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A new day is dawning on Dogfish Creek

POULSBO — From the northern reaches of Vancouver Island to the southern tip of Liberty Bay, she has dodged sea lions and outrun orcas for weeks to fulfill a mission that she will ultimately pay for with her life. She is a coho salmon, returning to the stream of her birth where she will give birth and then die. She is returning to Dogfish Creek.

For more than 40 years, salmon have returned to Dogfish Creek, only to find their way into the creek severely restricted by a culvert under Lindvig Way. Their offspring, struggling to get out of the creek and into saltwater found the reverse journey just as daunting because of the culvert. Indeed, the whole creek environment has suffered as, year by year, silt accumulated at either end of the culvert, slowly converting the once thriving estuary into what is known as a “dead zone.”

But today is a different day.

This summer, the City of Poulsbo’s contractor, Stan Palmer Construction, removed the culvert and the last of the surrounding fill from the site, along with a rock weir that had been installed in the 1970s.

“We’ve finally gotten rid of that old culvert, and we’re giving salmon a fighting chance,” explained Poulsbo Mayor Donna Jean Bruce.

The city is replacing the culvert and fill with a new bridge, now nearly completed. This project is fully paid for by the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the state Department of Transportation’s City Fish Passage Fund. No city funds were used to pay for the project.

“This is a good, solid project,” said Mike Ramsey, a grant manager with the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. “It benefits multiple species of fish and we see it as having a high certainty of success.”

The Suquamish Tribe and the Liberty Bay Foundation are monitoring the stream’s recovery. Additionally, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board has awarded the foundation a grant to plant native vegetation and restore habitat features along Dogfish Creek and out into Liberty Bay.

“For young salmon around that culvert, it was like trying to eat in a hurricane,” said Kathleen Byrne-Barrantes, project director for the Liberty Bay Foundation Nearshore Habitat Evaluation and Enhancement Project. “Now that the culvert is gone, we can get in there to replant the banks and establish refuge areas for fish.”

So what will happen now that the culvert is gone?

Paul Dorn, Salmon Recovery Coordinator with the Suquamish Tribe, said saltwater and freshwater will mix more evenly, recreating an estuary capable of sustaining life. Estuary waters provide a place of protection, where young salmon can feed and grow strong before heading out to sea, and a place of rest for returning adults as they prepare for their final surge upstream. Restoration of the estuary will also help other native wildlife and vegetation.

Herring and candlefish, sculpin and sea run cutthroat will find forage and cover in the shade of overhanging willows, salmonberry and alder. River otters and raccoon will find plenty to eat and deer will begin to frequent the banks to graze on tender vegetation. As winter flows find easier passage out to sea, they’ll be able to carry large pieces of wood that will become habitat for fish.

Scientists expect vegetation to re-establish itself over the next one to two years, with full recovery taking at least a decade. Even so, there will also be significant, observable improvement as early as this fall.

What people may first notice as the stream begins to recover is that the waters at the mouth of the creek may appear muddier than usual. This will continue for a time as the stream washes out some of the accumulated muck that has suffocated its banks. The more natural gradient of the stream will enable the creek to meander more freely. The shifting current will loosen and wash away soils and gravel to become valuable habitat for salmon eggs. As the meandering pattern tightens, winter flows, strong and impatient, will carve shortcuts across the channel bends, creating precious backwaters where young fish can rest and hide from predators.

Dorn said he sees this project as a turning point for Dogfish Creek’s ability to sustain wild salmon runs.

“Small streams like Dogfish Creek are historically among the most productive. At one time, there were likely 5,000 to 10,000 salmon returning to this creek — mostly chum, but lots of coho as well, along with a few cutthroat, steelhead and an occasional sockeye,” he explained, noting that the Suquamish Tribe and Trout Unlimited have been stocking the stream with coho and Chinook since 1984. “The coho are hatchery fish, but they could become wild in just a few generations.” Dorn was quick to point out that landowners along the creek are pivotal in assisting this stream in its recovery.

“They’ve been a great help,” he remarked.

Volunteers will soon be needed to replant native species and help position large woody debris where it can provide shelter for fish and the bugs they eat. For information on how you can participate, visit www.libertybayfoundation.com.

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