Standing on the banks of the Skagit River near Rockport, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the sight of pink and Chinook salmon that have returned to spawn in astonishing swarms that have not been seen in at least 35 years.
An estimated 1.2 million pink salmon and 25,000 Chinook are crowding into the upper Skagit River below Seattle City Light’s three hydroelectric dams to renew the cycle of life. It’s been more than 40 years since the river had a pink run this big and this is the biggest Chinook run forecasted since record keeping started 35 years ago.
Compare that to the past two years when only 11,000 Chinook came back to spawn on the Skagit. The turnaround is so good, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife allowed fishing for Chinook on the Skagit this summer for the first time in 16 years.
“Some people said we’d never see 20,000 Chinook again,” Seattle City Light Fish Biologist Ed Connor said. “Everybody has been working together to make this happen.”
Seattle City Light is a key player in the effort to restore and protect salmon runs on the Skagit River, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the North Cascades National Park, the Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA fisheries, the state departments of Ecology and Fish & Wildlife, Skagit River tribes, the Skagit Watershed Council, the Nature Conservancy and others.
“Operating hydroelectric dams that produce 17 percent of the power used by our customers on such an important river comes with great stewardship responsibility that we take seriously,” City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco said.
The utility’s salmon efforts fall into three areas: river flow management, habitat protection and restoration, and research.
In addition to making electricity for its customers, Seattle City Light uses its dams to manage the flow of water on the Skagit. This offers some relief from flooding impacts and provides enough water to protect eggs and fry during periods when river flows would be naturally low.
As those fry grow up, they benefit from habitat preservation and restoration work by City Light, including more than 2,000 acres of watershed that have been acquired for conservation protection and $3.2 million in direct funding for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout recovery since 2000. Dozens of utility employees have volunteered their time for the past three years to help remove more than 9,000 pounds of trash from the river during the annual Skagit River Cleanup.
All of this work is supported by scientific research on fish behavior, habitat, water conditions and more. Among the many projects City Light has conducted is ongoing work to monitor the migratory behavior of spawning salmon and other species using 35 hydroacoustic listening stations throughout the river. Lessons learned from such work are used to identify habitat for restoration and preservation projects in the Skagit watershed, and to adjust operations to provide a better environment for the fish.
The payoff is easy to spot, just ask John Koenig of John’s Guide Service.
Koenig has been guiding clients on so many fishing trips this year – and the fish are wearing their arms out with the catch abundance. On his cell phone, he proudly shows off a video of four clients casting and hooking a pink salmon each.
“One, two, three, four … 38 seconds,” Koenig said. “Incredible.”