By Celeste Gracey
Special to the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter
The student braces himself with a branch, as he slides his worn sneakers across the top of a log jam. 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 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 debate 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 University of Washington Bothell’s resident “fish guy.”
No one knows for sure what depleated the Kokanee population in the 1920s and again in the 1970s, Jensen said. 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 during the 1910s.
This lack of evidence has given rise to a 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 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.
“I always wanted to be in a place where I could learn a lot about the local biology,” he said.
In class, Jensen wears a loose, short-sleeved button down that conceals a comedic Darwin T-shirt. His brown leather shoes are better suited for walking river trails than polishing. He lectures with large expressions, occasionally slipping in humor so seamlessly he doesn’t give himself a chance to crack a smile.
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.
After leaving class with muddy, wet feet three weeks in a row, biology major Jim Solberg realized boots were never really optional, he said. “I like how he’s just throwing us out there.”
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.
“We don’t have time to look at all of these streams in a systematic way,” he said, which is where the students come into play.
Miller’s team visits Swamp Creek a couples 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.
An avid fisher, biology major Jake Loew looked out onto the little creek knowing it once ran red with Kokanee. Seeing no tenants, he shook his head and said, “It’s a shame,” before turning back to the woods.
As often as Loew and his cohorts visit Swamp Creek, sightings of Kokanee are rare. 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.
As a child, Mattila remembers walking along Swamp Creek in the summer and seeing fishing gear and other signs that children had been playing along the shore. When he returned as an adult, he realized his own footprints were the only evidence of people. The community’s lost connection with nature saddens him.
When asked if he believes the Kokanee still spawn in Bothell, he doesn’t hesitate. “I believe it, because I’ve seen it my whole life.”
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.
While most efforts to help larger salmon are beneficial to Kokanee, their restoration differs 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 local, 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.
Searching through history
Balancing an unassuming brown package atop a waterproof sack full of student homework, Jensen fumbles for the keys to his office. It’s obvious his ear-to-ear grin isn’t for the impending interview. Offering a pardon, he holds back questions while he slits the box and removes a few preserved salmon, wrapped in gauze, sealed in plastic and dated from the year 1888.
In the century that the Smithsonian has stored these Lake Washington Kokanee, they’ve lost the telling color that earned them the title “our little red fish,” but Jensen remains unfazed by their sickly color. Pushing aside his keyboard, he unwraps the gauze on his desk and picks up a fish with his bare hands. Alcohol, used in their preservation, drips to the floor. The Kokanee smell oddly sweet and not at all like fish.
“This is kind of unusual,” Jensen said of his museum find, adding that while many museums are changing their primary mission to education, their catalogs are still valuable to biologists.
If a Kokanee-looking salmon is found in a Lake Washington stream, the 130-year-old DNA sample could help distinguish whether they were related to the original Kokanee or to more recently introduced populations. He’s also taking CT scans to compare the anatomy to current populations. Little differences in gill rakers can speak to the fish’s history.
The samples also have the potential to shed light on the residual Sockeye theory.
Sockeye and Kokanee are similar enough that they can interbreed. Although Sockeye are much larger, occasionally they’re small enough to be confused for Kokanee. If that isn’t confusing enough, these little Sockeye don’t go to the sea either. They’re called residual Sockeye.
These residual Sockeye would explain why people have been seeing little red fish in streams where they’re believed to be extinct. That’s the predominant theory of the Kokanee Work Group, which is focused on saving the last remaining runs of known Kokanee in Lake Sammamish, said St. John. Jensen is also a member of the group, which prides its collaboration between the community and government agencies.
So far, all of the Kokanee look-alike samples found outside of Lake Sammamish don’t have the same genetic markers as the fish they know to be Kokanee, said St. John, the KWG chair. “We believe, right now, most or all of the Kokanee are in Lake Sammamish.”
The residual Sockeye theory still doesn’t sit well with Jensen, because the sightings are coming in December and January, long after Sockeye runs finish. However, there isn’t historical evidence for Lake Washington Kokanee running late either. That characteristic is reserved for the Sammamish Kokanee, and so conjecture takes another turn. What if they’re Lake Sammamish Kokanee?
The idea intrigues St. John. The two lakes are firmly tied together, he said. “They can leave whenever they want.”
Jensen plans to compare his 130-year-old fish to today’s Sammamish Kokanee. As intriguing as the differences could be, no difference would be the most astounding result. It would reduce hesitation to reseed the Lake Washington streams with Sammamish Kokanee.
Lake Washington’s creeks may also be essential for the long-term success of Sammamish Kokanee. The work group isn’t confident that Lake Sammamish has a big enough system to support a healthy population, said St. John.
While Lake Washington Kokanee may be lost forever, it’s possible that streams like Juanita Creek in Kirkland may someday play a role in preserving Kokanee, he said. “I think we collectively agree that Kokanee outside our watershed is a possibility, and it might be necessary.”
The ultimate proof of what little red fish are running in the North Lake Washington streams will come when people start turning up samples.
“Everyone can have their pet theories, and that’s fine. I always like to wait to see what the data is,” Myers said. “At this point, anything is possible… Hopefully this year or next we may actually get some evidence, so we can test all of those different theories.”
Hopefully, Jensen’s students find that there are indeed some Kokanee left, he said. “It is a sort of interesting time. A lot of these species can get knocked down very far, but some are really resilient.”
For Jensen and his class, it could be an opportunity to help resurrect a species.
Said Solberg, a student, “Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. There’s no reset button.”
Celeste Gracey is a former Sound Publishing reporter and currently a student at the University of Washington Bothell.
Spot a Kokanee?
Submit reporters to Dr. Jeff Jensen through this site, https://lfpsf.org/salmon-sightings-reporting