50,000 chum and counting
“This is the day we’ve been waiting for!” exclaimed Rachel Vasak, program director for the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA, pronounced “EN-see”), as she led about a dozen volunteers and four staff people out to plant 50,000 chum salmon eggs in Terrell Creek last Thursday.
The release marked the culmination of over four years’ efforts by Vasak and the Birch Bay-based CHUMS of Terrell Creek group that NSEA has trained to care for the nine mile long stream and its habitat that runs from Lake Terrell down through Birch Bay State Park and into Birch Bay. The work will continue, but the purpose has finally begun to be realized. Vasak said that there will hopefully be annual releases for a while until stocks build up sufficiently.
“We began in 2000 with a smolt trap to see if we had any salmon at all in the creek,” Vasak said, “and also identified gaps in the habitat that needed work.” The main problems were obstructed culverts under Blaine and Grandview roads, and a section choked with invasive reed canary grass near the Birch Bay Bible Community Church, located in the 7000 block of Jackson Road.
A congregation of the Mennonite Brethren, the church has supported the restoration effort by providing space for NSEA classes and by allowing volunteers to park in their parking lot. On several days that have been devoted to planting native vegetation along the creek to provide shade, there have at times been well over 100 volunteers slogging through the mud.
With the help of the BP Cherry Point refinery, owner of much of the land that Terrell Creek crosses, the section of the creek that had reed canary grass in it was stocked with old logs and other current-diverting obstacles to provide better growing habitat for the young fish. They can be seen by looking west while crossing the Jackson Road bridge by the church, and look something like what you’d see if the Jolly Green Giant had dropped his pick-up sticks.
“With the improvements we’ve managed so far we felt confident putting the fish in, and when they return it will be even better,” Vasak said. The culverts will receive attention in the next few years; Blaine Road is on a list of state highway projects for 2007, and funding is being sought for work on the culvert under Grandview Road.
The eggs came from Bellingham’s Maritime Heritage Park, where they were harvested and then fertilized last November. “We chose chum salmon,” Vasak said, “because that’s what we’ve had here in the past, and they move out to sea fairly fast.”
The CHUMS volunteers and NSEA staff, about 20 people in all, car-pooled to the creek’s remotely sited incubator (RSI), essentially a plastic canister about the size of a garbage can that holds the eggs on trays and that circulates fresh stream water up through the eggs from the bottom and out an overflow pipe near the top of one side. To avoid interference with the project from curious onlookers the specific location is not revealed, and CHUM volunteers check it several times each day.
The eggs were brought in by Steve Seymour of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) in 10-gallon buckets that were placed by the side of the creek. When opened the eggs were given a 10 minute iodine bath to kill bacteria that otherwise might hitchhike to the creek from the hatchery. Then the lid on the top of the RSI was lifted off and NSEA staff Nate Rice gently poured the eggs into the waiting tray. They’re technically known as “eyed eggs” because each has a conspicuously visible eye, like a little black dot.
“They’ll hatch in three to four weeks,” Vasak said, “and flow out the overflow tube into the creek. They’ll stay in the stream only for a short time, taking about a month to make the transition into salt water, and then they’ll be out in the ocean for three to five years.”
By contrast, she said, the popular sport salmon species known as Coho (or silver) will stay in its native stream for well over a year before leaving. “For both, though, these nice eel grass beds are really important,” Vasak said.
Three to five years from now, after an extended North Pacific Ocean sojourn, the mature eight to 15-pound fish will return in November to Birch Bay and head up Terrell Creek to spawn. Traditionally the last of the salmon species to enter fresh water, chum are sometimes called “dog” salmon, one reason being that they’re known to bite the legs of fishermen wading near the mouths of rivers as they aggressively charge upstream to spawn.
“We’ll see them spread out over several miles of the creek for that,” said Vasak, “because although they do return to their birth stream they don’t necessarily come all the way back to the same spot.” The initial release was roughly the equivalent production that one would have with somewhere between one and two dozen mating pairs of fish.