Every year, salmon make the treacherous journey from the Pacific Ocean, through streams and tributaries, to finally rest at their spawning areas in the hopes of creating the next generation of fish.
Chinook, Sockeye, Coho and Kokanee salmon are often found nestled in hidden waterways around King County. One group of volunteers, the North Lake Washington Salmon Watchers, is tracking the type and population of salmon in local tributaries such as creeks in Bothell, Kenmore and Woodinville.
The Salmon Watchers developed last year after the salmon program in King County lost funding in 2015, organizer Jeffrey Jensen said.
“I thought that was a shame because it was a nice program,” Jensen said. “I kept running into people who missed it.”
The former Salmon Watchers program ran from 1995 to 2015. Jensen said the group collected mounds of data, which is still available in the data archives of the county website.
Jensen started with a group of 32 interested community members, he said, and the number quickly expanded to over 50 people this year.
For Jensen, salmon watching is more than a hobby. With increasing water temperatures in both the ocean and rivers, more and more salmon are dying each year, he said.
The warm water conditions make it hard for young Sockeye salmon to get enough food, Jensen said. When the fish return to the Ballard Locks in Lake Washington, he said, they either die from the temperatures or become susceptive to other issues due to stress.
“It seems like there are a lot more fish that come into the locks, but few actually make it up into the streams,” he said.
Additionally, native salmon are threatened by predatory fish such as bass, walleye and yellow perch. Jensen said these fish are often introduced by humans. He added that another issue created by people is the way cities and homes design water runoff.
“Historically, the tendency has always been, let’s figure out how we can get the water out as quickly as possible from our yards and into the ocean,” he said.
Culverts and drains typically run directly into streams. Large rain events and floods happening in winter can wash out salmon eggs buried in local waterways, Jensen said.
He said resident can build a “rain garden” by creating a pond (or area where the rainwater can soak into the ground) to prevent the disruption of salmon. These gardens can also decrease the amount of toxins running off into the streams, he noted. Toxins, like pesticides, have been proven to have an ill effect on salmon.
“Finding ways to avoid pesticides, or use pesticides appropriately and responsibly, is also very helpful,” Jensen said.
While some factors impacting salmon are known to scientists, he said, others remain a mystery.
“It’s the big riddle,” Jensen said, referring to the declining salmon populations.
Salmon watching is well underway for the season, Jensen said. Each species spawns in the local area at different times. Chinook start in late August through early October.
He said several can be viewed currently in Cottage Creek. Sockeye began to show up after the last rainfall a couple of weeks ago and will be present through October at Little Bear Creek.
Kokanee come later in October and stay through December, Jensen said, while Coho can be seen in late November.
There is a native Kokanee population in Woodinville, which are considered a type of Sockeye salmon that does not come from the ocean, but rather freshwater. The population is fairly small and seems to be struggling in Lake Sammamish, an area the fish used to flourish in, Jensen said.
Many researchers and community members believed the native Kokanee went extinct. But in 2017, Jensen kept noticing a fish that resembled the exact fish.
In 2020, Jensen and the Salmon Watchers observed a large return of Kokanee-looking fish. The group collected a sample for genetic testing to confirm his beliefs. The testing came back and showed it was in fact the native species.
Now, Jensen said, he’s recorded that around 75% of the Kokanee spawn in the mouth of Little Bear Creek that runs through downtown Woodinville.
For those interested in joining the Salmon Watchers, the website includes salmon sightings, ways to get involved and historical information about native salmon in the area. The website can be found at jsjensenblog.wordpress.com/blog/north-lake-washington-salmon-sightings/.
“If people are never out there on the stream, it’s harder for them to really appreciate the ecosystems and take care of them,” Jensen said.
As a child, he said, many afternoons were spent splashing around streams with his fishing pole in nearby Woodinville and Bothell waterways. Jensen’s passion for biology and marine life only grew as he headed off to study at the University of Washington.
For graduate school, he left the Pacific Northwest for Harvard University. He then taught at the University of Maryland for about 12 years and eventually found his way back as a professor for University of Washington Bothell.
“Like a salmon, I made it back to my place of origin,” he said.
The Salmon Watchers partner with the Division of Biological Sciences at University of Washington Bothell, as well as the Three Rivers Chapter of Trout Unlimited.