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Maxwelton salmon vigil continues

Whidbey Watershed Stewards volunteer Gregg Ridder and Robin Clark, the organization’s program manager, examine a cutthroat fry caught in a fish trap. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Whidbey Watershed Stewards volunteer Gregg Ridder and Robin Clark, the organization’s program manager, examine a cutthroat fry caught in a fish trap.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

A stickleback and a whole lot of Western tent caterpillars don’t count, so the total for the day was one — a single cutthroat trout fry measuring barely one-inch long. Justin Burnett / The Record | Gregg Ridder of Whidbey Watershed Stewards marks down the day’s catch.

But no coho smolt.

For Whidbey Watershed Stewards, a group that has for the past 10 years spent every May counting salmon smolt and fry twice a day in Maxwelton Creek, that’s not too bad. This year is a bit better than normal, but the average tally at the end of the four-week run rarely exceeds double digits.

It wasn’t always so, however.

“Our smolt count is about 100 and it should be tens of thousands,” said Gregg Ridder, a Clinton resident who has monitored the organization’s trap on French since 2005.

Whidbey Watershed Stewards is a South Whidbey-based organization with a three-part mission: to promote watershed stewardship, habitat enhancement, and environmental education for all ages.

Stewards like Ridder believe the Maxwelton watershed was once a hive of spawning salmon and smolt, the biological stage in which fry begin the transition from freshwater to saltwater fish and start migrating out of estuaries and streams. In fact, historical reports indicate the area was once so thick with the carcasses of spawned salmon that farmers would shovel them up for use as fertilizer.

That all changed with the development of waterfront homes on Maxwelton Beach and the closing of the estuary long ago. Improvements to a tide gate in 2006 may have made some difference, but numbers are a pale reflection of the past.

“It’s just a small remnant of what used to be here,” Ridder said.

According to Robin Clark, program manager for Whidbey Watershed Stewards and the organization’s restoration ecologist, some dispute that any salmon exist in the watershed at all, despite the annual count.

“Old timers will say, ‘There’s no fish in that creek,’ ” Clark said.

She emphasized that the data gathered in the annual testing may demonstrate the need for future improvements to the tide gate, but the group has no ambitions of removing it altogether or making radical changes to the beachfront community.

Rather, the annual count is utilized as a tool for gauging water quality and is an opportunity for education about a fish that plays an instrumental role in the environment, she said.

“Our whole ecosystem is based on salmon,” Clark said. Justin Burnett / The Record | Robin Clark and Gregg Ridder of Whidbey Watershed Stewards check the organization’s fish trap on French Road as part of the annual May smolt count.

They are a food source for eagles, ospreys, black bears, marine mammals and other fish, to name just a few; even the bodies of spawned salmon provide essential nutrients to the surrounding environment.

“You can go on and on,” Clark said.

Whidbey schools have been quick to take advantage of the organization, and its dedication toward improving the health of the Maxwelton Watershed. Students from all over the island utilize the Outdoor Classroom, located on the creek, with teachers incorporating salmon lifecycle lessons into class curriculum.

Earlier this year, about 100 South Whidbey Elementary School fifth graders reared 250 coho eggs in an aquarium then released the fry into the watershed.

“Our kids really have a unique opportunity for marine sciences,” said Jo Moccia, superintendent of the South Whidbey School District.

“It’s really special,” she added.

According to Rick Baker, executive director of Whidbey Watershed Stewards, salmon are a cornerstone of the environment in the Pacific Northwest, so efforts like the annual smolt count and partnering with local schools to educate future generations simply makes sense.

“If the salmon population goes down, the whole system goes down,” he said.

That importance is why longtime volunteers like Ridder keeping coming back, year after year. He spends every May slipping into wet waders and picking dead tent caterpillars out of a fish trap because learning about salmon and their impact matters. At the very least, the data collected is demonstrating one thing.

“The big conclusion is fish are still able to make it up this stream,” Ridder said.

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