BAKER RIVER — Several small metal boats followed by drifting nets took turns late last week riding the Baker River’s flow from the Highway 20 bridge in Concrete down to its convergence with the Skagit River.
As each group of two or three fishers hauled in their nets, they revealed varying numbers of shiny salmon; some just a handful, others a dozen or more. Then they waited their turn to return to the water.
“They’re all camped out along the shore here,” Upper Skagit Indian Tribe biologist Jon-Paul Shannahan said of the congregation at the Baker River. “It’s a community event, and it’s a historic village site, so it’s bittersweet for them to come back to these ancestral lands to fish.”
Tribal officials welcomed first-time visitors to the river’s banks to observe as several members labored during the quick and intense fishery — it opens for 26 hours twice this year, the first being 7 a.m. June 27 to 9 a.m. June 28. Among the guests were chefs and seafood distributors from restaurants and markets in Bellingham, Seattle and other areas of the state.
“Instead of farm to table, it’s more like river to table,” Shannahan said.
They were there to see first-hand where some of their salmon comes from, as well as to hear how the fishery has regrown, from a low of less than 100 fish in the 1980s to returns consistently in the 10,000 to 30,000 range.
Riley Starks, marketing manager for Lummi Island Wild, which acts as a cooperative that purchases and sells seafood from the region’s sustainable fisheries, said the organization wanted to see and show off the Baker River fishery since it is growing, highly regulated and done through a partnership between the tribe and a private electric company that operates the Baker River Dam.
Tribe General Manager Doreen Maloney also highlighted the partnership with Puget Sound Energy’s Baker River Dam operators, as well as with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, with which the tribe co-manages the fishery.
“We can only do this with cooperation from the state agency and PSE,” she said. “Here is what we can do if we work together.”
Lummi Island Wild President Emeritus Keith Carpenter said he was impressed with the intense management of the tribe’s fishery.
“This is undoubtedly the best-managed fishery in the world,” he said.
Its start depends on operators at the Baker River Dam allowing just enough flow to put the river at about 4 feet deep.
Then the tribe starts its drifts like clockwork, with a roster of boats that rotate on and off the river, getting 6.5 minutes each time it’s their turn to take out their net.
Twenty-three boats — some carrying families like Scott, Trudy and Janelle Schuyler — were on the roster June 27.
“It’s really a family affair,” said Maloney, who is on the tribal council and head of the tribe’s natural resources department.
Tribal and Lummi Island Wild representatives said the fishery is managed with consideration for the endangered Southern Resident orcas — making it a prime source of seafood that will soon be labeled as “orca safe.”
“The fishery is managed for orcas by limiting impacts to chinook,” Shannahan said.
Chinook salmon are the endangered Southern Resident orcas’ preferred food. The Puget Sound chinook population includes fish from the Skagit River being listed as a threatened species since 2005.
AVOIDING ORCA IMPACT
The freshwater fishery doesn’t harvest any fish that an orca may have eaten.
“Once they’ve left the saltwater and they are in the river, they will never be in front of an orca again,” Carpenter said.
Still, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe is careful to avoid catching chinook salmon, which are in the Skagit River at the same time as the sockeye run, by strategically keeping most fishing in the quarter-mile section of the Baker River below the dam and using nets that are too small to catch chinook.
Shannahan said up to 90 percent of the fishing is done in that quarter-mile stretch where chinook are rare, but sockeye can be abundant on their journey to Baker Lake to spawn.
“The chinook tend to go into the Sauk, Suiattle and Cascade rivers; They don’t duck into the Baker much at all,” he said.
Still, the tribe’s sockeye fishery is timed between the peaks of the spring and summer chinook runs on the Skagit River, in an effort to further avoid them.
“It’s the timing, the location and the gear restrictions that limit the impacts to chinook,” Shannhan said.
The tribe limits its nets to 5.25-inch mesh, which can catch sockeye that average 5 pounds per fish, but not the larger chinook salmon that average 10-15 pounds, according to Fish & Wildlife.
“The chinook bounce off of it ... They are too big to get gilled in it,” Shannahan said. “You’ll see a chinook bob on the net and then they’re gone.”
Lummi Island Wild General Manager Ian Kirouac said the Upper Skagit sockeye fishery meets the three main bullet points outlined in the new Orca Safe Initiative launched by the organization to fight misinformation about the impact of river fishing on the whales and highlight responsibly-sourced fish.
The three bullet points are being what’s called a terminal fishery where the fish are done with the ocean portion of their life cycle, sustainable management of the fishery and use of gear that results in little or no bycatch.
SEEING THE SOURCE
The factors required for inclusion in the Orca Safe Initiative are important to chefs and seafood markets that tout sustainably sourced fish.
About a dozen of those on the food service side of the fishery were excited to see the harvest and collect their freshest 25-pound boxes of Baker River sockeye yet — pulled from the river and placed on ice that very morning.
“This is really special,” Lummi Island Wild’s Carpenter said as chefs from Keenan’s at the Pier in Bellingham, Rifugio’s Country Italian Cuisine in Deming and Pike Place Chowder in Seattle gathered at the river.
Excitement built among chefs and guests, including the famed fish-throwing Pike Place Fish Market and major distributor U.S. Foods as they waited to walk to the riverbank to see the fishing in action.
“How exciting,” said Richard Balogh, executive chef at Rifugio’s, as he changed his shoes to cross the muddy terrain.
Carpenter said the Baker River sockeye are particularly prized due to their sourcing from the glacier-fed Skagit River watershed and their high fat content, which boosts nutrition and flavor.
“These fish are second to none,” he said. “They have consistently better fat content (than other Pacific Northwest fish).”
Colin Kiplinger of Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market was thrilled to see where some of the fish he tosses at Pike Place Market comes from.
“We should have this fish in a few weeks,” he said.
That Baker River sockeye can be prepared for market places and dinner plates is a sign of success.
Thirty years ago, there were simply too few. In 1985, the return dipped to a record low of 99 fish. But in recent years, the sockeye have returned in the thousands, with a record about 32,000 in 2015, thanks to the efforts of the co-managers and changes at PSE’s Baker River Dam.
The return could top that record this year, according to the Fish and Wildlife forecast that calls for about 34,000 of the fish to make their way upstream.
Maloney said that’s a great success, but the co-managers have their sights set a run of about 60,000 fish each year.
Arnold “Arnie” Aspelund, a fishery scientist with PSE, said the sockeye recently started making their way up the Skagit River to the Baker River and the trap used to hold the fish at the dam until they can be transported to Baker Lake by truck.
According to Fish and Wildlife data, the first fish was seen in the trap June 10, and more than 600 fish were trapped and trucked to the lake in the next couple weeks. They’re expected to arrive in the hundreds each day through late July.
“We’re going to see numbers begin to escalate in the next few weeks,” Aspelund said.
In addition to managing the dam to support the short fishery and collect and transport the fish, PSE plays another important role in managing the fishery by running a Fish and Wildlife hatchery program on Baker Lake.
The hatchery uses traditional methods for incubating salmon eggs, as well as a one-of-a-kind spawning beach that mimics the natural setting where the fish would have spawned before the dam was built, causing Baker Lake to inundate shoreline habitats.
“These beaches are very innovative,” Shannahan said. “It’s basically a controlled natural environment.”
In a third and final act of “life stage interventions,” as Aspelund puts it, PSE funnels young fish in the lake through what’s called a surface collector to get them downstream of the dam for their journey out to sea.
“Here we are, observing a fishery,” he said. “It’s a process that has evolved since these fish were on the brink about 30 years ago.”