Story by Greg Lane
“Fish are friends, not food,” said Bruce the shark in Pixar’s movie “Finding Nemo.” The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, also known as NSEA, shares this philosophy and aims to protect the salmon of Whatcom County and the Bellingham area.
NSEA is a nonprofit and community-run organization filled with staff and volunteers who have a passion for protecting and providing for the salmon in Whatcom County. Whether they do so through work projects, the development of new restoration strategies, community partnerships, or education, NSEA is striving for a healthy and sustainable salmon environment.
Maggie Long, the NSEA education manager, said this year, for the first time, they hosted a free guided tour about the chum salmon spawning cycle along Arroyo Park’s stretch of Chuckanut Creek Nov. 23.
“We get calls every fall [from] people wondering if they can see salmon,” Long said. She said that with the guided tour event NSEA hoped to “connect people” with the salmon in Whatcom County.
Annitra Ferderer, the NSEA program manager, helped lead the tour and said she had a similar goal in mind.
“A lot of people know about salmon and their lives but here in Bellingham not everyone knows where to find healthy salmon,” Ferderer said. “Here at Chuckanut Creek the salmon are very healthy.”
For Ferderer, she said that the guided tour was both an outreach and educational opportunity where people could learn more about NSEA as well as the wildlife of the region.
“It’s important to educate people on what’s happening to the salmon,” Ferderer said. “It’s a whole life cycle.”
As Ferderer explained the cycle of life and death salmon undergo each year on the tour, she pointed out the signs of dying salmon, such as lateral spikes up the spine, beaten-up tails, and an overall deterioration of the body.
The death of the older salmon provides for the next generation in an attempt at new life, Ferderer said. Spawning salmon do not feed once they return to the streams and rivers where they themselves were born and typically die within weeks of when they spawn, said Ferderer.
Ferderer said the dead salmon decompose and their bodies feed the entire ecosystem where their offspring will grow and eventually return one to eight years, later depending on the fish, when they are ready to spawn.
“It’s inspiring to the see the barriers the fish overcome,” Ferderer said. “Against all odds they made it back here.”
Lorraine Day, a volunteer with NSEA helped lead the tour as well.
“It’s a pleasure to be out here,” Day said. “I’m thrilled they’re starting this program.”
She described the fish as “charismatic.”
“I’ve heard about them for 20 years and didn’t care—but when I spend 10 minutes here with them I fall in love,” Day said.
Day said that salmon support countless other species, both in the water and on land. She said even the trees in the area have some salmon DNA in them, and that salmon are vital to a healthier stream or river ecosystem.
While Day talked about the salmon and their life cycle, she explained that the mortality rate of the fish is like a pyramid.
“Of the three to four-thousand eggs laid, we’re lucky to have about two percent survive to make it back,” Day said.
Day said the dangers salmon face just in the rivers and first stages of life include flooding, hungry birds, and trout and other fish eating the eggs.
In the ocean salmon contend with even more dangers, Day said. “Salmon are a main source of food for orcas and other large predators,” she said.
Day said low herring populations can be a problem for salmon as well. Salmon eat herring, and low populations can cause salmon starvation.
Some students at Whatcom Community College have helped to protect and preserve salmon through NSEA.
For a service-learning project in Debra Lancaster’s 221 Biology course, Whatcom students Phillip Daniels, Zach Mangus, Hayden Giesbrecht, and Serhiy Zablotskyy worked with NSEA.
Daniels, who said he wants to work in hotel management, said he enjoyed doing the project.
Mangus, who is studying marine biology, said “it is a really good experience and great for resumes.”
Mangus said one of the jobs he and the others accomplished with NSEA was the planting of trees to give more shade over salmon runs, a protective measure.
“NSEA know what they’re doing and they make their events worth it by also providing snacks and prize packs for the volunteers,” Mangus said.
Giesbrecht said he wants to go into environmental studies and eventually work for a nonprofit or a company.
“It was good to get out and enjoy the environment,” Giesbrecht said. “People that are stuck in virtual worlds should get out there.”
Zablotskyy said the service-learning project taught him lifelong values.
All four of them agreed that more Whatcom students should get involved with NSEA and service-learning as a whole.