Global team works to revive salmon run

Deborah Rudnick, ecologist at the Bainbridge Island Watershed Council, shows off one of the salmon being cared for in Cooper Creek. - Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo
Deborah Rudnick, ecologist at the Bainbridge Island Watershed Council, shows off one of the salmon being cared for in Cooper Creek.
— image credit: Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo

Caring for hundreds of tiny salmon flapping in a 20-foot trough in Cooper Creek has required hands from around the world.

Though the fish will never know it, their existence brought a group of students from around the world into the mud and thick green of the island forest to learn about volunteerism in the United States.

As part of their own exploration of American culture and semester of service, the students worked alongside the volunteers who have spent years trying to bring a healthy salmon run back to Bainbridge Island waters.

Work at Cooper Creek has been an on-going endeavor since 2001, when the city removed the in-ground concrete that was used when the creek was the potable water source for the city of Winslow.

The Bainbridge Island Watershed Council, a nonprofit organization under the auspices of Sustainable Bainbridge, has been working on the city’s property at Cooper Creek to try and revive the historically strong run that went ended more than 50 years ago with island development.

Now in the third year of a four-year project, the Suquamish Tribe has provided between 13,000 and 15,000 chum salmon fry every year from its Cowling Creek Hatchery, along with food and expertise to care for them.

Deborah Rudnick, an ecologist with the Watershed Council, has been enlisting community volunteers annually to help care for and feed the fish, which require food three times a day, seven days a week. Rudnick said there is always a core group of volunteers who show up year after year, but new faces crop up to take on the experience.

Linda Sohlberg became a volunteer with AFS Intercultural Programs, an international student exchange funded through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, after her son spent a year in Argentina through the program.

Over the last several years, she has brought many students to the Puget Sound area, including the three students who are living with island families this year for their year-long scholarship experience.

All of the students were selected as scholarship recipients either through: the Youth Exchange and Study (YES), which was started after 9/11 to build relationships between the U.S. and countries with significant Muslim populations; or Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), which focuses on students from the former Soviet Union.

Working with Rudnick, Sohlberg saw Cooper Creek as a prime example to demonstrate how a small group of local volunteers can make a real impact.

“I would never have thought this many adults would spend so much time caring for those little fish,” said Chintu Nandini, a YES student from India who is studying at Bainbridge High School. “In my mind, they are just fish. But I think it’s nice to be able to do this and know that you are helping nature in a way that it can’t help itself. And it is fun to go outdoors here, even though it rains too much.”

Nandini is one of seven teens, from countries such as Tajikistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Moldova, who worked on the creek this year. Last year, two AFS students from Indonesia helped in May to release the fish and disassemble the tank and piping of the temporary habitat.

This year the group helped reassemble the tank and piping in preparation for arrival of the first batch of salmon. The fish are about an inch or two long when placed in the tank and are fed by volunteers until they double in size over the course of six weeks. They are released from the fresh water to begin the incredible physiological adjustment to  saltwater, and migrate to the ocean, before returning to their birth place to spawn and die after four years.

The survival rate is dismal, with just 1 percent of 10,000 fish expected to make it back to the stream after their four-year life cycle.

Last week the volunteers released their first batch of 3,600 fish and plan to release a couple more batches until between 12,000 to 15,000 are released.

Rebuilding salmon population on the island has been an on going effort for years, and faces a number of challenges. Island streams are difficult to manage because water levels vary drastically, and the loss of forest cover has left some streams too muddy or warm for salmon to thrive.

“So far things are going well,” said Rudnick. “The fish look healthy and feeding is going great. We could never do any of this without the 30-plus people who are coming down three times a day seven days days a week to help,” said Rudnick.

Though it’s possible some of the more precocious males may return to the creek in the fall of 2012, the real testament of success will come in the fall of 2013, when the first batch of fish will be returning to spawn and die.

Nandini, and Oleh Savchuk, from the Ukraine, returned to the stream last week to help volunteers release the fish and learn more about the incredible journey they embark on once they leave the safety of the trough.

Nandini already has an impressive list of experiences on the island, including the lead role of the spring play, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” When he returns to India he wants to study science and computer engineering, and one day inspires to create a website better then Facebook and Craigslist.

“Life here on Bainbridge is much different then what my life was like at home, but I want to improve peoples’ lives in India. I know that I will go back and take what I learned here and make lives better at home,” said Nandini.

Through the program, the kids learn about the U.S. form of government, volunteerism, U.S. and Native American culture. A key initiative is that the students return home and share what they have learned to make a difference in their own country.

“I feel strongly that better global awareness and understanding is essential to any hope of peace and tolerance,” said Sohlberg. “I realized that I could perhaps make a difference by helping bring these fantastic kids from all over the world to Bainbridge Island.”

Sohlberg said she hopes to have cycles of kids waiting to see “their baby fish” grown into big salmon having successfully returned to Cooper Creek.

The AFS Intercultural Programs is looking for more families interested in hosting international students. For more information visit the website, or contact Linda Sohlberg at



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