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North Fork Nooksack River (WA) Watercraft Closure to Protect Chinook Salmon

Posted: 08/15/2004
by Thomas O'Keefe

The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest recently announced a temporary ban on paddling 2.5 miles of the North Fork of the Nooksack River from the Highway 542 Bridge (at Douglas Fir Campground) to the National Forest Boundary (affecting the intermediate run from Douglas Fir Campground to Mt. Baker Highway mile 27--access to the Horseshoe Bend run upstream remains open). These closures have taken place since the 2000 paddling season and will likely continue. Each year the closure has been announced in mid-August and lasts through March.

Adult salmon spawn in the river from mid-August to mid-September and while there is some evidence that paddlers can affect the behavior of these fish (which the Forest Service interprets as a take under the Endangered Species Act), the closure lasts well beyond the date when the last adult fish dies (around the 1st of October). The primary concern during this later, and longer, phase of the closure is impacts paddlers may have on nesting sites if they were to leave their boat or scrape along the bottom. Local paddlers and volunteers believe it is possible to allow paddling from October to March, when winter rains bring the river up to ideal flows for whitewater paddlers and keep the nests well covered. Voluntary requirements to remain in your boat when passing through this 2.5 mile reach (except in an emergency), and avoid the river during low flows could allow paddling opportunties while protecting salmon.

The Forest Service released the following news release announcing this closure:

Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, News Release 3AUG2004

A temporary rafting and boating closure will be in effect beginning noon, August 9, 2004 on a section of the North Fork Nooksack River in Whatcom County to protect spawning spring chinook salmon, a federally protected species, according to John Phipps, Forest Supervisor of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The closure will be just east of Glacier extending from the Highway 542 bridge near the Douglas-Fir Campground, downstream about 2-1/2 miles to the National Forest boundary, located about one-quarter mile upstream from the mouth of Cornell Creek.

The temporary ban, deemed necessary to protect vulnerable spawning salmon from boats and other recreational disturbances, applies to all private and commercial boating and rafting during a period of high recreational floating activities. Commercial rafting guide operators have been notified of the closure so that contingency plans can be arranged.

A similar temporary closure was required last August due to a combination of receding river levels and a concentration of spawning chinook. This action is taken in cooperation with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries (National Marine Fisheries Service). Puget Sound chinook were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.

North Fork Nooksack River Watercraft Closure to Protect Chinook Salmon

Due to a combination of receding river levels and a concentration of spawning chinook, a temporary rafting and boating closure is in effect on this section of the North Fork Nooksack River beginning noon, August 9, 2004. The closure is necessary in order to provide protection to "threatened" North Fork Nooksack chinook and to meet USDA Forest Service mandated responsibilities under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.

The closure was implemented due to the following factors:

  • The level of the NF Nooksack River continues to drop and clear up in August;
  • Lower river flows were concentrating chinook spawning in areas where they were vulnerable to disturbance from boaters (spawners were actually observed to move off redds when boaters came nearby);
  • Chinook spawners continue to move into this reach;
  • The confined (canyon) nature of this section of river makes it impossible for boaters to portage around and avoid spawning areas.
  • The closure is needed again this year in order to provide protection to the spawning NF Nooksack spring chinook, a federally protected species.

Chinook Life History

The NF Nooksack chinook is a native stock with adults averaging 20 to 25 pounds and typically spawns in its fourth year of life. Run timing is usually from July through early September and spawning typically starts in early August and continues into late September. The North Fork chinook stock tends to spawn earlier than the South Fork Nooksack stock.

Spawning Biology

Spawning, or redd (spawning nest) building, is a lengthy process taking 15 to 20 days to complete and includes the following three stages:

1. Pre-spawning - Over a period of five days, the female selects a spawning site and begins a set of tentative redd excavations. She may retreat to areas of cover adjacent to her test excavations and be difficult to observe. Disturbance from boat traffic at this time could result in prevention of redd establishment, displacement of fish to less suitable habitats, or creation of poorly- constructed redds (i.e., too shallow to protect eggs adequately).

2. Spawning - The female cleans out all loose gravel and fine sediment in a "pit" in preparation for depositing her eggs within a larger area called a "redd." She alternately digs at the redd and settles back into the depression to release eggs. The male accompanies her continuously and releases sperm or "milt" over the newly laid eggs, which settle into spaces between the gravel. The result is a series of egg filled pits within the cleaned redd perimeter that takes approximately 5 days and is a period which the fish expend a tremendous amount of energy. Disturbance of fish during this period by boaters could result in improperly constructed egg pockets, open scattering of eggs, or prevent spawning all together.

3. Post-Spawning - The males are no longer attentive while the females remain at the redd for approximately 10 days until they die. The females protect the redds by preventing other fish from digging up their redds and damaging the eggs. Disturbance of fish during this period from boating would result in inadequate post-spawning gravel covering and early mortality of females.

Egg to Fry Development

The average chinook female lays around 4000 eggs. The eggs take around 90 to 150 days to develop before emerging from the gravels as fry, usually in late January or February. Egg development time depends primarily on the water temperature. Cooler water slows egg development while warmer water speeds development.

While the eggs are in the gravel they are very vulnerable to damage and mortality from the effects of trampling or boat grounding on redds. Many of the redds are located next to the river's edge and near gravel bars where boaters may enter and exit the river. Restrictions on wading may be necessary during the egg development.

Jennie Goldberg
3048 62ND AVE SW
SEATTLE, WA 98116-2706

Associated Projects

Nooksack Stewardship (WA)
Public access, hydropower development, and resource stewardship are all ongoing issues on this river system.