ARLINGTON – The Stillaguamish Tribe has everything it needs to start a chinook supplementation program in the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River – except the fish.
The tribe hired additional field technicians and acquired an old trout farm to spawn and rear threatened South Fork Stillaguamish River chinook. But because there are so few chinook returning to the South Fork, it has been a challenge to collect enough adult fish to spawn.
South Fork chinook are genetically distinct from North Fork chinook, and always have been smaller in number.
The tribe’s hatchery program in the North Fork has supplemented that population for 20 years, with about 1,500 fish returning to the North Fork each year. Meanwhile, chinook returns to the South Fork have declined to fewer than 100 fish. Among the factors contributing to the population’s decline are habitat degradation from landslides and the smothering of salmon redds.
The Stillaguamish Tribe has not had a chinook fishery on either population since 1985. When fishing seasons are set for other runs in the region, fisheries are structured to protect those few chinook returning to the Stillaguamish River.
“Chinook salmon are a culturally important food source to the Stillaguamish Tribe,” said Stillaguamish Chairman Shawn Yanity. “We have not fished for Stillaguamish River chinook for nearly 25 years, because we want this population to recover for future generations.”
The tribe hopes to recreate the success of its North Fork hatchery program in the South Fork. Hatchery supplementation is not a substitute for habitat restoration – it is considered genetic maintenance.
“Starting a hatchery broodstock program in the South Fork is the best way to keep the population from going extinct until the habitat can be restored,” Yanity said.
To maintain genetic diversity, the tribe needs to use at least 15 male and 15 female adult chinook. “We have to find the fish and get them by any means necessary,” said John Drotts, the tribe’s natural resources manager.
The extensive effort to collect broodstock last summer and fall included snorkel surveys and an attempted helicopter retrieval, but there weren’t enough adult chinook salmon to be found.
Now, the natural resources department is trying something different: beach seining for juvenile salmon to hold in captivity until they are old enough to spawn. The tribe received funding for the effort from the state Salmon Recovery Funding board. It has collected about 20 juvenile chinook to test the feasibility of implementing a captive brood program. Efforts to collect adults will continue later this year.
A similar captive broodstock program already is under way for South Fork Nooksack River spring chinook, which also have declined severely in number. The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe so far have collected about 500 juveniles that are being raised to adulthood in hatcheries.
For more information, contact: John Drotts, Stillaguamish natural resources manager at 360-435-2755 or [email protected]; Kari Neumeyer, NWIFC information officer at 360-424-8226 or [email protected].