Floating ban put in place to protect Nooksack River salmon

New signs will alert riverside visitors to the floating ban. Whatcom County photo.

Floating down the South Fork Nooksack River in an innertube, kayak or other flotation device as a summer pastime was prohibited downstream of Acme for the first time this year.

On July 11, the Whatcom County Council passed the flotation ban to protect chinook salmon returning to the South Fork and its tributary creeks to spawn.

The Nooksack Indian Tribe and Lummi Nation, together with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, have advocated for the ban over the past year, as high water temperatures and low flows, worsening with climate change, have left the already imperiled South Fork Nooksack early chinook population in crisis.

In 2021, about 2,300 fish died in the South Fork before reaching Lummi’s Skookum Creek Fish Hatchery or having a chance to spawn. Scientists determined that hot water, and bacteria that thrive in those conditions, were to blame as a result of habitat degradation and low flows.

Preliminary estimates suggest hundreds of fish died again during their migration in 2022. With high temperature records broken around the globe this year, the tribes are again concerned about how the fish—a resource integral to their way of life—will fare.

While warm water temperatures and mild flows are inviting to people, recreational use of the river is stressful to salmon, harming their ability to spawn and sustain future generations.

The Nooksack Tribe mapped where salmon redds with sensitive eggs were located throughout the South Fork in 2022. Nooksack Tribe image.

“Salmon stop eating when they enter the river, and they have limited energy reserves to complete their life cycle and fight infection,” said Treva Coe, assistant natural resources director for the Nooksack Tribe. “We know from published studies that rafting and other forms of recreation can stress chinook and increase the risk of prespawn mortality.”

The Nooksack Natural Resources Department gathered video footage of chinook scattering as the noisy, shadowy form of a swimmer passes overhead.

“That startle response uses up limited energy reserves,” Coe said. “Imagine the cumulative stress to fish of hundreds of people doing the same thing on a hot day.”

As people get in and out of innertubes and kayaks, they can also trample sensitive salmon eggs, tucked in delicate pebble nests called redds—reducing the number that survive incubation and emerge as young fish.

“South Fork chinook are stressed by high temperatures and low streamflow, and tubing constitutes a cumulative impact that further compounds existing stresses, posing an unacceptable risk of increased mortality,” states a letter of support for the ban from the Watershed Management Board for the Nooksack Basin. “It is imperative that we do what we can to protect them, while we continue to work to protect and restore their habitat.”

South Fork chinook are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Returning ESA-listed chinook salmon are already stressed from the long journey home and the high water temperatures in the South Fork,” said Merle Jefferson, director of Lummi Natural Resources. “This floating ban is a step in the right direction to help give them safe passage to their spawning grounds.”

For their part, the Nooksack Tribe and Lummi Nation have invested millions of dollars into habitat restoration projects in an effort to restore the species. Lummi also operates a chinook hatchery program to supplement the natural-origin population.

Despite those efforts, hatchery and natural-origin fish have been succumbing to deadly water conditions. The average number of natural-origin chinook returning to the South Fork also remains low, at about 2% of the ESA-required recovery plan goal of 9,900 fish, Coe said.

Coe presented that data to the Whatcom County Council as its members considered the ban, which prohibits use of any recreational flotation device on the South Fork Nooksack River between June 1 and October 31. The ban will remain in effect until the number of natural-origin chinook returning to the river reaches 50% of the recovery plan goal, or at least 4,950 fish.

Thanks in large part to the tribes’ hatchery program and habitat restoration work, the number of fish returning to the South Fork reached about 3,000 in 2021, although the majority of them died.

More investments in habitat restoration that could help meet that goal are forthcoming, with $9.4 million in federal grants awarded to the projects led by Nooksack and Lummi, and additional state-level funding for tribe- and county-led projects.

Meanwhile, the county ordinance prohibits recreational use of paddleboards, innertubes, inflatable flotation devices, foam flotation devices, limb-propelled flotation devices, rubber rafts, canoes and kayaks between June 1 and October 31.

Above: A family wades into the South Fork Nooksack River on July 13, 2023. At top: A group settles into inner tubes on the South Fork on July 22. Photos and story: Kimberly Cauvel