Big Beef Creek: best and worst, all in one stream

UPDATE, Jan. 29, 2010
Big Beef Creek continues to threaten several houses built close to the stream. The house most at risk at the moment is one belonging to Jon and Kimberly DeYoung. Read about their story and see pictures in a piece I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun.

It is the best of streams. It is the worst of streams.

There’s been talk lately about Big Beef Creek in Central Kitsap, where a much-traveled bridge has been closed to heavy traffic because of a washed-out bridge abutment. It appears the bridge will be closed for a couple of weeks, beginning next week. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

There’s reason to believe we’ll be hearing a lot more about this stream in the future.

In my mind, Big Beef Creek is a beautiful salmon stream that has been much abused through the years. Despite a large population of people in the watershed, the creek has managed to hold onto its populations of salmon. Somehow, pollution has been mostly avoided.

For a reporting project, I once explored the entire reach of Big Beef Creek, talking to hobby farmers, backcountry residents and lakeside home owners. That story does not seem to be in the Kitsap Sun’s public archives, but I’ll see if I can track it down and post a link here later.

Big Beef Creek begins in an extensive wetland called Morgan Marsh and drains toward Hood Canal near Lone Rock, north of Seabeck. The creek’s origins in the marsh are just a short distance from the beginnings of the Tahuya River, which drains in the opposite direction into Southern Hood Canal outside of Belfair.

Big Beef Creek flows through a developed area, including Lake Symington. Migrating salmon are forced to navigate a fish ladder at the dam that impounds Lake Symington.

Development has been a problem for the stream, which has seen a decline in salmon. But the stream has been a problem for development, particularly for houses built too close to its meandering banks. During heavy storms, the stream has been known to take out private bridges. And in 1994 it wiped out a bridge on Holly Road. At least two homes have been abandoned below the dam, and others are threatened by its rushing waters.

Out of nearly 60 streams monitored by the Kitsap County Health District throughout Kitsap County, Big Beef Creek is the fifth cleanest in terms of bacterial pollution. Its waters sometimes show low oxygen levels — probably because the waters slow down as they pass through Lake Symington.

Near the mouth of the creek, the University of Washington operates the Big Beef Creek Research Station, where studies of salmon are taking place. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manages a fish trap that catches adult salmon going upstream and juveniles going downstream. Those counts are used to help gauge the production of salmon for all of Hood Canal.

Big Beef Creek flows into an extensive estuary, where people often stop to watch bald eagles feeding in the spring before the salmon runs begin. The eagles often find midshipmen (bullheads) or else steal fish from the herons that congregate there. Some observers have counted up to 40 eagles at one time.

Seabeck Highway crosses the Big Beef estuary on a narrow strip of fill dumped there years ago when the road was built. The small bridge allows water to move between the upper and lower portions of the estuary. But high tides and rains can create a lot of flow through that tiny opening, which contributes to the risk of bridge failure.

The county’s chief road engineer, Jon Brand, told me that flows during the rains and high tides last week were the primary factors in undercutting the bridge abutment, and a log next to the bridge may have contributed to the problem.

There has been talk about removing some or all of the earthen causeway and building a much longer bridge. Biologists say that would dramatically improve estuarine habitat for juvenile salmon.

For now, a $79,000 study has been approved for the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group to develop a restoration strategy for the lower one mile or so of the stream. Stay tuned for further details and check out the study description on the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s Web site.

7 thoughts on “Big Beef Creek: best and worst, all in one stream

  1. The reason all the streams in Hood Canal are experiencing less fish is due to the COMMERCIAL overharvest of salmon by gillnetting tribes.

    The last 1% of the historical salmon runs is not a sustainable level of fish to harvest. Hatcheries do not fix the problem – they only exacerbate it.

    When the tribes stop gillnetting the fisheries will rebound – until then we’ll never see real progress on bringing salmon back to historical levels. All this ecosystem work is to be commended – but ognoring the elephant in the room (GILLNETS) is to ignore the basis of the problem with getting salmon to return is self sustainable populations.

  2. It seems to me from looking at other bays on the Hood Canal that before the earthen causeway there was probably a sand spit that a bridge spanning the full length of the bay would negate.

    I would think that changing the spillway at Lake Symington so the water would tumble (tumwater) would increase the oxygen content lost by the standing water in the lake.

    Ed Book

  3. Nobody,

    I am curious about how you come to your conclusions. Was the 1 percent figure based on a study or perhaps something you read? Do you have an estimate for how much escapement should be required for the various salmon stocks in Hood Canal? And why do you focus only on tribal gillnets? Is it your understanding that non-tribal fishing — both commercial and sport — have virtually no effect on escapement levels in Hood Canal?

  4. UPDATE, Jan. 29, 2010
    Big Beef Creek continues to threaten several houses built close to the stream. The house most at risk at the moment is one belonging to Jon and Kimberly DeYoung. Read about their story and see pictures in a piece I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun.

  5. Hi –

    I’m not one for lengthy back and forth in opinion sections but in te excellent book “Salmon Without Rivers” there are several clear descriptions of salmons decline – I’m curious why you even ask.

    “Salmon are now extinct in over 40 of their historic range in the Pacific Northwest.” Page 54

    “Since the turn of the twentieth century the natural productivity of salmon in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho has declined by 80% as riverine habitat has been destroyed” Page 8

    Now I may be a bit hyperbolic in quoting 1% – but when we consider wild fish I think I am fairly close.

    We can’t continue the myrths that have brought us to crisis – that we can keep on taking fish in commercial methods – that hatcheries are the solution – they aren’t thye have helped us get where we are – at a salmon crisis. This fish are still being wiped out.

    How did we get here – we ruined the habitat. dams, logging overfishing. And we continue to do so. I by no means want to imply tribal commercial gillnets in Hoood Canal are the reason for the low declines alone – history proves otherwise – but TODAY – the fish raised in hatcheries and releasedd by the millions with little thought about the impact on sea run trout poulations or resident fish populations. The fish are massacred from the seas to the stream – Non-tribal commercial fishing and tribal commercial fishing are to blame – the sport fishery is negligable,

    Chris – were you here on Southern Hood Canal this fall – I live here – teh gillnetting was unprecedented. The tribal commercial fisherman were going after all the wild and hatchery fish in huge numbers – it was hard to navigate certain areas due to the volumes of nets. Ther is NO WAY, Absolutley NO WAY sprt fisherman are catching even 1/2 of 1% of what the tribe is taking from the southern hood canal.

    You see – the issue at hand is we manage according to what is best for people – not what is best for fish. Catch and release is best for the fish – not gill nets. Leaving the environment alone to repair itself not dumping millions of fish from hatcheries into the environment and maintaing commercial fisheries. I assure you – the escapement level of me, standing alone fishing with a single barbless hook, next to a tribal net, over the coarse of a month when the salmon are running in October is me 1 fish (maybe 2) and the net about 5000. Its a complete joke – if you want let me know – I’ll take you fishing. You wont believe your eyes – commercial fishing – be it tribal or non – is laying waste to all our fisheries globally – Hood Canal should not be a hatchery system to primarily support tribal commercial fishing interests. Hood Canal should be reverted back to a catch and release only fishery.

  6. Quick question about this Creek…are the hatcheries supporting the Summer Chum bring chum back from the brink of extinction? This was reported in minor detail by Chris in a 2003 Kitsap Sun article

    But the real details are here:

    I can’t say I know a lot about Big Beef Creek, but I have looked at the Summer Chum Conservation Initiative (SCSI) and it is a good program. It does use hatcheries. Clarification may be needed about the role of hatcheries in Big Beef, and specifically, what salmonid species we are looking at here….for both restoration (Chris) and impact (Nobody).

    Otherwise, this article appears vague in detail.

  7. Nobody,

    The reason I ask where you get your information is that I want to make sure I’m not missing something before I respond. I can see that you are opposed to tribal gillnetting because you live in Southern Hood Canal. That’s where the Skokomish Tribe fishes — the ONLY place that particular tribe fishes.

    If you lived next to the Hood Canal Bridge, you might think that the non-tribal purse seiners are getting all the fish, because that’s where boats line up in what appears to be a gauntlet that no fish could get through.

    When discussing this subject, it is important to focus on a given species of salmon — better yet populations, stocks or other identifiable units.

    Fall chum are not a listed species. Whether the harvest rates are set too high is debatable, but few people argue that there are not enough chum salmon to allow harvest. Fall chum destined for Southern Hood Canal are taken at various points along the way. The Skokomish Tribe takes its share in Southern Hood Canal, where nobody else fishes except for some non-tribal sport fishers.

    As for hatcheries, it is important to understand that there are two kinds of hatcheries. Those that grow fish for harvest and those that supplement wild runs. For Hood Canal summer chum, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the only kind of hatcheries in operation are designed to build up the wild runs. Under current protocols, they will remain in operation no more than 12 years. Some are already shut down. After that, the various summer chum populations will sink or swim on their own.

    Hatcheries that grow salmon for harvest remain controversial, even though state and federal biologists continue to take steps to reduce their impacts on wild runs.

    I wish this issue were less complicated. I’ve gone on long enough, but I’ve only touched the surface. I would welcome additional comments from biologists more knowledgeable than myself.

    We are soon to enter an annual review in which salmon managers predict returns for each species and for each area of the state. From those predictions, the harvestable numbers of salmon are divided up among user groups through negotiations between state and tribal officials, with oversight from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

    I know of several Kitsap County residents who have become quite knowledgeable about these salmon allocations by attending meetings in a process called North of Falcon. People at the meetings often criticize the process or the results and may even convince managers to make changes. This is how salmon are shared among tribal and nontribal commercial fishers as well as sport fishers, whose share is considerable for some species.

    For those who want to learn more, go to the North of Falcon page on the Department of Fish and Wildlife Web site. I’ll be reporting on the negotiations as they proceed.

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