Chum and coho salmon were once plentiful in the Maxwelton creek, nearshore, and estuary. By 1955, however, the salmon runs were believed to be extinct. Maxwelton is the largest watershed on Whidbey Island, and it was just one of many stream systems where fish were disappearing.
Thanks to the urging of a 14-year-old summer resident, the Department of Fish & Wildlife began planting salmon eggs in Maxwelton Creek around 1958. After that Coho salmon were once again seen up into the middle reaches, until the 1970’s when efforts ceased and the runs again disappeared.
In 1988, a new group of local citizens got involved, working to reestablish the salmon runs. Students, teachers and residents set up egg boxes and began raising salmon in the stream in 1990, monitoring it for water quality and signs of spawning and returning salmon.
These efforts were rewarded in 1995, when residents along the creek reported seeing 25 spawning pairs during the fall salmon run. A winter flood…resulted in sightings of salmon crossing the road!
The Maxwelton Stream Inventory of 2003 identified types and locations of fish in the stream system and found ten redds (nests in the gravel streambed made by spawning females) in the creek near the Outdoor Classroom. The report also recommended replacement of several road culverts that appear to be blocking fish passage.
Island County Public Works uses the information to prioritize its culvert replacement schedule. WWS is also using the study to determine restoration priorities including replacement of blocking culverts on private property.
Smolt counts done each Spring show that Coho have hatched and overwintered in the creek. Chum have not been found in the creek since the early days. In an experiment to see if the salmon runs could be sustainable on their own, egg planting was suspended after 2003. See video of salmon returning to spawn in Maxwelton Creek, 2004.
Salmon in the Nearshore
The Maxwelton Watershed encompasses not only the drainage basin for the Maxwelton system but the nearshore marine environment in adjacent shoreline areas of Useless Bay, including adjoining coastal bluffs. This nearshore habitat is an important feeding and rearing stop for migrating salmon in several life stages, including Chinook, Coho and Chum salmon. A recent study by The Wild Fish Conservancy of the nearshore on the West side of Whidbey Island documents these findings.