The student braces himself with a branch, as he slides his worn sneakers across the top of a logjam. Swamp Creek pools below him on one side, and on the other it skates, spinning and arching around gravel and debris caught up on the toppled tree.
The disturbance is perfect for Kokanee salmon, said Scott Miller, a biology major at the University of Washington’s Bothell Campus, while surveying the little creek. The jam slows the pace of the river, he says, and provides inlets for reprieve from the current.
This time of year and a century ago, the creek was painted with the “Little Red Fish,” which came from their home in north Lake Washington to spawn in numbers that still impress today’s biologists. Now, those same scientists contend whether or not the Lake Washington Kokanee have gone extinct.
“There’s a profound sense of loss,” said Jim Mattila, a fisheries scientist and a sort of community historian when it comes to North Lake Washington streams. “Society is missing what (the Kokanee) meant.”
While efforts to save Lake Sammamish Kokanee have gained significant ground in the past decade, the interest in Lake Washington has just hatched. The incubator of this effort is Dr. Jeff Jensen, a Harvard Ph.D. graduate in organismic and evolutionary biology and UW Bothell’s resident “fish guy.”
No one knows for sure what decimated the Kokanee population in the 1920s and again in the 1970s, said Jensen. It could be a mixture of anything from development, raw sewage spilling into the lake or the building of the Ballard Locks.
Jensen is optimistic that the Kokanee are still around, and he’s utilizing the students in his Salmon in Society course to find them.
“It’s kind of like chasing a unicorn,” he said, adding that they’re rare but there is evidence that the Kokanee have survived.
For decades the region has focused on restoring runs for large sea-going salmon such as Chinook and Steelhead, which are valuable for fishing. What it has missed is that historic records show that the Kokanee were once the dominant fish to run in Lake Washington creeks.
Their presence was so supreme, records dating back to the 19th century don’t mention the larger fish. Researchers can’t even confirm that Steelhead or Chinook ran in Lake Washington until after engineers rerouted the Cedar River into the lake to fuel the Ballard Locks in the 1910s.
This lack of evidence has given rise to a highly contended belief that Kokanee were also once the only salmon species to populate Lake Washington. If this is the case, when it comes to restoring the natural biology of the lake, government agencies should be focused on Kokanee.
This is at least Jensen’s thought, cautiously adding that Kokanee have still directly benefited from restoration projects aimed at the larger species.
Since returning to Washington in 2012, he’s grown fascinated with North Creek, which runs through UW’s Bothell campus and up to Everett, and its many inhabitants.
His salmon course puts students on the ground at hatcheries and restoration projects, where they meet professionals working on solutions, before going to do their own research. To Jensen, the loss of Kokanee is striking.
He split his class into four groups, each tasked with writing restoration plans for a different creek – Swamp, Little Bear, Lyon and McAleer – ones typically deemed too small to support meaningful populations of bigger salmon. He hopes the reports will someday be a useful tool.
Miller’s team visits Swamp Creek a couple times a week, occasionally talking to locals about Kokanee along the way. At the shore, the three students inspect gravel for silt, which can suffocate eggs, and note how the creek has changed after a heavy rain. They’re becoming familiar with its intricacies.
As often as Loew and his cohorts visit Swamp Creek, sightings of Kokanee are rare and contended. Their best chances of finding evidence is through people who live on the creek. Jensen launched a Kokanee reporting page and students designed community fliers. The ultimate trophy, however, is finding a Kokanee-looking fish, dead or alive.
Creek residents are not only important for finding evidence of Kokanee, but they play the largest part in making the streams healthy enough to support a strong run. The largest difference in the restoration of Kokanee and larger salmon is in the focus on smaller creeks, which cities have more often treated like storm drains than ecosystems.
“A lot of those streams have been written off,” said Jim Myers, a NOAA biologist and Bothell resident, adding that he’s glad Jensen is calling attention to the Little Red Fish. Myers follows the Kokanee, because of how closely they interact with Sockeye.
Runoff from impervious surfaces, such as rooftops and parking lots, rushes toward the creek, instead of soaking into the ground. After a storm, the additional rush of water stirs up gravel that the salmon eggs find shelter beneath, and pushes it down the creek like a “conveyer belt,” Mattila said.
While extra runoff is also an issue for larger salmon, one major storm can devastate Kokanee, who don’t bury their eggs as deep. Add a tight culvert, a large pipe that directs water under roads, and the pressure is like a fire hose. The Kokanee couldn’t even swim through. While replacing culverts with bridges is ideal, even larger culverts can open a run again, said David St. John, chair of the Kokanee Work Group, which is focused on restoring Lake Sammamish Kokanee.
The ultimate proof of what little red fish are running in the north Lake Washington streams will come when people start turning up samples.
For Jensen and his class, it could be an opportunity to help resurrect a species.
Said Jim Solberg, a UW Bothell biology major, “Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. There’s no reset button.”
To read about how an 1888 Kokanee sample is being used to unwrap mysteries of what has happened to the fish visit.
Spot a Kokanee?
Submit photos to Dr. Jeff Jensen through this site, https://lfpsf.org/salmon-sightings-reporting
For samples, dead or alive, put it in your freezer and email firstname.lastname@example.org
Celeste Gracey is a Kirkland resident, a former Sound Publishing reporter and currently a student at the University of Washington Bothell.