A 50-minute film called “Spawning Grounds,” which documents the effort to save a freshwater variety of kokanee salmon from Lake Sammamish, is finally ready for its debut in North Bend on Jan. 18. (Screenshot from film)

A 50-minute film called “Spawning Grounds,” which documents the effort to save a freshwater variety of kokanee salmon from Lake Sammamish, is finally ready for its debut in North Bend on Jan. 18. (Screenshot from film)

Spawning Grounds: Lake Sammamish kokanee documentary premieres Jan. 18

The film tracks the ‘all hands on deck’ effort to save the little red fish from extinction.

It was 10 p.m. when filmmaker Nils Cowan got the telephone call.

The next morning, there would be an egg release for the embattled kokanee salmon near Issaquah. For the past couple of years, Cowan had been working on a film about the little red fish. They’re a freshwater variety of salmon that live in Lake Sammamish and surrounding bodies of water. So the next morning he scrounged up a camera and made the trek from his Seattle home to a private slice of stream for the release in early January 2019.

“It was a foggy day that sort of — the sun came glinting through — there was tribal membership, the mayor of Sammamish, basically everyone who was in the film showed up,” Cowan said.

Those gathered began releasing kokanee eggs by hand into incubator boxes that protected the eggs from predators. A prayer circle formed, and one of the men whom Cowan said was from the Yakama Nation began singing a warrior song, followed by a few minutes of silence.

“These last kind of fragile eggs — basically the future of the population — and this blessing that just happened, and I kind of just felt because of this human commitment, these fish are probably going to be able to bounce back,” Cowan said. “There’s just this moment of intense calm and blessing, and just a really powerful quiet moment.”

Those kokanee salmon need all the help they can get. The number of the fish that have returned to spawn in recent years has dwindled from the thousands to just 19 in 2018. Last year, only about 100 came back, well below a healthy and sustainable level.

The low numbers have prompted a sweeping response from local and state agencies, conservation groups and area tribes. And for the past three years, Cowan has been working on a documentary tracing those efforts. Now, the 50-minute film called “Spawning Grounds” is finally ready for its debut Jan. 18 in North Bend.

Cowan said he became interested in making the film because it told the stories of the fish and the indigenous peoples for whom the fish has been an integral part of their culture since time immemorial. That relationship is featured heavily in the film.

“Unfortunately, myself included, [there’s] just not a lot of time on people’s schedules to learn about that culture and the true history of this region,” he said.

A representative of the Snoqualmie Tribe declined to comment for this story because of the recent deaths of two elders. However, tribal leaders told KUOW in 2018 that the Snoqualmie used to trap kokanee and had relied on them as a staple food. The fish worked well stored and dried, and they kept over the winter.

When Cowan started making the documentary, the returning Lake Sammamish kokanee numbered in the thousands, but halfway through they began dwindling. Researchers have hypothesized that high temperatures in the lake during the summers of 2014 through 2016 had driven the fish deeper underwater. But at greater depths, there’s less oxygen, so many kokanee are thought to have suffocated.

“Everyone redoubled their efforts. It was just this amazing all hands on deck scenario that was really inspirational to cover,” Cowan said.

David St. John, a policy advisor with the King County Department of Parks and Natural Resources, is one of those people. He was involved with efforts last year to fly kokanee to Orcas Island, where 250 of them will be raised in captivity. It’s an extreme measure, but one that could preserve the fish’s lineage.

St. John said he’s excited to see the final version of the film.

“We knew he was a good storyteller, and his work proves that he did a great job of getting to know the people and the subject matter, and telling what I think is a pretty nuanced and accurate story from his own perspective,” St. John said.

Trout Unlimited is another organization that has been involved with kokanee restoration since 2005, said Mark Taylor with the Washington chapter. Taylor is a lifelong resident of the area, and can remember driving around Lake Sammamish when it wasn’t surrounded by “$7 billion mansions.”

“I’m seeing places and the fish that I’ve enjoyed my whole life disappear, and it’s really accelerated in the last 10 years,” Taylor said. “Things are never going to go back to the way they were, but we can stop the bleeding, and kind of get things stable so we can reconcile what we’ve done to the environment.”

Taylor said one of the takeaways from the restoration projects is cooperation. Tribes, local and federal governments and volunteer groups all came together to try and save the little red fish. He hopes the film will inspire more people to get involved.

For Cowan, the ultimate goal for the film is similar, and he hopes it will find its way into classrooms and on PBS. After it premieres, he’ll start shopping it around to film festivals.

“It’s definitely a story that’s close to my heart now,” he said.

The film will debut at 6 p.m. Jan. 18 at the North Bend Theater, 125 Bendigo Blvd. N., and includes a panel discussion afterward. A similar event will be held at the University of Washington’s Intellectual House beginning at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 8.


In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing editor@bothell-reporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.bothell-reporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

More in News

Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Health
Inslee sets June 30 target for Washington to fully reopen

Meanwhile, fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks in most places, the federal CDC said.

Matt Marshall, leader of the Washington Three Percenters gun rights group, addresses a crowd rallying for Second Amendment rights Jan. 17, 2020, at the state Capitol in Olympia. File photo
Open-carry of weapons now illegal at state Capitol, rallies

A new law bars people from carrying guns within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration.

(Pixabay.com)
As rates of stoned drivers increase, law enforcement face challenges

WSP trooper said a THC breathalyzer would be a “game changer” for law enforcement and courts.

E. coli. Photo courtesy of the Food and Drug Administration
Seven King County children sickened with E. coli

Seven children in King County have been infected with E. coli, a… Continue reading

Sound Publishing file photo
Remi Frederick, a Village Green employee, receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Jan. 26 in Federal Way.
County health officer looks to community immunity instead of herd immunity

Herd immunity may be unlikely to reach King County anytime soon, but… Continue reading

Governor Jay Inslee. Sound Publishing file photo
New laws will tax the rich, offer aid to low-income workers

Inslee signs bill creating capital gains tax; foes are challenging it in court as unconstitutional.

Washington state case count since March 2020. WA Governor's Office
Pandemic pause: King County remains in Phase 3

No Washington state counties will be rolling back their phase under the… Continue reading

Courtesy of Washington Military Department
Washington gets mobile earthquake alerts

Washington state will have its own earthquake early warning system on May… Continue reading

Photo courtesy of Northshore Fire Department Facebook
Sunday evening vehicle collision on Bothell Way proves fatal

Passenger in wreck was brought to the hostpital with serious injuries.

Most Read