Whatcom Creek chinook program feeds tribes, ecosystem

In highly trafficked areas around lower Whatcom Creek, where it winds through the city of Bellingham’s Maritime Heritage Park and an industrial waterfront corridor on its way to Bellingham Bay, chinook salmon returning from sea made a splash this fall. 

This marked the second year in a row that chinook released as young fish from a Bellingham Technical College hatchery program returned to the waterway in large numbers. As the adult fish congregated in the creek, they caught the attention of passersby, bringing excitement to the urban greenspace. 

The fish also provided an opportunity for local treaty tribes to harvest salmon, and Lummi Nation for the first time dedicated several evenings of fishing to tribal youth. 

“It fills my heart with so much joy that we are providing an opportunity to our youth to practice a right and a tradition that’s exclusive for them,” said Setrina Wilson, Endangered Species Act policy representative for Lummi Natural Resources.

Olga Kapuni-Lopez Revey, 13, was among several Lummi Nation teens who reeled in chinook using a fishing line during a youth fishery in September.

For a few days in September, Lummi members 18 years old and younger visited the creek and practiced their treaty-protected right to harvest salmon from waters in their homelands. For some, it was a chance to independently practice fishing skills developed during time on the water with relatives. For others, it was a first-time experience.

“This provides the educational opportunity to learn their history, their family’s practices, the importance of hatcheries and about their treaty rights,” Wilson said. “It is important that Lummi youth have an opportunity to practice their shelangen, or way of life, and maintain a strong cultural identity.”

The tribe made fishing gear choices flexible to accommodate youth of various skill levels and interests. Youth were able to try their hand at casting a sport fishing line, using tribal nets or exploring other traditional fishing methods.

“The idea is to provide the most opportunity for the highest chance of success,” Wilson said. “We want them to be able to go home and say ‘Look, Dad’ or ‘Look, Grandpa, I can do the same thing you used to do,’ and feel a sense of pride.”

Olga Kapuni-Lopez Revey, 13, was among those who reeled in a chinook using a fishing line, her smile wide as her mother captured the moment on her cellphone.

Paul Cline Sr. brought his young sons, Paul Jr., 3, and Henry, 2, to experience the opportunity as well. The toddlers were eager for their turns to hold a fishing pole and help reel in the line.

“This is a great educational experience for Lummi Nation youth,” said Mark Nelson of Lummi Natural Resources’ harvest management division. “We are hoping to expand this program next year.”

During the inaugural fishery, youth came to the creek with their parents, as well as through the Lummi Boys & Girls Club.

“I’m excited to see where this goes and how it grows,” Wilson said while some youth fished a stretch of calm water. “You’re seeing the seed planted right now.”

Toddlers Henry Cline (being held) and Paul Cline Jr. enjoyed a night of pole fishing with their parents in September.

The bigger picture

The Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe opened fishing more broadly during several days in August and September.

Nelson estimated that more than 5,000 chinook returned to Whatcom Creek this year. Lummi fishermen caught many of those fish for commercial use and for cultural and subsistence purposes.

Nooksack cultural department staff return to shore after fishing Whatcom Creek in September.

Nooksack Cultural Resources Department staff also caught about 500 chinook to distribute to tribal members for cultural and subsistence use.

George Swanaset Jr., Nooksack’s director of cultural resources, said the brief fishing opportunity for the tribe was momentous. “We are exercising our rights as a recognized tribe,” he said during the first day of the fishery. “It is awesome to see the guys out there catching fish for our community.”

Some of the chinook were caught by sport fishermen as well. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), which co-manages fisheries with the tribes, opened recreational fishing on Whatcom Creek for several days in September.

Chinook not caught in the various fisheries—or in the mouths of predators including orcas in the Salish Sea and harbor seals prowling Whatcom Creek—died, as any salmon returning to spawn at the end of their life cycle do. Some of those dead accumulated in the rocky shallows below the creek’s steep falls.

“While it isn’t necessarily pleasant to see or smell these fish, their decomposition is a natural process that provides the creek with many marine-derived nutrients that help to restore the health of the water system, and they form a vital part of the food chain for many aquatic species,” Bellingham Technical College said in a statement.

The college played a key role in generating this new run of fish and the harvest opportunities it provides. With oversight from tribal and state fisheries co-managers, chinook eggs have been transferred to the college for several years from the state’s Samish Hatchery. Students training for careers in fishery and hatchery sciences collect and fertilize the eggs at the Samish Hatchery, and then raise those fish at BTC facilities and release them into Whatcom Creek. The first such release took place in 2018.

As the chinook make their way from hatchery to sea and back, they provide an important source of food for endangered southern resident orcas, as well as a variety of birds, fish and marine mammals. The chinook that survive their time at sea and the journey back—an instinctual migratory pattern that brings salmon to their birth stream to spawn—are an important traditional food source for the tribes.

A passerby looks down at a chinook salmon struggling over the rocky bed of lower Whatcom Creek.

This hatchery program and subsequent harvest opportunity are co-managed by Lummi, Nooksack and the WDFW as a “terminal fishery” intended to provide treaty reserved fishing opportunities and food for wildlife. The returning fish are not needed to resupply the hatchery program, nor do the co-managers intend for the non-native fish to spawn in the waterway.

“We release these fish, they go to sea, they grow big and strong, and some feed the whales and some come back,” Wilson said. “The goal is to utilize hatchery programs to reestablish treaty reserved fishing opportunity lost from habitat degradation.”

And while still some of the chinook may die and decompose in the public eye, there are benefits to that outcome, too.

“Those dead fish are a valuable part of the ecosystem and important for a myriad of other species in the area,” Nelson said. “The return of salmon carcasses to Whatcom Creek is actually a step toward restoration of a water system that has been severely modified over the last several decades.”

Above: Lummi teen Olga Kapuni-Lopez Revey tests her luck with a fishing net on Whatcom Creek during a youth fishery in September. Photos and story: Kimberly Cauvel.