Salmon are returning! Here’s how you can see and help them

Two large silver colored chinook salmon swimming underwater.
Chinook salmon, listed as threatened in Puget Sound, are the food of choice for the endangered southern resident orcas.

Fall is here: mornings are getting chilly and school buses are back on the road, which means it’s salmon time! As kids are heading back to school, spawning salmon are heading back to the rivers in which they were born. Every year, millions of Washington salmon make the journey upstream against rushing currents, led by their incredible sense of smell. If you’re eager to see them for yourself, join us along the Cedar River in October for the Cedar River Salmon Journey, and trained naturalists will help you spot these salmon.

Washington is home to five types of Pacific salmon: chum, sockeye, Chinook, coho and pink. A threatened run of Chinook, as well as sockeye and coho, return to the Cedar River each fall. Sockeye are the easiest to spot since they spawn together in groups and are brightly colored with red bodies and green heads. Look for larger Chinook in deeper pools, and watch for coho migrating back to the upper reaches of the watershed. October is the best time to visit the Cedar River, when you might catch a glimpse of all three species.

It’s hard to predict how many salmon will succeed in making their way from the Pacific Ocean, through Puget Sound, up the salmon ladders at the Ballard Locks, into Lake Washington and ultimately up the Cedar River. Luckily, if you’re patient and know what to look for, you can observe these incredible creatures in the final stretch of their journey to spawn.

What’s going on with coho salmon?

Salmon play an important role in Pacific Northwest ecosystems and are vital to the health of our region’s environment, both inland along rivers and in the ocean. Unfortunately, they also face numerous threats, and some species are dangerously close to extinction. Coho are particularly at risk of being killed by chemicals found in stormwater runoff, but until recently, we didn’t know exactly why. In December of 2020, scientists discovered stormwater runoff contains 6PPD-quinone, created when a common preservative in tires interacts with ozone and ends up in tire dust on roads. When it rains, tire dust is picked up and washed away by stormwater runoff directly into nearby streams and rivers. This chemical kills 40 to 90% of the coho returning to some urban streams before they have a chance to spawn.

Multiple coho salmon swimming underwater.
Scientists have recently discovered that a chemical found in tire dust is killing up to 90% of the coho salmon returning to some our area's urban streams before they have a chance to spawn.

Wondering what can you do to help?

Now that we know which pollutant is deadly for coho, we can take steps to help coho as they return to spawn. Because the toxic chemical comes from car tires, the tire industry will need to find an alternative preservative to ensure tire dust left on roads is not toxic for coho. 

In the meantime, you can help salmon by driving less. Whenever possible, carpool or take public transit, and if you’re able, walk to your destination! Driving less is good for the environment and climate in general, because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. If you do drive, keep your car tires properly inflated and aligned to reduce wear.

Another way to help is by building a rain garden at your home, school or workplace. Rain gardens are great at filtering pollutants out of stormwater and releasing clean water into the soil. Building a rain garden helps ensure many pollutants, including 6PPD-quinone, are filtered out and don’t end up in local waterways. Small grants may be available in your county to help cover the cost of building a rain garden.

A brown colored storm drain built into the side of a road. The words "dump no waste" along with an outline of a fish are on the drain.
Everything that goes down the drain eventually flows into our local waterways. Small actions like using a commercial car wash can make a big difference for salmon and the marine environment!

These steps are small actions you can take to help coho salmon. There is a need for policy-level change as well. Rep. Kilmer, Rep. Strickland and other Washington state legislators recently called for federal funding to further study and address 6PPD-quinone and other chemicals entering coastal waters. We support that ask and you can too. Find your Congressional representative and urge them to push for further research as well as alternatives for tires that are safe for coho and other aquatic species. The salmon thank you!

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