BELLINGHAM — Chinook salmon populations have significantly declined in the last century, and now climate change is not helping.
In 2021, more than 2,500 adult chinook salmon died due to high water temperatures caused by climate change and low water flows on area rivers.
Now, local tribes working to create a safe habitat for salmon have received several multimillion-dollar grants, including $5.2 million going to the Nooksack Indian Tribe for the Lower South Fork Nooksack Chinook Recovery project, and $4.2 million to the Lummi Nation for the South Fork River Restoration Project.
The money is part of $74.4 million the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investing in projects in Washington.
This funding tracks back to $562 million investment in climate change resilience funded through the bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Just over a century ago, there were millions of salmon in the rivers. One report from 1883 by E. Morse stated that when wading through the water in the South Fork, salmon would dart between their legs and sometimes trip them up. The most recent reports from the last five years show an average of 250 fish annually, Treva Coe told The Bellingham Herald in an email. She is the assistant natural resources director/habitat program manager for the Nooksack Indian Tribe.
“We saw pre-spawn mortality among chinook in the South Fork last year (2022) as well, although not nearly as bad as was observed in 2021. This funding will leverage several other funding sources to advance priority projects to restore chinook salmon habitats in the lower South Fork and reduce the risk of such events in the future,” Coe said.
The Nooksack Indian Tribe will use about $4 million to implement the South Fork Nooksack River Fish Camp Integrated Flood and Fish Project, also known as simply the Fish Camp Project. This is a collaborative project between the tribe and the Whatcom County Public Works River and Flood Division with the goal to reduce flood risk and restore chinook habitat.
The project is still in the design phase, and is located in the lower South Fork of the Nooksack River near Acme.
The remaining funding of $1.3 million is being split between $385,000 for the restoration of chinook salmon in the Hardscrabble-Todd Research Project and $835,000 to advance planning and develop designs for projects to restore stream flow in the lower South Fork Nooksack.
Habitats are restored by using a variety of methods, such as log jams, river bank improvements and by targeting stream flow.
Log jams form deep pools and provide cover for salmon to rest and hide. This is a key salmon recovery strategy, according to Coe, and the tribe has constructed hundreds since the first project in 2007.
“Another method to restore habitats is to remove or modify the bank hardening, levees, and infrastructure that disconnect our rivers from their floodplains. This method relies on willingness of adjacent landowners and careful analysis of how restoration will affect them and other landowners in the vicinity,” Coe said.
Trees are also planted along rivers and streams to provided shade and stabilize river banks. Trees that fall into the river rack up and create natural log jams.
Chinook salmon are a federally protected species that are the largest of the salmon species in the Pacific Northwest and typically grow up to 30 pounds. They are an important resource for the tribes and sportsmen alike.