Tribes rescuing native South Fork Nooksack chinook

DEMING (Dec. 26, 2007) – Sixteen yearling salmon in an aquarium at the state’s Kendall Creek Hatchery could be the salvation of South Fork Nooksack River chinook.

The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, working with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have developed a plan to rescue the population, which is at risk of becoming extinct.

South Fork native chinook enter the river in May and June and spawn during August and September. These early-timed chinook supported tribal ceremonial and subsistence fisheries during the spring months when there were no other salmon in the Nooksack. When returns of early chinook declined in the 1970s, the tribes closed the river fishery during the spring months, but the population failed to rebound.

“Recovery needs immediate, intensive hatchery intervention, because abundances are low and habitat conditions are degraded,” said Bob Kelly, policy director for the Nooksack Tribe.

But efforts to capture adult South Fork chinook to use for hatchery broodstock have proven very difficult.

Lummi crews collected 38 adults in the South Fork, but after DNA analysis, only four were found to be true South Fork chinook and provided a few hundred eggs.

To make up for the unsuccessful broodstock collection, field crews scoured the South Fork for juveniles readying to migrate to sea. About 100 juveniles were taken to the Skookum Creek hatchery for genetic analysis. Sixteen juveniles were identified as South Fork natives and were transferred to the Kendall Creek Hatchery where they will grow to maturity.

These fish will never be released to the wild. Once mature, they will be transferred back to Skookum Creek hatchery to spawn a new generation that will then be released in the wild to spawn naturally.

“Spring chinook are tough to raise,” said Ryan Vasak, fisheries biologist for the Lummi Nation. Not only are they prone to stress and susceptible to disease, but the wild-caught juveniles aren’t accustomed to being fed in a fish tank. They paid no attention to fish food floating on top of the water, so the hatchery technicians installed a feeding tube to introduce food into the tank with the inflow of water. Two hatchery coho were added to the aquarium in hopes that the hatchery fish could show the chinook how to eat pellet food. In the meantime, the chinook are being fed aquatic macroinvertebrates, kokanee eggs and sac fry.

Recovery of the South Fork early chinook population is a top priority for the Nooksack basin.
Historically, there may have been as many as 13,000 early-timed South Fork chinook, but the population estimate for 2006 was 64 individuals. The interim recovery goal for Nooksack early-timed chinook is 2,000 natural origin spawners.

“The partners in the recovery plan decided that extreme action was required to save the unique genetic characteristics of the South Fork chinook,” said Merle Jefferson, Lummi Natural Resources Department director. “The captive brood program is required to ensure that there are sufficient adults for the supplementation program in the future. Recovery will take decades.”

For more information, contact: Alan Chapman, Lummi Nation at 360-384-2267 or [email protected]; Bob Kelly, Nooksack Tribe at 360-592-5176 or [email protected]; Kari Neumeyer, information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 360-424-8226 or [email protected].