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Salmon count reveals one long swim

(L-R) Volunteers Kip Bankart and Wayne Daley, a biologist, measure stream channel dimensions of Fletcher Creek during a recent salmon monitoring. - Courtesy of City of Bainbridge Island
(L-R) Volunteers Kip Bankart and Wayne Daley, a biologist, measure stream channel dimensions of Fletcher Creek during a recent salmon monitoring.
— image credit: Courtesy of City of Bainbridge Island

Data collected in island streams will help efforts to preserve salmon habitats.

In some ways, the number of salmon counted in Bainbridge Island streams was less important than the act of counting them.

Volunteer Dick Engle knew that salmon go through a lot to propagate. In their third year, they swim back up the stream in which they were born to lay eggs that in turn must hatch, mature, go out to sea, survive predators and return.

“Academically, I’d realized it,” Engle said, “but now I see it. I can more easily piece those (facts) together through walking the stream on a regular basis.”

Bainbridge Island contributes its bit of data to the larger salmon picture this year, the first organized monitoring of salmon streams and an effort likely to be repeated each year.

But perhaps the project’s greatest contribution has been awareness of the struggles of salmon and the importance of preserving good habitat.

“I’m excited that it’s been done,” said Debbie Rudnick, coordinator for the Bainbridge Island Watershed Council’s recently completed monitoring of salmon in island streams. “What we’ve never done is a comprehensive long-term look.”

The other bonus in Rudnick’s view is the project raising awareness and educating residents. She is encouraged by the positive volunteer feedback that this largely volunteer effort will be able to be repeated each year.

The event was organized by the Bainbridge Island Watershed Council and with cooperation from the city, the Suquamish Tribe and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Fifteen trained volunteers walked their assigned stream for 1 mile up from the saltwater shore, checking habitat condition.

Pairs of volunteers returned to each stream for one or two hours every week looking for fish and “redds” – salmon nests in gravel – over an eight-week period from the end of November through the middle of January.

Although fish were only seen in Fletcher/Springridge (six alive, seven dead) and Manzanita (one alive, one dead), all four creeks surveyed – including Cooper Creek and Schel-Chelb Creek – showed signs of salmon.

“There really are salmon in the streams,” volunteer Bill O’Neill said. “They’re a lot closer to home than I’d thought.”

Jon Oleyar, a fisheries biologist with the Suquamish Tribe who has surveyed and sampled fish in Kitsap for eight years, says that compared to what penguins go through to reproduce – the subject of last summer’s popular “March of the Penguins” documentary – salmon have it tougher.

“It’s pretty close to what the penguins go through. The biggest difference is at least the penguins have someone to care for them at the egg stage,” Oleyar said. “(The salmon parent’s) whole job is to get back and spawn and then (the eggs) are on their own.”

All upstream

Sometimes ocean conditions or weather will keep a salmon from returning to spawn, Oleyar said, or predators may eat it before it can return.

Returning salmon may find the water too low to get upstream or be blocked by a narrow culvert.

Some fish may return to find that the stream’s forest cover has been cleared since they first swam out to sea, leaving the stream muddy, warm and unsuitable for salmon.

“It’s a pretty tough life for salmon,” Oleyar said. “I think we have to do more if we want salmon to survive. Even 100-foot buffers (around streams) are not even close to being enough.”

Bainbridge streams also tend to be “flashy,” Oleyar said. That is, the water level in streams varies greatly with storms.

A fish may coast into a flashy stream with high waters, but then be left stranded when the water levels drop drastically.

Eggs planted at the side of a channel may be left high and dry as the flow recedes.

Manzanita was one of the “flashier” streams found during recent monitoring. Its water flow increased from about three cubic feet per second on Nov. 29, to an observed peak of about 13 cubic feet per second on Jan. 3 after weeks of rainfall.

When storm waters rush quickly through a stream bed, “you get the equivalent of a fire hose chewing down these streams, and anything that was there is gone,” Oleyar said.

Late winter storms are especially damaging as they come just before eggs begin hatching, he said.

“The fact that any of them come back four to five years later is amazing,” said Oleyar, although he adds that seeing salmon in a stream doesn’t necessarily mean they were successful in spawning eggs that will survive.

Within Oleyar’s territory, which includes Kitsap County, he found that “we got a lower return for every species” this year.

He and Wayne Daley, a Bainbridge fisheries biologist who has monitored island streams on his own for years, expect the number of salmon on Bainbridge to decrease.

More than half of salmon in island streams are descendants of fish that escaped from net pens that ceased operation in 2002, or from the 10,000 released over two years as part of a Boy Scout project in 1985-86.

“There’s not a whole lot of habitat on the island. There are a lot of barriers, not a lot of spawning gravel. It’s an urbanized area,” Oleyar said.

And although the island’s streams are small and not likely to yield a lot of fish, “any fish that returns to the spawning grounds has a positive impact.”

The island stream data must also be considered in a regional context, city planner Peter Namtvedt Best said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to say it was a good or bad year for salmon based on our data,” he said. “One year is always just a snapshot, (but) doing it this year and continuing is going to help us paint the picture of salmon on this island.”

The monitoring efforts are similar to standing at the end of your driveway one hour a week and counting how many cars go by, Best said. Seeing none, you could conclude there is no traffic on the island, but perhaps it wasn’t rush hour or an accident up the road has cut off traffic.

The Bainbridge salmon data will gain more significance as part of a statewide database kept by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Daley sees the start of organized and consistent salmon monitoring as a very positive thing, less for the number of fish found than that the city “has finally stepped up and started participating actively.”

Best says volunteers took home a realization that “seeing a live fish in small streams is an infrequent occurrence. There are sensitive conditions (that need to be maintained) to have fish make it up.

“For these to remain viable salmon streams, we need to do the right things so they can come back year after year.”

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Fishwatch

Those interested in joining future salmon monitoring efforts in island streams may contact Debbie Rudnick at 855-4634.

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