A second generation of Coho salmon found at the Land Bank’s Coho Preserve on Orcas

Submitted by San Juan County.

Local fisheries biologist Jenny De Groot shares an update on the emergence of Coho salmon at Coho Preserve on Orcas Island.

“Spring is a time for optimism and hope. A time for rebirth. I am reminded of this each spring when camas bloom on Turtleback Mountain, lambs and goats are born at Coffelt Farm, and snow geese honk overhead on their way North. But for me, the emergence of Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) at Coho Preserve is the sweetest blessing of spring.”

“This rebirth of Coho salmon at Coho Preserve isn’t necessarily a given. They spend a year and a half in Cascade Creek before moving to sea, then another year and a half offshore before returning to their natal stream to spawn. Stream conditions, particularly year-round flows, have to be clean enough, cool enough, well-oxygenated enough, and substantial enough for salmon to feed, rear, and utilize different areas of the creek as they grow, well before they are able to survive at sea where they will face all kinds of other challenges.”

“Like many streams in the West, Cascade Creek’s water is legally over-allocated, and flow is severely reduced throughout much of the year. Water availability is an ongoing challenge for spawning salmon like Coho salmon that often don’t have enough flow to make it back to their spawning beds. With temporary water donations from Olga Water Users and Rosario Resort, enough flow existed in the creek in October and November 2022 for salmon to spawn at Coho Preserve.”

“We documented Coho, Chinook, and Chum salmon adults building nests (“redds”) in the creek. Members of the community welcomed returning salmon at the Point Lawrence Bridge, which was replaced in 2011 due to an undersized culvert that impeded salmon migration. Money was allocated with funds from Washington’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board and San Juan County Public Works. Harbor seals, river otters, eagles, American dippers, and others, also welcomed the salmon. As a keystone species salmon play an outsized role in the health and wellbeing of their ecosystem. But, I couldn’t help but wonder if the twenty-plus seals offshore, the daily visits by river otters, and the American dippers diving in the newly-built redds (nests) for eggs, was too much for this run to sustain. Would there be enough salmon to spawn or even enough viable eggs for another generation of salmon?”

“On April 9, 2023, I spotted the first salmon fry at Coho Preserve. I caught a fry in a dip net, placed it in a photarium to identify it, and released it without harm. Surprisingly it was a Chinook fry — something we have never documented emerging from the creek!”

“Given the amount of predation and low numbers of returning Coho salmon, would we see Coho fry as well? We soon had our answer on April 23rd, with our first observed Coho fry!”

“Washington’s Poet Laureate, Rena Priest, read poems on Earth Day in Eastsound from her new compilation I Sing The Salmon Home. She quoted Nisqually tribal member Billy Frank Jr, who spent five decades fighting for salmon, tribal salmon fishing rights, and who was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He stated, “The golden egg of the Northwest was this guy, the salmon, and they were destroying the golden egg…..It’s taken more than a hundred years. But I tell my people to get ready….That guy, the salmon, he’s coming back.”

“I, too, am filled with hope this spring. Please welcome these little salmon guys back at Coho Preserve!”