The kokanee salmon, a once-thriving species in local habitats, have seen a dramatic decline in population in recent decades (photo courtesy of Tim O’Leary/King County).

Planned kokanee documentary to tell the story of the little red fish in Lake Sammamish

A Seattle-based filmmaker is partnering with a King County administrator to create a short film chronicling the story of local kokanee salmon.

Screenwriter Nils Cowan and King County Government Relations Administrator David St. John are currently fundraising for the project, which aims to document a full season in the life of the Lake Sammamish kokanee. The documentary will also track the local initiatives taking place to recover the kokanee species as well as explore the cultural ties between kokanee salmon and the area’s tribal communities.

The project, which is being produced through Cowan’s company Hemlock Productions, currently has a working title of “Spawning Grounds: Saving the Lake Sammamish Kokanee.” The film has a tentative timeline of beginning preproduction and filming this spring, with filming expected to extend through the fall of 2018. The finished product is expected to run between 20 and 25 minutes.

The group, which also includes Gary Smith from Trout Unlimited, hopes to finish the film by early 2019 and hold local screenings that spring, with a DVD and web release following shortly after.

St. John and Cowan are looking to raise between $45,000 and $75,000 for the film, with $10,000 already raised. Funding backers so far include the Bellevue-Issaquah chapter of Trout Unlimited, which has pledged $5,000, as well as the city of Sammamish, which has also pledged $5,000.

Cowan has worked for nearly two decades in documentary production, with some of his prior work airing on KCTS. He said what interested him about this project was the cultural tie-in with the kokanee and the local native populations, such as the Snoqualmie and Muckleshoot Tribes, whose histories in the Lake Sammamish area date back thousands of years.

“I’ve always loved nature and natural history films and I’ve always loved human drama,” Cowan said. “This story has both of those elements, as well as others, [that are] kind of all combining to a really beautiful place.”

St. John has worked as chair and coordinator of the Lake Sammamish Kokanee Work Group since it formed in 2007. He said the documentary team has been working for about a year on refining the concept of their project. With this film, the Kokanee Work Group hopes to broaden the community of people who are aware of the challenges the kokanee face. The once-thriving species of salmon has experienced a dramatic decline in recent decades.

“There’s a real strong emphasis and interest among the work group members that the film does inspire folks to go out and not only be aware, but to take action to protect the fish and the watershed,” St. John said. “We have a lot of folks who are already very engaged and supportive, but we do want to expand the community of action with the film. That is really an important driver for a lot of folks.”

Cowan mentioned that in general, filming high-quality imagery of kokanee is a challenging task. He said his group would get some help from King County Multimedia Specialist Tim O’Leary, who has years of experience filming the fish, and also plans to use animation when necessary. Cowan added he was still figuring out which human subjects will be filmed as the story evolves, though he plans to follow at least one fish biologist and interview elder members of the Snoqualmie and Muckleshoot Tribes. He also plans to speak with regional leaders in the community.

St. John said the documentary team targeted its filming time frame to coincide with the local work that will be done by both the county and the city of Sammamish on Zackuse Creek, which empties into Lake Sammamish. Three culvert replacement projects are expected to be completed by October 2018 to allow kokanee passage.

He noted that Zackuse Creek doesn’t currently support kokanee spawning, but historically, it did.

“We wanted to make sure that that can be documented,” St. John said. “That creek from a cultural perspective is super important … getting fish back in that creek to spawn, that’s gigantic. That’s a huge thing for us.”

After filming is completed, Cowan said his primary objective is to get local and regional distribution for the film. He said he plans to submit the documentary to as many film festivals as he can and eventually have it represented by a larger distributor.

“The main goal is to get [the documentary] in front of local and regional audiences and communicate this stewardship that everyone shares of the watershed, and by extension, of this fish,” Cowan said.

St. John noted one of the challenges with work specific to kokanee recovery is that there is no quick fix. Both St. John and Cowan said they hope viewers will come away from the film with a stronger sense of engagement with the kokanee cause.

“It’s taken us a long time for this population to dwindle down to the 100 fish that returned this year, and it’s gonna take a long time to get back. A lot of well-intentioned and well-formulated and strategic actions need to be taken, and we need to carry that vision and the inspiration and the emotion forward that will support those actions over time,” St. John said. “We can’t just narrate the decline of the species. We have to motivate people to take action to turn that around. That’s a big part of why we’re doing this.”

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/hemlockpro or contact David St. John at david.st.john@kingcounty.gov and Nils Cowan at nilscowan@hemlockpro.com.

This story has been updated to clarify that the Kokanee Work Group isn’t an entity of King County.