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Those downtown Bellingham salmon are supposed to die

Return of Whatcom Creek chinook should be celebrated, not lamented

By Ron Judd Executive Editor

WHATCOM CREEK — Yes, the salmon are dying. No, it’s not tragic. And sorry, for once, no one is to “blame.”

It’s their destiny.

Longtime locals might stop reading about one of America’s rare urban fish-spawning spectacles right here; that’s OK. Folks who’ve grown up around the fishing industry, particularly spawning fish, know the drill about hatcheries and “terminal fisheries.” 

But newbies can be given a one-time pass for getting anxious and even angry over seeing schools of chinook salmon dying in shallow pools below the lower falls of Whatcom Creek, in downtown Bellingham’s Maritime Heritage Park

Some of them, in fact, were outwardly ticked off, demanding to know who was responsible. 

This year, as evidenced in CDN’s own reader tiplines and on (anti) social media: Lather, rinse, repeat. There’s widespread misunderstanding of what’s been going on at the mouth of Whatcom Creek, where the arrival of spawning-stage salmon should be a welcome sign of fall. 

This is a very cool thing. For city folks and school kids, Whatcom Creek’s longtime hatchery run of fall chum salmon, and now September chinook, is a rare brush with the magic of nature. It’s also an open door into public education. 

Let’s step through that for a second.

Public angst over the great Whatcom Creek Salmon Massacre seems to be based on dual misperceptions:

One: There’s not enough water being released from Lake Whatcom to allow fish to negotiate the falls and swim up to their intended destiny as spawners, producing the next gen of chinook before dying.

Two: The unnatural obstacle leaves the poor fish as veritable sitting ducks for netters, anglers, seals and other predators who show up by the thousands for an easy meal. 

All true. Now the “buts:”

Death is their destiny

The current chinook run, now reaching its tail end, is composed entirely of fish released at the nearby Perry Center, Bellingham Technical College’s hatchery facility near the creek mouth. The hatchery, with a four-decade-long history of producing fall chum salmon, began releasing about a half million baby chinook at the behest of state officials in a program launched in 2018. It’s co-managed by BTC, the Lummi and Nooksack tribes, and the state.

That run is now building in numbers, inching toward its primary intended purpose: food for struggling Southern Resident orcas, an endangered and much-beloved species swimming in the Salish Sea.

The fish, hatched from surplus chinook eggs provided by a Samish River hatchery in Skagit County, are incubated, reared and released by BTC students, who also clip their adipose fins for identification as hatchery fish in various “selective” fisheries. They are released into Whatcom Creek for a Pacific Ocean journey thousands of miles long. 

Like other hatchery fish, more than 95% typically perish along the two-to-five-year trek, many as juveniles. No one knows how many of those wind up in the belly of Southern Resident orcas, but a half million more fish potentially swimming in the Salish Sea certainly can’t hurt. (Note that not everyone agrees that pumping more hatchery fish into struggling oceans is a good thing for wild fish on the brink of extinction).

Survivors make their way back to their “birthplace” and do what comes naturally to them — attempt to spawn. All on unusually public display.

Upstream passage never intended

Spectators, please note: While a handful sometimes make it, these fish were never intended to leap Whatcom Falls and ascend to spawning gravel behind the local Toyota/Mercedes dealership. They were intended to perish.

 “Salmon coming back and dying is actually a natural thing,” says Sara Smith, an instructor in BTC’s Fisheries & Aquaculture Sciences program. “It’s a good thing. These chinook are all meant to be eaten, either by orcas or by people.”

Small numbers of chinook, either wild or hatchery stock, do negotiate the falls when streamflows are sufficient and enter spawning grounds upstream, where restoration work has been completed for that eventuality. But even if broader fish passage could be provided over the falls, the last thing fisheries managers here and elsewhere want to see, given new concerns about species intermingling, is hatchery stock mixing en masse with another endangered local species — especially wild chinook, which are endangered.

That’s one of the reasons Whatcom Creek was chosen for the chinook supplements, said Smith: The creek’s lower falls are a natural barrier ensuring that the bulk of the run ends here. The timing of the run’s return, when stream flows typically are low, helps with that outcome. 

Hence the name, “terminal fishery.”

Unlike the soon-to-arrive chums, the chinook are not collected to be stripped of eggs for further fish production, in a continuous cycle managed by BTC students. These chinook don’t enter the hatchery at all. They’re left to be “harvested,” as the saying goes, by local tribes and sport anglers. 

The ‘harvest’ is ugly, but essential

Which gets us to the second misperception.

People see a tribal net strung across the mouth of the creek and cry foul — no fish can get through it! They see long lines of anglers — many, let’s face it, fishing illegally by snagging fish — and cry foul again.

That’s a valid complaint, but the annual chinook snag-a-thon (concluded last Sunday) is not likely to draw enforcement action from thinly spread wildlife agents. The fish are going to die either way. They are “surplus” (something that could and should be better explained by interpretive signage provided by the city, the hatchery and the tribes.) 

Most of those caught or netted here are put to good use. Some young tribal fishers are getting first chances to harvest chinook fresh from the saltwater. Sport anglers take the fish, prized for their oily flesh, home for dinner. Many or most of the chinook netted, in better condition, from the bay itself are sold or given to food banks and other organizations by tribal fishermen. 

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, we watched tribal fishers net some of the run’s late-arriving stragglers near the hatchery, bringing them ashore and giving them away to local passersby. Fish for the masses. 

Beyond the food source, the chinook provide valuable, hands-on experience for students at BTC, where the hatchery program has grown into a mainstay of local vocational education. With a 97% job placement rate, it puts Bellingham-trained students into a broad range of hatchery, fisheries and other aquaculture jobs. 

Green jobs, for the most part. The direction we’re supposed to be headed. BTC’s program should be considered a local educational treasure.

Mark your calendars for next year’s chinook. Take some time around Thanksgiving to go down and say hey to this year’s chums. Don’t shed tears or cry foul. Offer the fish a prayer of respect and do something we all could do more often: leave not angry, but grateful. 

Ron Judd’s column appears on Fridays;; @roncjudd. 

This column was updated at 3:29 p.m. on Oct. 10, 2023, to clarify that small numbers of chinook salmon sometimes navigate the lower falls on Whatcom Creek.

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