Paddling Together; WDFW and Stillaguamish Tribe collaborate to restore habitat and raise Chinook using innovative broodstock hatchery

Originating on the western slopes of the Cascades near the Mountain Loop Highway and flowing into Port Susan and Puget Sound near the city of Stanwood, the Stillaguamish River is small compared to many other Washington rivers. Yet due to seriously endangered runs of wild Chinook, impacts on Stillaguamish salmon play a major role in fisheries management throughout much of Western Washington and beyond.

“The importance is to make sure that it’s here for my grandchildren, great-grandchildren; generations to come,” says Sandy Allen, a Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians elder. “Working together is the only way we can keep this river going, making sure the environment for the river is safe and prosperous for us.”

Restoring habitat to recover salmon and steelhead in “the Stilly” is a top priority for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the Stillaguamish Tribe, Snohomish County, and other partners.

An aerial view of the Stillaguamish River near Arlington in Washington’s North Puget Sound Region.

There are a lot of projects that are happening in the Stillaguamish notes Gwendolyn Hannam, Stillaguamish Senior Restoration Specialist in WDFW’s Habitat Program.

“Some of them are big, and some of them are small, and they’re all important and needed,” said Hannam. “We have projects that range the entire length of the watershed, from the upper reaches of both the North and South fork, all the way down to the confluence and into Port Susan Bay.”

This includes collaboration to restore the intertidal estuary at sites such as WDFW’s Leque Island Wildlife Area Unit and the tribe’s zis a ba property. And projects to reconnect historic river channels such as Trafton Floodplain Restoration.

Jason Griffith, Environmental Program Manager for the Stillaguamish Tribe, notes the Trafton project on tribal and county lands along the North Fork Stillaguamish near Arlington is particularly important for salmon and steelhead.

“It’s in a location that historically the river had a much broader footprint. Today you just see one channel, but historically there were multiple channels across the floodplain,” describes Griffith. “Trees would move down and form what we call logjams, and those jams were an important stopping point for juveniles on their way out to sea, and for adults on their way up to spawn, and also scoured out deep holes where cold water would come in and help keep the river cool.”

“The Tribe purchased this property to restore those natural processes back onto this footprint,” says Griffith. “The ways the river used to function, and this site used to function, we’re looking to restore with this restoration project.”

“Floodplain re-connectivity that allows for dispersal of heavy flows, that’s natural flood management,” says Hannam with WDFW. “What is good for the salmon is good for us.”

In addition to restoring and reconnecting habitat, WDFW and the Stillaguamish Tribe are partnering on hatchery programs using innovative science and what’s known as “integrated broodstock” to produce Chinook salmon specially adapted for this watershed like their endangered wild cousins.

At Whitehorse Hatchery near Darrington, Trevor Jenison, WDFW’s district Hatchery Operations Manager, and his team are working to raise Chinook salmon from the Tribe’s Brenner Creek Hatchery, along with winter steelhead.

“Hatcheries work with the wild populations to bring better health up into those systems and watersheds,” said Jenison. “These fish had adapted to these systems and watersheds. The problem is their numbers are dropping and the wild numbers are dropping substantially.”

“And so how do we not lose that genetic information? Hatcheries can play a role in that, maintaining some of these fish to keep these wild genetics here, before they fall below a threshold where we stop seeing returns, where we’ve lost something that you can’t get back.”

Salmon fry at WDFW’s Whitehorse Hatchery near Darrington.

The importance of this river and its health go beyond us as individuals, says Shawn Yannity, former Fisheries Director and former Chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe. Restoration is about the health of community, the ecosystem, and future generations.

“It is important that we’re all working well together,” said Yannity. “We’re doing projects together, we’re side-by-side doing restoration work, we’re side-by-side managing the resources, trying to accomplish recovery of our Chinook for the community.”

A better future for the Stillaguamish is possible, but it will take all of us. We must come together across differences for the future of this river. Learn more on our webpage:

Read more in our previous blog post: A small river with a huge impact; Stillaguamish Restoration and Recovery

WDFW staff survey conditions at the Leque Island Restoration Project in the Stillaguamish River estuary.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.