A multi-year project to help the summer chum salmon in Jimmycomelately Creek looked to be in dire straits last year.
In recent weeks, however, numbers collected at the creek’s counting station indicate the chum population is back on track for recovery, said Cheri Scalf, a leader in volunteer monitoring and restoration projects.
A recent count in a trap along the creek brought the total fish counted to 2,050 individuals — more than counts in 2017 (530) and 2018 (167) combined.
“The forecast for this year was not optimistic,” Scalf said, but, “we’re … well above the threshold and sustainability.”
“We had two bad years. This good year is going to make up for that. It’s good news all around for us.”
Historically, Scalf said, thousands of summer chum salmon returned to spawn in Jimmycomelately Creek, but by the 1990s their numbers dropped sharply and they were threatened with extinction.
In late 1996 and early 1997, massive flooding in the Sequim and Blyn areas saw the creek cover US Highway 101.
Then flooding again hit the peninsula in late January of 1999, with flood waters from the creek once again cutting off the highway. In the span of three days, an estimated 1.85 inches fall and raised the neary Dungeness River to a flow of nearly 4,000 cubit feet per second.
By 1999, only seven chum returned to spawn in Jimmycomelately Creek, Scalf said.
“That was the turning point,” she said. “It wasn’t just a fish issue; it was a transportation and a safety issue. Essentially, the peninsula was cut off from the world.”
That year, summer chum salmon in the Hood Canal area were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Sometime after World War II, Jimmycomelately Creek had been confined in a rock-lined channel in an attempt to control it, Taylor Pittman, of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, notes in a story for Shared Strategy for Puget Sound.
In the early 1950s, the channel was moved and straightened to divert it for irrigation. Known as “channelization,” Pittman wrote, this method increases the slope of the flowing water by confining it to a relatively smaller area at a higher elevation.
Sometimes this results in more flooding but “in all cases, it reduces fish habitat when the wood and gravel are washed out and the flow speed increases,” Pittman wrote.
Recognizing that the Jimmycomelately Creek was not working for fish or for people, six years of hard work and the largest meandering stream restoration project in western Washington began, Pittman noted. The goal was to not only diminish risk of flooding but to restore habitat to summer chum salmon, a federally-listed species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
That year, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Clallam County and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) began a major restoration project, with state officials handling salmon restoration, the tribe with habitat restoration and county staff helping in several capacities, Scalf recalled.
Hired to be a project leader on a supplementation project, Scalf worked with the hatchery staff to boost salmon numbers.
In 2003 alone, Pittman wrote, almost 87,000 eggs were collected from the captured mature summer chum while 460 others traveled upstream to spawn naturally.
Since 2004, thanks to stream channel and estuary restorations, a US Highway 101 bridge replacement and reconnection of the upland stream channel with the original streambed, Jimmycomelately Creek has been flowing in a new, meandering channel. These changes, Scalf said, helped to increase chum egg survival from the naturally spawning fish, while the surrounding forest has grown to protect and shade the creek.
For 12 years, state, tribe and staff with the North Olympic Salmon Coalition and dozens of volunteers worked to boost the number of returning salmon back up to a self-sustaining level, Scalf said. That work included intercepting and spawning a portion of the returning salmon in a state hatchery, incubating eggs at remote sites within the watershed so that “(the creek) imprints on them,” Scalf said. Fry were fed for several weeks and released in Jimmycomelately Creek each spring.
That phase was completed in the spring of 2011, Scalf said, and the survivors from the 12 brood cycles have already returned home.
In recent weeks chum have been spotted in the upper section of their range in Jimmycomelately Creek, an area they haven’t been seen since 2015.
“All of the summer chum salmon returning now are from natural (wild) origin,” Scalf said.
In November and December, the chum salmon eggs hatch and the alevin (sack fry) remain in redds (gravel nests) through the winter.
Between February and April the fry emerge and within weeks they migrate out to the southern end of Sequim Bay and spend time in the estuary before they follow the shoreline to sea.
In three or four years the surviving chum return and restart the process.
Like other salmon, summer chum numbers can be affected by a variety of factors from toxic algae blooms to unseasonably warm water, from over- or under-abundance of predator populations to fish passages, drought, floods and poaching, Scalf said.
Volunteers take chum counts at Jimmycomelately Creek and other nearby creeks each week from late August to late October.
The volunteers use a fish trap that collects fish in the evening, are counted by morning and then moved to various parts of the creek after being tallied. Returning adult fish are identified by species and gender, then counted and passed upstream to spawn naturally.
In recent weeks volunteers would find between a half-dozen to more than 30 in the trap each visit.
Scalf noted that volunteers are at the trap from 7 t9 a.m. Some of the salmon are moved as far as a mile-and-a-half upstream.
“Not everybody likes the idea of a trap,” she said. “Great care is taken to prevent harm to the fish and minimize the time they spend in the trap,” she said.
While summer chum numbers at Jimmycomelately are solid, there are other nearby creeks in the Hood Canal region that need to get to the level of self-sustainability to be considered “robust,” Scalf said.
However, she noted, “all streams seems to be rallying this year.”