A Seattle School Program is Reintroducing Salmon to an Urban Stream

But some critics say using hatchery-raised fish to teach kids about the importance of healthy watersheds isn't a great idea.

In its pre-development past, Pipers Creek in northwest Seattle began as a small stream emerging from the forest. A thin capillary of water flowed downslope where it braided with others to weave a trellis of silver veins that sluiced the hillside. In the ravine below they gathered into a cascading stream.

As Seattle grew and expanded, those wild origins were replaced by rooftop channels and city pavement. Gutters now empty into storm drains, which unite and flow into the stream. During a heavy rain, the creek floods and gushes brown as water runs off the urban hardscape. The creek still exists, but it’s radically altered.

Carkeek Park, a narrow green zone that includes Piper’s Creek. Every year, some 1,500 Seattle elementary schools students visit the the park as part of the Salmon in the Schools program, a two-decades old effort to teach kids about nature, watersheds, and salmon. Photo courtesy of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance​.

A student releases hatchery-raised salmon fry into the creek. Proponents of the program say it’s important to teach people, especially kids, the value of salmon in the ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Salmon in the Schools.

A raccoon feeds on a salmon carcass in Pipers Creek. The creek once used to harbor wild salmon runs. Photo by Catherine Anstett.

In early December, a yellow school bus full of students arrived at Carkeek Park, a narrow green zone that wraps Piper’s Creek. Fourth- and fifth-grade students emptied from the bus and clamored through the park, competing with the raucous crows. The damp air and the darkness of late autumn gave the creekside the feeling of a dank basement. These kids are a few of the 1,500 Seattle elementary schools students who visit Pipers Creek each year as part of the Salmon in the Schools program, a two-decades old effort to teach kids about nature, watersheds, and salmon.

On this day, the creek was shrouded by lanky cedars and bare big-leafed maple, leafless from a recent storm. Nearby, two half-submerged salmon carcasses rose from the water in what looked like a dying embrace.

“Look, there’s two of ‘em fighting,” a student yelled, spotting splashes in the creek. “Oh, look at those dead ones. Phew. Gross!” another said, pointing at a couple of decaying bodies splayed on the opposite shore. Classmates crowded around to see.

Given the urban landscape, it’s a surprise to encounter ten-pound chum salmon wriggling and twisting through the creek’s shallows as they navigate up this altered and re-engineered stream, each looking for a place to nest and spawn. But the salmon the students are admiring in Pipers Creek are not wild. Each fish was originally planted as an egg or fry from a hatchery ten miles to the west of Carkeek Park on the other side of the Puget Sound.

Pipers Creek used to harbor wild salmon runs. For thousands of years, chum salmon returned to Pipers Creek after three years at sea to breed in the stream where they started their lives. The Shilshoe band of the Duwamish tribe once fished this area with weirs, traps, and nets. When Euro-American colonists arrived the Shilshoe people were moved off the land to make way for the settlers. Logging the drainage basin caused erosion. Without trees, heavy rains washed the sediments down into the creek. The silt suffocated eggs and clogged the gills of small fish. Removing the forest canopy increased the exposure of the stream to sunlight, heating the water to deadly temperatures for salmon.

In 1980, the Carkeek Watershed Community Action Project started stocking the creek with hatchery-derived salmon with the idea of restoring the runs. First, they tried planting coho salmon, which was unsuccessful because young coho spend up to six months in freshwater— too long to survive in Pipers Creek. Ultimately, they settled on chum salmon.

These days, volunteers from the project incubate eggs and young salmon called fry from the nearby Grovers Creek hatchery in a holding tank filled with stream water. Throughout the winter, the fish imprint on the water and form a chemical map of where to return when it’s time to spawn. In spring, they are released into the stream, where they immediately begin to swim towards the estuary and salt water. After three or four years feeding and growing in the Gulf of Alaska, a few hundred individuals return to spawn at Pipers Creek. But even when they spawn successfully, their offspring don’t survive because of the degraded habitat of the creek.

Development is the primary reason for that degradation. Over the years, more and more houses were built in north Seattle. Eventually 90 percent of the watershed was developed into residences, streets, and commercial buildings. Impervious surfaces now cover 57 percent of the watershed’s soil. Grit and toxins from the asphalt and automobile tires wash into the creek along with pesticides from gardens. A half-mile from the mouth of the creek, a culvert around a wastewater pumping station blocks the salmon’s upstream migration. Now and then a wild salmon finds its way into the creek, but doesn’t survive. The last remaining wild fish was caught in 1927.

Seattle Utilities began supporting the Salmon-in-Schools initiative after funding from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife dried up. Bill Malatinsky, a senior manager in the stormwater program of Seattle Public Utilities, hopes the program will build public support for drainage improvements that might help protect Piper’s Creek. Seattle Utilities is currently working to install natural drainage cells in the streets surrounding the creek with special soils and deep-rooted plants that absorb toxins. The idea is to capture stormwater overflows before the water runs into the creek, but there’s pushback from the neighboring community because the changes reduce the number of on-street parking spaces.

In addition to the watershed field trips, Malatinsky says each participating school in the education program receives about 250 young salmon to hold and nourish for three months. In early spring, every child receives a cup containing two or three of the little fry. The children give the fish names. As the kids release the fry into the stream, they offer advice — like, watch out for fishing nets or have a safe trip. Malatinsky says that educational programs like this bring awareness to the community about the importance of controlling storm runoff in salmon watersheds.

Not everyone agrees that planting streams with hatchery fish year after year is a good idea, or that we should be teaching kids the benefits of this tactic. Hatchery fish compete with wild salmon and their interbreeding with local populations reduces the survival fitness of native fish. Kurt Beardslee, a founder of the Wild Fish Conservancy, says that hatcheries are one of four major causes of declines in natural populations, along with loss of habitat, dams, and overexploitation. In Beardslee’s view, hatchery enhancement should be used only as a last-ditch effort to save a population. He’s not opposed to planting hatchery fish in Pipers Creek as an educational tool, but is concerned that the school curriculum leaves kids the wrong impression that hatcheries can mitigate the stresses on natural populations. “Impressions make a difference,” he says.

Proponents of the Salmon-in-the-Schools program, like Rick Henry, the former volunteer director of the salmon program, say that restoring the Pipers Creek watershed to a pristine environment that might again support self-sustaining salmon runs will take time, resources, and advocacy. Meanwhile, it’s important to teach people, especially kids, the value of salmon in the ecosystem. Restoration efforts depend on public support from an educated and interested community. The hands-on experiences offered by Salmon-in-the-Schools helps build that support.

Salmon are perfectly fitted in rivers and ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest like the centerpiece of a jigsaw puzzle. Over eons, salmon have been a part of the landscape as they move through the streams. Eagles and raccoons feed on salmon carcasses, dragging them into the woods, carrying nutrients inland that fertilize the forests. The forests in turn stabilize the channels, while fallen trees create habitat for the salmon. Every pool, waterfall, and riffle in a small creek is important to the well-being of the fish. Pipers Creek is but a tiny capillary in the myriad of creeks and rivers that join into a network of veins feeding the Pacific Ocean. The streams are connected by salmon which flow through the waterways into the sea and back like corpuscles pumping through the biosphere.

The kids are learning in their own backyard about the importance of watersheds to the iconic fish — and how without salmon, there is a hole in the fabric of the ecosystem. Who but the salmon could teach them better and forge these new stewards of the environment?

Malatinsky recalls a moment when three girls in the Salmon-in-the-Schools program went missing during a field trip to Piper’s Creek. For a moment, panic ensued. After a brief search, Malinsky found them crouching beside the creek, singing to the fish they’d let go. It was a visceral moment to observe the connection the kids had made with their charges—how the experience of shepherding life into the world had impacted them. Malatinsky hopes that someday when the kids have grown up, they will buy into the rain-wise garden program that he steers. “Salmon is a launching point to educate about human impacts and stormwater,” he says.

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