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Inner tubes are out with ban to save Nooksack River salmon

The Whatcom County Council has banned inner-tubing on the South Fork of the Nooksack River to protect endangered Chinook salmon there.

The shallow river is a popular summer spot for inner tubers, paddleboarders, and other flotation-device users.

Hundreds of people float up to 8 miles down the warm, clear river.

But the South Fork has gotten so warm in recent summers that many Chinook salmon are dying before they can spawn.

In the summer of 2021, an estimated 2,500 Chinook salmon died in the South Fork before they could spawn, felled by heat-loving microbes (bacteria, parasites, and algae). Biologist Treva Coe with the Nooksack Indian Tribe natural resources department said the tribe doesn’t have a full estimate for 2022 yet, but at least 100 Chinooks died before spawning in the South Fork in 2022.

Protected under the Endangered Species Act, the South Fork Chinook salmon population is 98% below its recovery goal.

With the run in desperate shape, officials from the Nooksack and Lummi tribes said any additional stresses, like getting spooked by humans passing overhead or fish eggs getting trampled, could help push these fish to extinction.

At a county council hearing Tuesday night, Coe played an underwater video of big South Fork Chinook salmon darting across the screen as a swimmer passes by.

“You can see how the fish startled and scatter when a swimmer floats overhead,” Coe said.

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1 min Endangered Chinook salmon in the South Fork Nooksack River near Acme, Washington, scatter as a swimmer passes overhead in August 2021.
Nooksack Tribe Natural Resources Department

Once salmon return from the ocean to spawn in freshwater, they stop eating. So they have limited reserves of energy to power them upstream to their spawning grounds before they die.

Fans of floating down the river say the ban on tubing—set to begin 10 days after County Executive Satpal Sidhu signs the measure—won’t get the endangered fish out of hot water.

They urged the council to focus on the many other problems these fish face.

“People are still going to float,” said Preston Hall of Bellingham, who said he floats the river 15 to 25 times a year. “It's not a tuber problem. It is a warmth problem of heat, which would attribute to climate change that we need to resolve.”

“The temperature does stress the fish. But so [do] tubers,” said Lummi Nation Natural Resources Director Merle Jefferson. “When the tubers are there, they scare them, and they stress the fish. These fish are very delicate, and they're very stressed, and they can have mortalities very fast.”

The county council voted 4-2 Tuesday night to end summer tubing on the South Fork despite pleas by longtime inner tubers and the small businesses they support in the rural Acme area.

“We will not survive without the additional revenues that are brought in during the summer,” said Jacki Rossing, co-owner of the Acme General Store, which she described as the only storefront for the 24 miles between the towns of Sedro-Woolley and Deming. “And if we go down, if we're no longer there to service our community, it's on you.”

Tribal officials said there has been no commercial fishing aimed at South Fork Chinook in decades, only limited fishing for ceremonial or subsistence use. Most Washington tribes have treaty rights to fish in their traditional areas and co-manage those fisheries with the state.

Longtime river floater and Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Commission member Carl Weimer of Ferndale said his thinking on the issue has changed.

“Contrary to my strong desire to continue to swim and float the South Fork, I now strongly support this proposed ordinance banning flotation on the South Fork,” Weimer said. “It seems like a small sacrifice for us to stop playing in their home for a while while we try to fix the impacts we have created.”

Salmon advocates say humans can go elsewhere to get in the water, but Nooksack salmon cannot.

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