Salmon are a crucial part of our ecosystem here in Whatcom County. New bridges, replanted trees, and informative signage along our creeks and streams are all evidence that the public is taking action to protect them. One aptly named group leading many such restoration projects is NSEA: Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, a community-based nonprofit.

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NSEA started in 1991 “in response to the federal listing of salmon under the Endangered Species Act,” says Advancement Manager Amy Johnson. Environmental issues such as habitat destruction, climate change, and overharvesting prompted the listing.

“Our founders were people in the fishing industry who noticed salmon were dwindling,” says Johnson. “Washington divided the state into fourteen watersheds, and then formed these Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups to be community-based on the ground in that watershed to educate people about salmon and recover salmon.”

The Nooksack Watershed encompasses Whatcom County’s rivers, creeks, and tributaries flowing through British Columbia, Skagit County, the North Cascades, and the Salish Sea. “NSEA strives to recover salmon through education, restoration, and stewardship,” Johnson says—improving conditions for Pacific salmon (chum, pink, coho, sockeye, chinook) and steelhead trout.

Community-Based Restoration Efforts

“Our partners are very important,” says Johnson. “We don’t own land ourselves, so we work wherever there needs to be work done.”

NSEA works with private landowners such as Bellingham Cold Storage on Bellingham’s waterfront and BP Cherry Point Refinery by Terrell Creek. Public partners include Whatcom Land Trust, Whatcom Conservation District, and the Public Works Department.

“If we know that projects are happening, we try and work with the private landowners in between,” says Johnson. “So when a project is done, a whole stream or a large portion or a mile of it has been opened up to habitat that has been blocked.”

Through various restoration programs, NSEA volunteers and stewards remove migratory barriers and transform landscapes.

“Ideally, we’ll take the culvert out and replace it with a bridge so the whole stream is then rerouted and planted with native plants and trees,” Johnson says. Plants from NSEA’s nurseries shade waters, limit erosion, and filter pollutants so salmon can thrive in cool, clean waters.

NSEA monitors habitats for three to five years after restoration. They have opened over 50 miles of upstream habitat and planted tens of thousands of trees.

NSEA Educates the Public

NSEA’s public outreach makes restoration projects possible. “Most people we polled knew who NSEA was and thought we were doing a great job and were enthusiastic about our work,” says Johnson.

NSEA’s Fourth Grade Students for Salmon program teaches children throughout Whatcom County school districts about Pacific Northwest ecology through the lens of a salmon. The program offers classroom lessons, a field trip where students explore science stations and restore habitat, and a classroom visit to review the students’ learning. “They make a pledge based on how they and their families can help salmon in the future,” Johnson says.

Interns from FLOW (Future Leaders of Whatcom Waters) run NSEA stewardship programs, sometimes in collaboration with NSEA’s AmeriCorps program. Through FLOW, college students and graduates gain valuable experience in the environmental field.

Nooksack River Stewards, NSEA’s collaboration with the United States Forest Service, educates Glacier visitors and residents on salmon and responsible recreation. “They do Riverwalk, campfire stories, and talks with the rafters that come down the Nooksack in whitewater rafting,” says Johnson.

You can keep up with NSEA’s restoration progress through their Fish Tales newspaper. Members get a yearly subscription, a native tree planted in their name, and other gifts in exchange for a donation.

Salmon are the Future

“The main goal is to always put ourselves out of a job,” says Johnson. “That salmon are restored and all our habitat is protected, shaded, with no invasive species for salmon and all wildlife, and we have huge salmon runs returning so our environment and our culture and our economy of the Pacific Northwest is preserved. That would be the dream.”

Environmental issues and a lack of public awareness remain significant obstacles to salmon restoration. “Not everybody knows that salmon are a keystone species and our forests would be less healthy without them,” says Johnson. NSEA relies on membership, donations, and volunteerism to enhance habitat and educate the public.

In addition to internships and AmeriCorps work parties, NSEA offers volunteer work parties in spring and fall. They provide tools, snacks from sponsors, and the opportunity to sign up for Fish Bytes: an e-newsletter that keeps volunteers up-to-date on new events.

“We’re going to keep working to restore habitat so salmon are a part of our future in Washington, specifically Whatcom County,” says Johnson. Protecting salmon means protecting every other species that relies on them, including our own. NSEA’s progress shows that every conservation effort has its own positive ripple effects.

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