Imagine the life of a local salmon emerging from the protected shield of its egg into the fast-moving currents of the gorgeous, green Nooksack River. You evade predators, like adult fish, and your body is so small that you filter through wood and debris in the river for a year. Then you drift all the way down to Bellingham Bay. There, your gills adapt to saltwater and you remain in the ocean for several years.

In the ocean, you learn to evade seals, sea lions, and orcas and acquire a special deep sea isotope of nitrogen in your body before reaching sexual maturity and swimming back into the Nooksack River.

After making the grueling journey up river you build a redd (nest) and lay your eggs or release your sperm. Then you guard the future as you deteriorate and die. That special deep sea isotope of nitrogen is then released from your body, enriching the river and the surrounding old growth forests via scavengers and decomposition. This is the unique life cycle of anadromous fish, or fish who adapt from freshwater to saltwater.

Thought You Missed The Salmon Run This Year?

Not necessarily. There is a spring run for Chinook salmon in Whatcom County’s very own Nooksack River. Chris Johnson, Nooksack River Steward of the Native Fish Society, dishes the deets on these fascinating salmonids.

When salmon decay, they release Nitrogen 15, which helps make our old growth forests so rich. Photo credit: Wendy McDermott

“Spring Chinook come in to rivers as early as March,” Chris says. “There’s also fall Chinook that come in late summer or fall. Same species.”

This variation in spawning season within one fish species is considered a “race.” When Chinook travel to various spawning grounds across significantly different distances and encounter obstacles like dams within one watershed, different behavioral patterns may evolve. Such as spawning at different times of year.

Did you know that spring Chinook eggs need to develop eyes before winter temperatures dip below 39 degrees Fahrenheit? In upper portions of the watershed especially, like around Mount Baker, this matters. The combination of different spatial and temporal ranges creates two genetically distinct populations amongst the Chinook. Specifically on the Nooksack River, the spring Chinook are strictly native and their genetics are quite different from the fall Chinook, which are hatchery fish. The Nooksack’s fall Chinook came from the Green River of Central Sound, which is not at all the genetic profile of Nooksack Springs.

Hatcheries, The Indoor Cats Of The Fish World

You know how Felix the housecat has only ever known the love and warmth of your home and understands nothing of the dangers outside? That’s what hatchery fish are like. Unprepared for the wild.

Salmon are not quite the fish out of water that you might think. Photo credit: Roger Tabor, United States Fish and Wildlife Service

According to Chris, “Hatcheries capture adult fish, put them in a pond (males and females), fertilize eggs, put them in incubators, rear them to one year old or a certain size, and release them into the river.” He goes on to explain, “The problem with hatcheries is you’re taking a wild fish or fish from another drainage and then there’s no natural selection and you release them all at the same time and you get a big cloud of smolt (teenage salmon) released into the bay. Then predators have a big meal. Naturally eggs would hatch at different times and it would be more spread out.”

Oh Dam!

There is one small diversion dam on the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River to divert water to an aqueduct that feeds into Mirror Lake, which in turn feeds Lake Whatcom. The dam was built for a pulp mill that used to pump 50 million gallons of water through the mill every day. It was down to 25 million gallons of water a day when it closed roughly 15 years ago. The Salmon Recovery Funding Board is working to remove this dam and open up 16 miles of spawning habitat for salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. American Rivers is campaigning to list the Nooksack as a Wild and Scenic River, which would help protect it from future dams. The salmon that used to be prolific on the Columbia River are now endangered due to all of its dams.

Salmon are an integral part of the food web. Photo credit: Jerry McFarland

“Dams block the passage of fish. Fry (baby fish) must swim above them in the reservoir and expend exorbitant amounts of energy,” explains Chris. “In a stream, they could just go with the current. Fry also have to go through the spillway of a dam, which is stressful on their bodies. Salmon need clean, cold water. Anything above 65 degrees Fahrenheit is lethal.”

Concrete dams do not keep the river clean or cold.

But What About Beaver Dams?

Beavers are quite integral to natural ecosystems, as they create complex habitats. Since their dams are not made of concrete, many organisms – including fry – thrive in their structures. Beaver dams filter water keeping it clean, they encourage vegetation growth, vegetation keeps the water temperature cool, and all this creates an ideal salmon habitat. Beaver dams even conserve water because they slow down the current without stopping it like a concrete dam does. This recharges the aquifer and gives us all more water.

Where Can I See Chinook Salmon This Spring?

Chinook, King, or Tyee salmon are the largest salmon species. Around here you’ll see them get up to 12 pounds, but they’ve been known to weigh as much as 130 pounds! Females are smaller and have more blunt features while the males are more pointed and may develop a kype (hooked) nose. 

Anywhere along the North Fork can be a good place to spot spring Chinook. You can also try the Saxon Ridge area on the South Fork near Skookum Creek Hatchery and Hamilton in Skagit County. The most reliable time to see the spring Chinook though, is actually June through August. During the summer, visit Horseshoe Bend or Douglas Fir Campground and hike up the canyon. If you’re lucky you may even see these regal salmonids perform a peculiar behavior called rolling. Scientists aren’t sure why they do it. See if you can find out for yourself!

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