Sun sparkled on dancing waves at the Point Defiance Marina last Monday morning. Gulls swooped, and joggers ran along the path. But on the easternmost dock, a crowd was gathering of students, educators, park staff, Puyallup Tribe members and anglers, watching 25,000 Chinook salmon fry swoosh down a 50-foot-long tube into a net pen floating in the Salish Sea.
The 2022 Chinook Orca Research and Education (C.O.R.E.) Project had begun.
A unique partner collaboration between a Tribal nation, government agencies, nonprofits and fishermen, the C.O.R.E. Project has a big goal: To raise big, healthy Chinook salmon to feed the southern resident orcas that depend on them for survival. Both native Northwest species are endangered, and saving them is critical to preserving local ecosystems, Tribal treaty rights, Indigenous culture and local fishing.
The C.O.R.E. project is one of hundreds of similar Tribal and WDFW-sponsored regional salmon recovery efforts that have collectively supported struggling salmon populations.
But the science and education behind the C.O.R.E. Project – and the sheer breadth of the collaboration – are what make it unique.
Partnering to Save Species
“This project is a unique partner collaboration,” explains Wayne Harmond, founder of the nonprofit Northwest Salmon Research which umbrellas the project. “It began when a group of us fishermen and outdoors folk grew increasingly concerned at dwindling salmon populations here in Puget Sound.”
Part of Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, the group took seriously Inslee’s executive order to begin actions to save the critically endangered and beloved whale. They researched a new aquaculture technique coming out of southeast Alaska, where young salmon fry from hatcheries were given an intensive period of salt-water care and feeding before release, instead of the usual release into a local freshwater river to start their fresh-to-saltwater migration. The technique increased some salmon runs threefold – a game-changer for a species whose survival rate to adulthood is usually six in 3,000.
Inspired, Harmond reached out to Tacoma Public Schools’ Science and Math Institute, an innovative high school uniquely housed inside Point Defiance Park. The project fit the school’s mission of connecting students to real-world learning, and the partnership began, operating off-campus for the last couple of years and reduced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the project grew, partners included the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Tacoma Public Schools (TPS), Metro Parks Tacoma, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Puget Sound Anglers (Gig Harbor chapter), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, with support from Bio-Oregon, The Harmon Brewery, Orca Design Group and E6 PR.
This spring, however, the project found a forever home at Point Defiance Marina, thanks to an amended lease signed by Metro Parks Tacoma and the DNR. Hatched by both the Puyallup Tribe and the WDFW, hosted by Metro Parks, cared for by SAMi students and anglers and monitored after release by the WDFW, these salmon are truly being raised by a village.
“We’re really excited that we can host such a wonderful partner project,” said Joe Brady, deputy director of regional parks and attractions. “Conservation is a big goal for Metro Parks, and our agency is proud to lean in with our facilities and staff to help strength Chinook and orca populations. This project is really incredible.”
Before they get released to the big wide water, however, these salmon are giving many SAMi students an unparalleled chance to learn real-world science. Students in the Fisheries Management class (a curriculum created specifically for the project) designed, tested and engineered two net pens constructed by local anglers that would float moored to the regular boat dock. Just a short walk down from the main classroom buildings, the dock has easy access to a second classroom lab inside the marina’s boathouse.
Fishery and marine science students will be onsite every day to feed the chinook their high-saline diet, weigh and measure them, and test water quality. (Weekend shifts are taken on by the anglers.)
Meanwhile, the Underwater Robotics class designed and built underwater ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) to monitor the growing fish and condition of the net in situ. Students from Chief Leschi may also come to help care for and study the fish. Each baby salmon will get a distinct coded wire tag and adipose fin clip or marking to collect data on growth, survival and migration. These will in turn inform future practices.
“This project is brilliant for our students,” said Liz Minks, SAMi co-director. “Not only do they get to learn and practice life and physical sciences in a real-world setting, they help advance stewardship of two endangered species. They become a part of a partnership, something bigger than all of us. It’s empathy and community – two of our school’s values – coming to life.”
“I love this school for the opportunities to do hands-on work and learning,” explained sophomore Jordan Allen, watching with the marine biology class. “I am hoping to get into marine biology as a career, so being able to work in the field is amazing.”
Fish Delivery Day
When the first 25,000 fry arrived from the Puyallup Tribe hatchery that May morning, there were plenty of folks there to welcome them. As the special hatchery truck was positioned near the top of the dock, Tribal staff attached a wide, translucent blue tube to its tank and fed it down the ramp to the floating pens. Chief Salmon Officer Blake Smith scooped up a couple of buckets of sea water and stood by the truck.
“Ready?” he called.
“Ready!” came back the answer.
The pump switched on, and a river of salmon fry pulsed down the tube and gushed out into the pens, the tiny silver fish flipping and darting in the cool green water.
“Woah, super cool,” murmured students watching from above.
As Smith flushed the last of the salmon down with the buckets and the flow trickled to a stop, his team stood up with proud looks. A rousing cheer went up above from SAMi and Metro Parks onlookers, who would be back the next day for the other 25,000 Puyallup fish, and then again for 50,000 hatched by the WDFW.
Chinook recovery had begun for 2022.
“The number of groups working on this project shows the broad partnership we need to recover salmon in the Salish Sea. It’s great to see the students getting involved,” Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman Bill Sterud said. “Bringing back salmon benefits all of us.”
SEE & LEARN: The C.O.R.E. Project’s Chinook salmon raising pens can be seen from above at the Point Defiance Marina through June. Learn more at nwsalmonresearch.org/chinook-orca-recovery-project.
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