The salmon is getting sleepy, very sleepy. After swimming a few increasingly slow laps in a footlong blue plastic bin full of an anesthetizing bath, the salmon – a juvenile chinook only a few inches long – succumbs to shuteye.
That’s when Chris Gregersen, a King County fisheries ecologist, springs into action.
Gregersen and a few colleagues are lulling this fish and a few others into slumber beside the Icy Creek Pond Fish Hatchery near Auburn that’s operated by the Washington State Department of Wildlife. It’s not to marvel at the amazing will of fish to swim while humanely drugged – that’s a bonus.
Rather, they are piloting a technology expected to help us restore waterways like the Green River to eventually produce more fish.
Using thousands of glass vials smaller than a grain of rice, glorified glue guns and a floating barge, scientists are changing our understanding of how endangered fish spend their time in Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.
Greening the Lower Green River
Salmon habitat restoration is expensive and funding is limited. “And frankly, in a lot of places, we’re not sure if it works,” Gregersen said. “In order to restore salmon populations, we need to make sure that we’re spending every dollar in the best way possible.”
Erik Neatherlin, director of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office, said we’re in a state of crisis. The state is funding only about 22% of what’s needed for salmon restoration.
“We’re losing habitat faster than we’re gaining it, so we need to turn the tide on that,” Neatherlin said.
All Puget Sound chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Twenty-two stocks remain in Puget Sound, out of a historic 31.
Restoring certain waterways seems more far-fetched than others. That’s particularly true in the Lower Green River, a highly developed urban waterway. Muddied shopping carts and refuse line its banks. On a recent October afternoon, a handful of salmon, recently spawned and fighting their natural cycle of dying afterward, swim lethargically toward the ocean.
Against all odds, the Lower Green River continues to be one of the major producers of chinook salmon for Puget Sound.
“A lot of people see it and are like, this place is trashed. But I see it and it’s like, there’s so much opportunity. I think this is where you have the potential to make the most change,” Gregersen said from beneath a Tukwila bridge overhanging the Lower Green.
Pristine habitat lines the Middle Green River, upstream of Auburn. Downstream, it flows through 20 industry-impacted miles that salmon need to navigate to reach the Duwamish River and, eventually, the sea.
It’s an uninviting stretch of water that Washington is required by law to facilitate for fish to uphold treaty rights with tribal co-managers like the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. Ecologists believe it could support even more fish, though how many more is unclear. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual estimates over …….