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Remaining King County kokanee may face extinction - Sound News

Remaining King County kokanee may face extinction

By Sound News reporter Jeanne Fulcher

When the first run of kokanee salmon was declared “functionally extinct” in 2003, King County officials had some guesses as to what was going on, but no solid answers. And without answers, they weren’t sure they could help the two remaining kokanee runs.

King County and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s best guess for the extinction was loss of habitat, mostly on Lake Sammamish and Issaquah Creek. Kokanee – small, reddish-gray, freshwater salmon – use smaller streams than most salmon, making the health of those streams crucial for their survival.

Kokanee spawning. Photo courtesy of flickr user Utah~Dave AA7IZ

Kokanee spawning. Photo courtesy of flickr user Utah~Dave AA7IZ

Fish and Wildlife first noticed a decline in the kokanee as early as the 1980s.
However, the monitoring programs at the time weren’t advanced enough to provide evidence of this small decline. Even though a local biologist was certain there was a problem, nothing could be done until there was more evidence.

By the mid 1990s, there was a clear problem with the kokanee. However, Fish and Wildlife still wasn’t certain what was causing the decline. The agency regulated what it could to help the kokanee, according to Jim Uehara of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fishing the kokanee was no longer allowed, and they were vigilant when permitting the development that happened in the water.

The salmon continued to decline. In the early 1990s, King County began to take an interest in these land-locked salmon. They completed several restoration projects on Lake Sammamish tributaries with the idea that it would help all three kokanee runs. But there were no guarantees. The hope was that the salmon populations just didn’t get worse, said Bob Fuerstenberg, a senior ecologist at King County.

Was there any way for the salmon populations to get better?

According to David St. John of King County, the number of early run kokanee “used to be in the thousands, maybe even tens of thousands.” It’s hard to imagine that the now extinct first Kokanee run was once so abundant. In the three years leading up to 2000, only six early run spawners were observed.

At this time, the early run was considered for the endangered species list. It took eight years to decide, and the ultimate answer was “no.” The early run kokanee wasn’t unique or important enough – and for reasons not completely understood, they became extinct.

Today, people are waiting to see if the federal government will protect the remaining kokanee under the Endangered Species Act. A group, including the four cities around Lake Sammamish, King County, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and local citizens asked for the federal protection in July 2007. Time is running out: just a decade ago almost one thousand kokanee swam in the streams around Lake Sammamish, but last year there were less than eighty. The petitioners have yet to hear a final decision, which should come any day, but they are hopeful.

If the kokanee are recognized as endangered, then their situation will be more publicized, and a new sense of urgency to save the species will develop. There will also be more resources, more money, and more opportunities to help the kokanee, St. John states. This could help people working to save the kokanee better understand and address the causes of the salmon’s decline.

If the kokanee isn’t listed as endangered, recovery projects will aim to overlap as much as possible with the endangered Chinook salmon projects, says St. John. Chinook salmon are getting a lot of attention and resources, and when habitat restoration projects are completed, all the wildlife in the area benefit. However, the areas that both kokanee and Chinook salmon use are limited because the Chinook are so much larger, and unlike the kokanee, they migrate out to the ocean before returning to spawn.

There two biggest hopes for the kokanee salmon lie in the Endangered Species Act and Puget Sound citizens. But perhaps more importantly for the kokanee, public awareness around the Puget Sound could help save the species. Jim Uehara of fish and wildlife says that “more people are willing to change their habits now that they know how they affect salmon and the environment.”

Recognition of the importance of healthy salmon habitat could be just what the kokanee needs. Time will tell if they get it.

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