Tribal Tales of a Kokanee Salmon
As told to Dallas Cross
"The Fish Journal" Issaquah Press, Published October 2, 2012

By Dallas Cross

print by Shaun Peterson
The graphic above is an excerpt from "Foundation," a print by Coast Salish artist Shaun Peterson

Before the Ice Age my ancestral sockeye salmon bearing our tribal name, oncorhynchus nerka, regularly came from the ocean to Lake Sammamish to find mates and reproduce in its streams. As it got colder, a huge glacier cut off the escape of the tribe to Puget Sound. Being trapped, we had to adapt to living our entire lives in fresh water.

It was difficult at first, but soon we were feeding on the small daphnia or water fleas living in the lake. Because daphnia are not as big as krill in the ocean, our size got smaller. Our tribe enjoyed less swimming distance for a lifecycle and we were glad not to be eaten by big salt-water fish and seals. We became land-locked in the lake and its streams. We adapted and survived.

We did retain some traditions of our sea-run ancestors, such as only living three to five years, turning red to spawn, running up streams to lay and fertilize our eggs, and dying afterward. Our short life spans allowed us to make rapid genetic changes in response to climate changes and food availability.

We also became numerous in order to survive natural disasters. Our changes were passed on to our offspring fry, assuring that the new traditions of the tribe would continue. We specialized and thrived.

After many generations, the Vashon glacier melted and salt-water salmon started returning to the lake through the Sammamish River. We were not glad to see them because they were bigger, and they attacked us and took over the spawning creeks we had reserved for ourselves.

To avoid the returning salmon, we selected a different time of the year to go up the creeks to spawn. Thus, the competition for our redds, or gravel beds where we laid our eggs, was eased and we had more safety in the streams. We adapted and endured.

The native humans named our tribe kokanee, meaning red fish. Every year, the Snoqualmie Tribe celebrated our arrival at Ebright Creek to spawn. Things deteriorated when the immigrant humans came and allowed their farming, mining and logging waste to enter and pollute our spawning streams. They also used us for fertilizer.

It got worse later when humans contaminated our streams and lake with dairy and human waste. Humans then denied us some of our spawning grounds by putting in dams and culverts. But we held on, even after many of our remaining redds were scoured away or silted by flash floods as a result of careless land development.

The worst came when the federal government built the state fish hatchery, denying our largest kokanee clan access to its spawning beds in Issaquah Creek. Their hatchery is popular, bringing in millions of dollars for tourism and providing some salmon for ocean fishermen. So it persists, but we cannot go upstream from the hatchery to spawn. They celebrate Salmon Days for the foreign salmon and we are being forgotten. We cannot adapt fast enough so we diminish.

Someone noticed there were not as many of us freshwater fish in the lake. But instead of restoring our stream habitat, people chose a policy of stocking and restocking. That is how we lost so many of our members - as prey for foreign trout, bass and other fish they introduced into the lake. They even brought in foreign kokanee from Lake Kootenay, who competed with us but could not adapt and disappeared. Finally, they made it illegal to fish for us in the lake, hoping we would recover. We haven't, but we still have hope.

The human's waste changed to include chemical poisons. They are lessening now because of environmental concern. No one has heard from the early-run clan that spawned in Issaquah Creek and they have been declared extinct. Only some of the late-run clans have survived in Lewis, Laughing Jacobs, Pine Lake and Ebright creeks. Our numbers were further diminished last year when rains on land being developed in the Ebright Creek watershed brought down mud, smothering all of our eggs and alevin there. Our hope is waning.

Good news has trickled into the lake. Our plight is being recognized and the Lake Sammamish Kokanee Work Group is trying to conserve our habitat and increase our numbers. It is heartening to know that individual citizens, local businesses, state and local governments, and conservation groups are now working together to restore our spawning grounds and access to them in Ebert and Issaquah creeks. They plan to remove dams and culverts and restore some gravel creek beds. They have even started raising our young in the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery to increase our numbers in Lewis, Ebright and Laughing Jacobs creeks.

The few of us remaining in the lake are increasing in hope and wish to once again spawn in the Zaccuse, George Davis, Issaquah, Tibbetts, Vasa, Idylwood and Phantom Lake creeks. When they are restored, we will return.

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