After four years of restoration efforts by the Kokanee Work Group, kokanee salmon have been spotted returning to spawn at Zackuse Creek following a nearly 40-year absence.
Zackuse Creek has historically been one of several streams used by kokanee as a spawning ground, but until recently, the area underneath East Lake Sammamish Parkway had been unpassable for fish, and much of the creek bank had been degraded.
In 2018, the Kokanee Work Group, a collaborative partnership between multiple levels of government, the Snoqualmie Tribe, nonprofits, the Issaquah Hatchery and others, began restoration work at the creek in hopes of restoring its natural salmon runs.
“This whole group came together not because they had to, but because they recognized there was a species in trouble and wanted to do something,” said David Kyle, a Lake Sammamish kokanee restoration project manager with nonprofit Trout Unlimited. “It’s really a great story of a community coming together.”
Kokanee are genetically unique freshwater sockeye that call Lake Sammamish home. Unlike most salmon, kokanee are landlocked and stay in Lake Sammamish instead of traveling out to the ocean. After two to four years, they return to the creek they were born in to spawn.
“I don’t know if words can really describe the joy and amazement,” said McKenna Sweet Dorman, the assistant director of governmental affairs and special projects with the Snoqualmie Tribe. “It’s just such a beautiful thing to see this kind of success story.”
Kokanee are historically significant to the Snoqualmie Tribe and helped them to stay on their ancestral lands.
About 50 years after the United States failed to uphold its end of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott — which would have guaranteed the Snoqualmie Tribe sovereignty, hunting rights and a reservation — the region was changing, as settlers and new industries began moving in. Members of the Snoqualmie Tribe were able to stay on their ancestral lands by adopting a colonized way of life and legally homesteading along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish and its creeks.
“Our traditional ways are traveling: to fish, to hunt, to gather, to see family,” Sweet Dorman said. “The idea was that if we gave up our traditional ways of life, we could own land and homestead.”
By the 1900s, there were seven homesteads, including along Zackuse Creek, with multiple Snoqualmie families living together. While living at the homesteads, kokanee provided a critical year-round food source.
“We’re very excited to see this return start,” Sweet Dorman said. “There is a long, unbroken connection the Tribe has to these places, the fish and the waters.”
Work to address a crisis
Kokanee have been in a crisis for the last several years. In 2018, an all-time low 19 fish returned to streams adjacent to Lake Sammamish to spawn. Returns have risen since then, reaching 82 fish in 2020, but they are still far away from the more than 18,000 fish that returned to spawn in 2013.
Restoration work along Zackuse Creek began with King County and the City of Sammamish placing a 12-foot wide culvert under East Lake Sammamish Parkway, which allowed the space to better emulate a natural stream bed.
After the culvert was inserted, the Tribe restored nearly 400 feet of the creek bank and planted about 5,000 native trees and shrubs. The goal of the replanting was to restore the natural forest, jump-start the ecological process and shade the creek, said Ryan Lewis, a restoration program manager with the Tribe.
“The fish like to be in shade and have protection from aerial predators, and they get that from overhanging trees and shrubs,” Lewis said. “The biggest thing is shading the water and keeping the water temperature down.”
Trout Unlimited and King County also implemented a remote stream incubator on the creek four years ago with the goal of rapidly recolonizing natural salmon runs.
Remote stream incubators are described as “mini hatcheries.” Kokanee eggs are first fertilized at a hatchery, then taken to the incubators, where they are placed in an egg box. The incubator collects water from the stream and kokanee fry are able to leave the incubator when they hatch. Incubators provide a higher survival rate than nature and often reduce the amount of handling efforts needed.
“In the last few years, the runs have been relatively poor,” said David Kyle, restoration project manager. “This year, it’s really exciting because we made changes to the hatchery program four years ago, and the fish we produced then are starting to come back.”
The Kokanee Work Group began diversifying its hatchery strategy after comparing the survival rate of natural fish to hatchery fish, realizing natural fish were significantly more likely to return each year.
As part of that diversification, Trout Unlimited, in partnership with the King County Lab, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), started one of the first cryopreservation salmon recovery efforts in the nation at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery.
A representative from the Georgia-based USFWS came to Washington to train WDFW workers in cryopreservation. The process involves collecting returning kokanee and retrieving milt, or sperm, from the males, adding a preservative to the sample and freezing the milt in liquid nitrogen.
The stored milt can be used in future years or seasons to inseminate females if there is a lack of natural genetic diversity. This process preserves genetics while reducing the risk of genetic bottleneck and in-breeding if the population of kokanee begins to dwindle.
So far, hundreds of kokanee have returned this year, making it one of the best runs in four to five years, but both Lewis and Kyle said it’s too early to determine if this is the beginning of a positive trend.
“There’s a lot of natural fluctuation from year to year, but this seems like a good year and we’re hoping this is the beginning of a trend,” Lewis said. “We’ll see over the years if this run can be self-sustaining. That’s the ultimate goal.”
It is also not yet known if the fish that are returning to spawn are due to the remote stream incubator, or if they are natural, non-hatchery fish. Officials won’t know if hatchery efforts are working until they recover fish carcasses and extract the ear bone, a marking used to identify hatchery fish.
“This could be an off year as you look at other salmon species in the area, like coho or chinook, their returns are higher than they have been in the past,” Kyle said. “But I’m hopeful this is a great trend starter.”