Salmon have lots of problems in many places. But some places have solutions. One is the Nisqually River in Washington State. There, wild Chinook Salmon were eliminated decades ago by overfishing and habitat loss. Now, an unusual coalition of politicians, civic planners, wildlife managers, farmers, fishing folks, and the Nisqually Indians are engaged in a visionary, long-term campaign to restore salmon habitats that had been degraded, and to work specifically toward recovery of the now-endangered Chinook.
That’s why we showed up to film Episode Four of our PBS TV series, Saving The Ocean with Carl Safina.
The Nisqually River is largely fed by glacier- and snow-melt from the ancient volcano we call Mt. Rainier, which, at over 14,000 feet, is very imposing even from 70 miles away near the river’s mouth.
At the rivermouth, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge manager Jean Takekawa showed me how hundreds of acres of tidal wetlands that serve as salmon nurseries are being re-created following removal of a mile-long, century-old dike built to isolate and then drain the area for cattle farming.
Farther upstream, biologists working for the Tribe and the Nisqually River Foundation showed me how large, dead trees are being placed in stream channels to provide flood, shelter, and shade for baby salmon. We snorkeled in cold pools to see the exquisite young fish fluttering in the sun-dappled current.
Then we visited a meadow that had been drained and clear-cut, where the river has now been re-established and thousands of tree seedlings have been planted.
Farther still, we saw how residents of one town are building “rain gardens” on lawns and near stores, to catch rain, prevent runoff, and re-charge the groundwater, thus helping to even-out river flows.
And as far up the Nisqually as a salmon can swim, we visited a dam built on a waterfall that salmon had never historically passed. The dam now guarantees a certain minimum flow to the river during summer, helping salmon survive drought.
Meanwhile, at the river’s lower reaches, we fished with Indian netters whose catch depends on fish returning to a hatchery near there. It was a distinct honor to meet 80-year-old legendary Indian chief Billy Frank, whose vision and tenacity are a big reason there are still people fishing, still salmon, and a dream of greater recovery.
They may always need the hatchery. But the vision is to bring back the now-endangered wild Chinook. And with them the Coho, Steelhead, and Pink salmon, to secure the future for salmon and the people and wild creatures—from eagles to killer whales—that rely on salmon.
That’s how the people on the Nisqually River are, “Saving the Ocean.”