He’s about an inch or so long with a thin silvery body, and he’s only a few months old.
Right now, the kokanee fry is on his way down Issaquah Creek to Lake Sammamish with his brothers and sisters: Rockie, Scarlet, Ethan Jr., BJ, Amy, even Hillary and Donald Trump.
These little kokanee fry were among the many that students from Issaquah Valley Elementary School named and poured into the creek at the 2016 Kokanee Release in Issaquah’s Confluence Park on Earth Day.
The day marks the seventh successful year in the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery’s supplemental program, which is part of the Lake Sammamish Kokanee Work Group’s mission to bring back a sustainable, healthy kokanee population.
The kokanee, a freshwater sockeye salmon that live in the lake, return in force to only three streams: Lewis Creek in Issaquah and Ebright and Laughing Jacobs creeks in Sammamish. The 2015-2016 run, when adults swim back to their birthing waters to spawn, was the third-highest return in two decades.
“Decades ago, they were likely the most abundant fish in the system,” David St. John of the Lake Work Group said during a March talk he gave on the little red fish at the hatchery.
Between 1970 and 1990, the Lake Sammamish kokanee saw a dramatic decrease in population. This was likely due to a number of factors, St. John said, including urbanization, nutrient loading in the lake, the introduction of other fish creating more competition for food and an unfortunate hatchery operation that removed kokanee from Issaquah Creek.
“Kokanee kind of fell out of favor,” St. John said.
The Issaquah Creek Hatchery (now the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery), then run through the Washington Department of Fisheries, trapped kokanee populations coming up Issaquah Creek in the 1960s and 1970s, according to King County’s 2000 report on the kokanee’s historic status in the Lake Washington Basin.
Hatchery employees of the time thought the kokanee were a disease threat to chinook and coho salmon. The repeated trapping efforts and subsequent draining of pools that held kokanee populations pretty much killed the entire run up Issaquah Creek by the 1980s, St. John said.
The creek itself provided plenty of spawning area for returning adults; lack of space is a current issue kokanee experts think may be a factor in why there weren’t as many kokanee returning this year. (They expected to see about 15,000 instead of the roughly 5,500 that actually came back.)
Kokanee females lay between 600 and 1,200 eggs. If there’s not enough surface area for kokanee mothers to lay their eggs, they’ll brush away already-fertilized ones to make room for their own.
“You just see nests on top of nests on top of nests,” St. John said. “And when the fish come back, they don’t just lay their eggs, they dig.”
Taking advantage of this year’s relatively large return, the Kokanee Work Group — a partnership between many government organizations, the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, lakeside cities and volunteer groups — saw an opportunity to release hatchery fish into the creek.
“There’s a lot of appeal to Issaquah Creek,” St. John said. “This is a lot of spawning area.”
They hope some of these fish will return in three to four years as adults to spawn in the creek. This year, kokanee counters recorded seven red fish in Issaquah Creek.
The Kokanee Release, serving the traditional kokanee-painted cookies, focuses on the partnership and community efforts that has brought the kokanee population back from near extinction.
“If the community does not want to save kokanee, we’re not going to save kokanee,” St. John said. “There was a point where we almost didn’t have fish left to save.”
Which is why, as Issaquah Mayor pro tempore Stacy Goodman said at the release April 22, it’s “fortunate” the community “places such importance on the survival of Lake Sammamish kokanee.”
And why kokanee experts want to engage children on the subject. After all, they’ll carry on the work the Kokanee Work Group has started.
Children from Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary, Issaquah Valley Elementary and Campbell Hill Elementary School ran around the park, various groups stopping at the creek to whisper goodbyes and well wishes to their named friends as they poured them into the creek.
Students engaged in games and interactive activities learning about the habitat, the food system in the lake and eating those kokanee cookies.
The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe blessed the little red fish on their journey with song and prayer.
Tribe Chairwoman Carolyn Lubenau shared the tribe’s history with the fish, once relying on the kokanee species as a food source when others were less abundant.
“The little red fish made it possible for our people to live here,” she said.
She went on to say that every person now is important to the survival of this fish.
“What you’ve become now is a witness,” she said.
And it’s a witness’s job to share with others what they’ve learned, she said. Spread the word about the kokanee; they’re making a comeback.
Kokanee Work Group members include King County, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Parks, the cities of Sammamish, Issaquah, Bellevue and Redmond, the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, Friends of Lake Sammamish State Park, Save Lake Sammamish, Friends of Pine Lake, Trout Unlimited, Mountains to Sound Greenway, community groups and kokanee recovery advocates.