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Meet the Salmon

Listed species in the Nooksack include North/Middle Fork and South Fork Chinook which together make up one of the five genetic diversity units in Puget Sound. Both are considered essential to regional scale recovery. Bull trout are also listed as threatened. The Nooksack is also home to local populations of threatened bull trout, Coho, fall chum and odd-year pink salmon, summer and winter steelhead, coastal cutthroat and Dolly Varden.

Bull Trout
Chum Salmon
Pink Salmon
Salmon images courtesy of King County. Steelhead image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce.
How Chinook and Bull Trout Use the Watershed

Two genetically distinct, native species enter the Nooksack beginning in March and spawn August through early October. The North Fork run spawns in the North and Middle forks, and the South Fork stock in the South Fork. In addition, a fall Chinook run (mostly nonnative) spawns in the Nooksack from September through November. Late run Chinook typically utilize habitats lower in the river system than earlier runs. The bull trout, also listed as a threatened species, is present and spawns in all three forks of the Nooksack. Bull trout require a high quality cold environment for spawning and rearing with abundant cover and a good supply of oxygen. They spawn from late summer through December.

Salmon and the Nooksack Watershed



For more information about salmon recovery planning in this watershed, visit:

Whatcom Salmon Recovery
Whatcom County Public Works

Click here to read this watershed's feedback summary.


Key Facts

The planning area for the watershed for both salmon recovery and the state Watershed Management Act is Watershed Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 1. WRIA 1 encompasses the Nooksack River and its tributaries in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, streams originating in Whatcom County that flow north to the Fraser River, streams that originate in Canada and flow south into Whatcom County, and numerous independent streams that flow westward into the marine waters of Whatcom County.

WRIA 1 contains ESA threatened stocks of bull trout and chinook salmon (North & Middle Fork Nooksack early chinook, South Fork early chinook, and fall chinook). Coho are a candidate being considered for listing under the ESA.

The Whatcom County land designations in the Nooksack watershed are 36% federal forest lands, 9.5% state forest lands, 30% private forests, 11% agriculture, 10% rural and 3% urban. Of the 8% of land designations outside Whatcom, 5% is rural residential (Canada) and 3% is forested (Canada and Skagit County).

Population growth in the watershed is projected to be 38% between 2000 and 2020.


The Nooksack watershed is located in northwestern Washington, encompassing Whatcom County and part of Skagit County, and reaching northward into British Columbia. The watershed is large, covering over 830 square miles with more than 1,000 stream and river miles, and with elevations ranging from sea level to the summit of Mt. Baker at 10,778 feet. The Nooksack's headwaters lie within National Park and National Forest boundaries, with Mt. Shuksan the most photographed peak in the United States, jutting out from North Cascades National Park.

Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan paint a dramatic picture of the unstable geology that characterizes the upper reaches of the Nooksack River’s three main forks: the North Fork, the Middle Fork, and the South Fork. Water in all three forks originates as a combination of run-off from rainfall and snowmelt, groundwater, and, in the case of the North and Middle Forks, glacial melt. On a clear day, the mountain peaks form an incredible backdrop to this spunky river, making it a popular choice for white-water rafting. The rapids on the Nooksack begin in the upper river as the river attempts to negotiate a narrow, twisting and steep gorge choked with huge boulders. Eventually, the gorge gives way to a wider valley which allows you to see the breathtaking beauty of the North Cascades.

It is a sediment rich system with braiding channels of the Nooksack, the milky-white North and Middle Forks, pose unique challenges to both people and fish. Both threatened North/Middle Fork and South Fork Chinook are considered essential to regional scale recovery in Puget Sound.

The Nooksack River drains into a shoreline area rich in nearshore habitat including Drayton Harbor and Birch, Lummi, Portage, Bellingham, Chuckanut and Samish bays – areas prized by salmon for feeding and taking refuge in preparation for their epic ocean migrations. Much of the middle watershed is managed for timber production by private timber companies and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. River valleys and the lower watershed support agriculture and rapidly-developing residential areas.

Major Policy or Actions Needed to Recover Salmon

Diversion Dam Plan Promises Big Boost for Salmon
One of the key actions identified by salmon recovery planners is restoring passage to 15-plus miles of former salmon habitat in the upper Middle Fork Nooksack River at the City of Bellingham’s diversion dam. Plans are in place to do so. State-of–the-art fish habitat modeling projects a 31 percent rise in North/Middle Fork Nooksack early chinook abundance from this single action.

South Fork Chinook Need Extra Help
The South Fork stock of chinook is on the brink of extinction. Recovery planners prioritized the need to develop and implement a comprehensive South Fork plan to save this population. Actions needed include addressing instream habitat, high summer stream temperatures, sedimentation, riparian conditions and hatchery strays as well as potentially creating a gene bank to preserve the native genetic pool. The South Fork plan will include a robust monitoring and adaptive management strategy. Funding and multi-stakeholder consensus are needed to continue to move this issue forward.

New Flood Control Model Will Help Predict Effects of Recovery Actions
Most of the mainstem of the Nooksack is leveed or armored to guard against flooding. Mainstem habitat restoration is critical to recovery efforts for the listed populations in the watershed. Planned actions to restore mainstem habitat include creation of primary pools and off-channel habitat. Through the Whatcom County River and Flood Division’s new hydraulic flood model, the effect of actions such as levee setbacks on flooding can now be predicted. Mapping and fish habitat analysis of historic channel conditions will enable prioritization of recovery actions. A joint commitment among key stakeholders and decision-makers would make possible a comprehensive plan for the mainstem. Creation of landowner incentives and stable funding would jump start implementation in the next 5 to 10 years.


We’re Making Progress—Some Accomplishments

Diverse Partners Taking Action
The Nooksack Recovery Team partnership, which includes the Lummi Nation, Nooksack Tribe, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Whatcom County, BP, private timber companies, Whatcom Land Trust, Whatcom Conservation District, private individuals, and others, has completed over 600 recovery actions to date to protect and restore streamside habitat, improve forest road drainage and fish passage and build strategically placed logjams.

Restoration and Community Involvement
The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association’s more than 600 volunteers of all ages and from all walks of life participate each year in habitat restoration projects, stream monitoring and a host of other actions critical to watershed health. Volunteers and staff annually restore approximately 14 miles of stream and pot 15,000 native plants for restoration while learning about their local ecosystem.

Habitat Protection
Land acquisitions by the Whatcom Land Trust, Whatcom County Parks and Recreation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Seattle City Light, and The Nature Conservancy protected and/or will restore important habitat in key areas throughout the watershed. A prime example is along the South Fork where a corridor nearly 20 miles long is either in or soon to be in a conservation status under a number of landowners. This will provide great certainty into the future that the South Fork will provide high quality functioning habitats into the future not only for fish, but for wildlife too.

Organizations Involved

  • Whatcom County
  • City of Bellingham
  • Public Utility District No. 1
  • Lummi Nation
  • Nooksack Tribe
  • Small cities of Whatcom County (Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Everson, Nooksack, Sumas)
  • Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife


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