make their way back to the river to lay their eggs and die, fisheries managers agreed to do what they can to protect the future of the fish and the people and animals that depend on them.
“It’s the lowest return we’ve ever seen of Chinook in the Snohomish system since we’ve been counting Chinook,” said Edward Eleazer, the state department of Fish and Wildlife’s North Puget Sound region fish program manager. “And that’s really why it’s such a drastic change in the way we’re managing the system.”
Meanwhile, last year, after Western Washington saw the driest June to October on record, endangered salmon were again forced to spawn in undesirable habitat.
Washington coastal rivers continue to experience negative fluctuations in flow. Peak flows have increased, and low flows have gotten lower since 1976, according to a 2020 report by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
This May, Western Washington saw precipitation around 5% to 25% of normal, said Matthew Cullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. It was the second warmest May on record.
Predictions from the Northwest River Forecast Center show some extreme low flows in the state late in the summer, state climatologist Nick Bond said.
“And so right now, it’s not clear, if there’s going to be a huge emergency,” Bond said, “but it’s not clear that we’re just going to be able to dodge a bullet either.”
A 2022 analysis prepared for the state Department of Ecology suggests that climate change will make some watersheds uninhabitable for salmon and steelhead by the end of the century.
“When the flows go down, the water quality goes down,” Bond said. Temperatures rise, oxygen levels drop and that affects endangered salmon, trout and bull trout, Bond added.
Some opportunities to fish for hatchery steelhead will remain on the upper Skykomish River, but the rest of the river, and the Snoqualmie, are closed to all fisheries because of the risk of catching a wild Chinook. The state might open some fisheries in the fall.
A salmon ceremony
Earlier this month, as a crowd sang hikw siyab yub??, Jason Gobin helped pull the first king salmon of the season into Tulalip Bay by dugout canoe. It was the Tulalip Tribes’ annual Salmon Ceremony.
It’s an obligation, said Gobin, the Tulalip Tribes’ director of fish and wildlife. As the region’s salmonberries begin to blossom and produce fruit, the tribes honor the return of Chinook. After blessing the fishers, and welcoming the salmon, the community shares a meal and returns the salmon’s remains to the water.
“This really is an honor to those first returning salmon,” Gobin said. “When we send our visitor back out to the sea, they’re going to express to the other salmon that are returning how they were treated by the Sduhubš people.”
The Tulalip Tribes are successors to the Sduhubš, also known as the Snohomish, as well as the Snoqualmie, Skykomish and other bands.
The ceremony has been passed down for generations.
This year, an estimated 3,300 wild Chinook are slated to return to the Snohomish River. Fewer than 2,500 are predicted to return to the Skykomish, and just over 800 to the Snoqualmie system, according to data provided by Tulalip.
Compared with returns of 10,602 in 2004, the runs are in dire straits, Gobin said.
At nearly 2,000 square miles, the Snohomish Basin has the second largest drainage in Puget Sound. It’s fed by the Skykomish and Snoqualmie, which descend from their headwaters in the North Cascades. Historically it was considered to be one of the largest Chinook-bearing rivers in Puget Sound.
Tulalip stopped Chinook fisheries in the ‘80s in a voluntary attempt to conserve the runs. Tribal leaders assumed the fish would bounce back, Gobin said.
“I wish there was one thing that we could point to that, if we fix that, it would fix the problem,” he said. “But there’s a myriad of things that we have to try.”
Restoration work continues
Since settlers arrived and began diking and draining the basin for farmland and industry at the Port of Everett, the river lost up to 85% of its historic wetland habitat, resulting in the loss of an estimated up to 1.6 million Chinook per year, according to a report by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
In 2015, the Tulalip Tribes helped usher in the first tidal flows in over a century at the Qwuloolt estuary, not far from where the Snohomish pours into Puget Sound. Excavators breached a levee that was installed by early settlers.
Just two years after the $20 million project wrapped up, Tulalip ecologists estimated upward of 10,000 Chinook made their return to the marshy passageways. Estuaries, the space where fresh and saltwater mix, act as massive nurseries for young fish to find refuge from predators and fatten up before heading to the ocean.
With millions invested largely by the tribes, but also state and local agencies, by the end of 2019, an estimated 1,100 acres of tidal marsh has been restored in the basin, about one-quarter of historically available tidal marshlands. To date, the more than 1,200 acres of estuary in the Snohomish River basin have been restored.
The Tulalip Tribes have also teamed up with a Monroe dairy farm, building a contraption that uses cow manure that may otherwise pollute the basin to create fertilizer and biogas.
The federal government recently announced the infusion of more than $20 million for state, tribal and local governments to roll out seven restoration projects aimed at Chinook salmon recovery totaling thousands of acres in the Whidbey Basin, encompassing the Stillaguamish, Snohomish and Skagit watersheds.
The habitat recovery efforts are reasons to have optimism for the recovery of wild Chinook, said Chase Gunnell, a spokesperson for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, but developed basins with less shade and natural buffers for rivers like the Snohomish, are still some of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“Climate change,” Gobin said, “I think is a big factor, it’s a little harder to figure out how to fix it. It’s not just a Tulalip problem, or even a state of Washington problem. That’s a problem across our whole nation, across the world.”