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Maxwelton Creek: A conflict of nature and traditions

Maxwelton Creek does not meet basic state water quality standards for salmon based on a study released recently by a non-profit research group.

The issue is not pollution, but temperature. The water in the 12-mile stream is too warm, has few deep pools, and at times quits flowing, all of which lowers the ability of the water to maintain oxygen levels for fish, according to the study done by Washington Trout, a non-profit science-based fish conservation organization.

In addition, researchers identified 19 of 38 culverts that were significantly blocked, inhibiting access for adult salmon or cutthroat trout swimming upstream. Each of them were rated as being two-thirds to completely blocked, often by sedimentation. Three culverts were in such disrepair the study recommended they be replaced as soon as possible.

Washington Trout spent much of the last year researching the watersheds of Maxwelton Creek and Chapman Creek on Camano Island to gather data for the Island County Watershed Restoration Planning project. Researchers received permission from 83 of 154 landowners along Maxwelton Creek to analyze habitat, identify problems, and make counts of adult and juvenile salmon, as well as cutthroat trout.

The 54 percent cooperation rate is very high when compared to similar studies done in western Washington, said Jamie Glasgow, director of science and research for Washington Trout. That cooperation did not translate into river miles, however, as it only provided access to about 28 percent of the creek and its tributaries.

Biologists monitored water temperature at seven sites along Maxwelton Creek, Quade Creek, and smaller tributaries last summer and fall. Four of those sites had summer temperatures that averaged well above the state acceptable standard of 60.8 degrees Fahrenheit for spawning and 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit for rearing, based on a one-week average surrounding peak temperatures.

The worst of the Maxwelton sites averaged 73.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Only one site, averaging 59 degrees Fahrenheit, was within acceptable limits. The remaining two sites are still inconclusive because the water levels got so low that the electronic monitoring equipment was exposed to air temperatures.

Obstructive culverts and high water temperatures point to a system that inhibits adults as they move upstream in the fall and stresses salmon fry as they try to survive their first year of life in the freshwater, pointed out Mary Lou White, project coordinator for Washington Trout.

Yet, against all odds, the evidence also shows that salmon fry do survive, migrate to saltwater, and return to spawn again.

The study found one live adult salmon and three carcasses last fall and evidence of spawning activity in ten locations. Juvenile salmon, captured live by electro-fishing, were found in 14 locations.

The redds, or salmon spawning beds, are probably the best indicator that adults reach upstream, Glasgow said. “You can make the assumption, if you had 10 redds, then you likely have at least 20 fish,” he said.

Fish traps, set last year and monitored by Maxwelton Salmon Adventure, found more than 200 salmon fry and 400 young cutthroat trout in the creek. Those fish are thought to be the result of planting egg boxes done by local students as part of Maxwelton Salmon Adventure’s Outdoor Classroom, said Jan Holbrook, a fisheries biologist and member of the group. To get a better idea of natural production, the group has ceased planting the salmon eggs, she said.

The Washington Trout study did not make an effort to determine the system’s potential carrying capacity, Glasgow said. That would require access to more of the creek, he said.

“Maxwelton Creek: A conflict of science and traditions” is a multi-part series examining recent research into the creek’s viability as a salmon spawning ground.

Washington Trout has an interactive Web site providing photos, maps, and data from the last year’s research. The information can be found at www.washingtontrout.org/islandco/ and then click on the sectioned map for detailed information by location.

Maxwelton Creek: A conflict of science and traditions

Study shows creek doesn’t meet temperature standards for salmon spawning, rearing

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