Western Washington University will partner with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association to offer two new certificates that prepare students for careers in salmon restoration.
The certificates seek to address declining rates of Pacific salmon, including several threatened or endangered species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Pacific salmon play a key role in the ecosystems, economies and Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest.
Students who have declared a major in the College of the Environment can apply to the salmon enhancement: community education certificate or the salmon enhancement: habitat restoration certificate in fall 2023 or spring 2024. Admitted students will complete a guaranteed paid internship with the NSEA.
“I grew up in a family of commercial fishermen and I spent my teenage years on the back of . . . a salmon gillnetter in Bristol Bay, Alaska,” said Rebekah Paci-Green, the chair of the environmental studies department at Western. “I’ve personally touched about 10,000 fish.”
Paci-Green said Western and the NSEA had been working to institute a certificate program for about two years and she is excited to see it finalized. The curriculum will include existing courses taught by Western faculty, but may add NSEA-directed courses in the future.
The collaboration builds on a previous working relationship between the organizations.
Sarah Brown, the stewardship program manager at NSEA, said many Western students intern at NSEA and volunteer at their work parties due to the organization’s proximity. NSEA helped formalize their partnership by offering paid internships to supplement Western’s curriculum for the certificates.
“Some of the benefits that NSEA can provide through these internships is real world experience in the nonprofit sector,” Brown said. “Especially firsthand experience in a smaller scale component of salmon recovery, including restoration techniques that we use in our local stream; education and outreach techniques that we use to help people learn more about salmon; and networking opportunities.”
The Washington State Legislature created the Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group Program in 1990 to involve communities in salmon recovery. NSEA is one of 14 RFEGs that act as independent nonprofits serving watersheds across the state.
As the RFEG for Whatcom County, NSEA works on restoration projects with landowners, educates public school students on salmon and hosts volunteer work parties near stream habitats.
Brown said students working toward either certificate can expect to participate in both community engagement and habitat restoration during their NSEA internship, fulfilling various roles that allow NSEA to continue its efforts.
Leo Bodensteiner teaches courses on limnology, fish biology and fish habitat assessment at Western, which are required for the salmon enhancement: habitat restoration certificate. He was also a former member of NSEA’s board of directors.
“This engages [interns] not just in the practice of going out and cutting down blackberries and planting trees, but also gives them all the reasons and all the science behind it,” Bodensteiner said. “You end up with people who are poised to become leaders in that field versus technicians. . . . Ten years from now we want our students to be leading people doing these kinds of things.”
He added that similar NSEA internships were previously volunteer positions and the addition of paid internships makes the certificates more accessible for students who need a summer income.
The NSEA Promise includes Pacific salmon and steelhead trout, both belonging to the genus Oncorhynchus, which means they are closely related. There are five species of Pacific salmon and the National Marine Fisheries Service designates evolutionarily significant units within those species that are reproductively isolated and an important part of the species’ evolutionary legacy.
“There are about 52 evolutionary significant units along the West coast and about half of those are listed under the Endangered Species Act as either threatened or endangered,” said Christopher Caudill, an associate professor of fisheries at the University of Idaho.
Pacific salmon are anadromous, meaning they are born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to mature and then return to fresh water to respawn.
“They migrate from the ocean as adults, where in the ocean they gain about 90 to 95% of their biomass,” Caudill said. “When they come back and spawn in streams, most of them are what’s called semelparous. They spawn and die, and famously when they die those carcasses degrade within the stream. . . . The transport of those nutrients is really important to the streams.”
He said people can remember the threats to salmon by the four Hs: harvesting, habitat, hatcheries and hydropower. A fifth factor is climate change.
“Harvest has been a problem, especially early on large scale industrial harvesting [in the] late 1800s and early 1900s,” Caudill said. “Hydropower gets a lot of attention for two very good reasons. One is in the Columbia Basin, about 42% of the stream miles have been blocked. . . . Many populations have to pass eight or nine large dams to be able to complete their life cycle.”
A chum salmon with a quote bubble saying “Help me!” swims up Oyster Creek in Washington. Two populations of chum salmon in the Pacific Northwest are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. // Courtesy of Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association
Caudill co-authored a 2008 research paper about the drawbacks of transporting juvenile chinook salmon around dams in Washington and Oregon. Researchers tested this proposed solution to dams’ negative impacts on salmon and found it resulted in lower adult migration rates.
Facing mounting public pressure, Washington legislators have debated removing four dams on the lower Snake River, which generate electricity but threaten salmon.
Caudill advised salmon enhancement certificate students to “be excited. There’s lots to do. There are a lot of people who really care about habitat, restoration and watersheds, and one of the reasons I really love my job is I get to work with people like that.”
While the certificates will connect Western students to NSEA, Brown said another way to get involved with the nonprofit is through volunteering at their work parties. NSEA’s Stream Stewards Program hosts work parties at stream habitat sites around Whatcom County.
“It’s just so cool to stand at Whatcom Creek Bridge and watch the salmon jump up from Whatcom Creek,” Paci-Green said.
Mia Limmer-Lai (she/her) is a campus news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a first-year environmental studies and journalism major with an honors interdisciplinary studies minor. Outside of reporting on the people of Western, Mia enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and listening to punk music. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.