MARBLEMOUNT — A plan to offer recreation opportunities and improve salmon habitat where a bend in the Skagit River hugs Marblemount is getting a boost in funding.
The $265,600 being given to the nonprofit Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group comes from a penalty levied against Cooke Aquaculture for a 2017 incident in which a company net pen broke, allowing Atlantic salmon to get into the Salish Sea.
The money will allow for completion of Pressentin Park, which has been in the works for several years in coordination with Skagit County Parks and Recreation.
“This is a really high-priority project we have been working on for a long time to support native juvenile chinook,” Skagit Fisheries Executive Director Alison Studley said.
The project will restore a half-mile side channel of the Skagit River that cuts across the property. That will create about 2 acres of fish habitat.
Chinook, a regionally threatened species, is the preferred food of the endangered Southern Resident orcas that spend time in the Salish Sea.
“So it’s an orca recovery project, it’s a Puget Sound chinook recovery project and it’s benefiting people in the community as well by enhancing recreation opportunities for locals and for tourists,” Studley said.
The recreation components include building about 2.5 miles of trails including bridges over the restored channel, putting in a parking area, and allowing overnight camping for hikers and cyclists exploring the North Cascades region.
“Right now you park at the Shell station, so that will be a big improvement,” Studley said.
Skagit County Parks and Recreation Director Brian Adams said in a statement to the state Department of Ecology, which levied the fine and dispersed the funding, that the project will have many benefits.
Plans for Pressentin Park have been in development since the land was donated to Skagit County by the Pressentin family in 1991.
Cooke Aquaculture is now contributing to the $3.4 million project because of a fine Ecology levied against the company for the net pen collapse off the shore of Cypress Island in Skagit County.
The collapse — determined in a state investigation to have been caused by negligence in maintaining the net pen — allowed the release of about 250,000 non-native Atlantic salmon.
“We were really excited to be selected as the recipient of the funds,” Studley said. “Ultimately I think it’s really wonderful that there is something positive coming out of the Atlantic salmon net pen failure. That, yes, that definitely had an impact, and it’s nice to see that the result of that fine is coming back to benefit habitat for native salmon locally.”
By restoring flow from the Skagit River into a side channel, the project will provide a haven of slower-moving water for young chinook salmon migrating to sea and for adult chum and coho salmon returning to spawn.
“One of the limiting factors for chinook salmon is slow moving side channel habitat where young fish can grow to be bigger and rest before they migrate out to the saltwater,” Studley said. “That’s something we’ve lost a lot of on the Skagit.”
The restored channel will be modeled after the nearby, well-functioning Marblemount Slough. Work will include digging out the channel, establishing multiple inflows and gravel bars, and planting 11 acres of native vegetation to stabilize the banks and establish stream-side forest.
Creating viewing platforms over the channel and interpretive signs about its function are also important components of the project.
“We’re excited to be able to direct people to Pressentin Park to walk the trail and view salmon spawning in their natural habitat,” Studley said. “In the Skagit there are a lot of salmon to see, but not a lot of places to see them.”
The project was nearly ready for construction this summer, but that was postponed when it was determined another few hundred thousands dollars was needed, and by the limitations on work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID kind of stopped us from doing the big elements of construction this year, but it is now entirely funded,” Studley said. “Receiving the funds from Cooke Aquaculture from the Department of Ecology fine has provided us all of the remaining funds we need to implement the project in all of its components.”
Other funding has been provided by various programs of the state Recreation and Conservation Office and a National Fish & Wildlife Foundation program aimed at the orcas.