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Meet the Salmon

The Skagit is the only river system in Washington which supports all five species of salmon: Chinook, chum, Coho, pink and sockeye. It is home to six of the region’s 22 populations of threatened Chinook salmon and the largest population of listed bull trout. It contains the largest pink salmon stock in Washington as well as steelhead.

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

Adult Chinook, also called Kings because of their size--average 20 pounds in weight, but have been recorded up to 135 pounds, and can grow to a length of 58 inches--generally stay in the deep, fast waters of the mainstem or large tributaries. Six of the twenty-two listed Chinook stocks in Puget Sound are spread around the Skagit watershed: in the upper Skagit mainstem and tributary, in the lower Skagit mainstem and tributary, in the upper and lower Sauk, in the Suiattle and in the upper Cascade. They spend several months to two years in the fresh water before migrating to the ocean and generally remain in the ocean for two to four years, although some stay as long as eight years. Their principal spawning months are from August through October. Studies are underway to learn more about how threatened bull trout use the watershed.


Salmon and the Skagit Watershed



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

Skagit Wild and Scenic River System


Key Facts

Land use by type in the lower portion of the watershed is 64% forestry, 22% agriculture, 5% urban, 4% range and 5% other. In the uplands, land use is 73% forest, 12% range and 15% other.

Major cities in the watershed include Anacortes, Burlington, Darrington, LaConner, Mount Vernon and Newhalem.

Population growth in Skagit County is projected at 46% between 2000 and 2020. The present population is 104,000.

The planning area for Skagit under the state Watershed Management Act is Watershed Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 3 for the lower Skagit and WRIA 4 for the upper watershed.


The largest watershed in Puget Sound, the Skagit system begins in Canada, flows through the rugged Cascades down into low-lying valleys and drains into Skagit Bay. The rich soils of the river’s broad delta support the region’s most productive farmlands appreciated not only for their crops of berries, potatoes and organic vegetables, but especially renowned for their bright fields of daffodils and tulips.

The Upper Skagit River Valley is a favored wintering area for bald eagles. This impressive gathering of bald eagles, one of the four largest in the contiguous 48 states, coincides with the spawning runs of chum salmon on the Skagit River.

The upper river is home to the region’s only major complex of dams, most of which are built above a natural barrier to salmon. Puget Sound Energy’s two Baker dams obstructed sockeye. In 2003 19,429 adult sockeye entered the utility’s Baker River fish-transport facility just below Lower Baker Dam, near Concrete. Diablo, Ross and Gorge dams supply about 25 percent of Seattle’s power demands.

Also in the Upper Skagit, the Cascade, Sauk and Suiattle rivers are designated as Wild and Scenic, making this one of the largest undammed river systems remaining in the Pacific Northwest. The Skagit Wild and Scenic River designation begins just east of the town of Sedro-Woolley, extending to Bacon Creek near the boundary of the Ross Lake National Recreation Area in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. The Skagit Wild and Scenic River System includes 158.5 miles of the Skagit River and its tributaries—the Sauk, Cascade, and Suiattle rivers.

The Skagit Delta contains large concentrations of wintering waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors. A significant portion of an entire Trumpeter Swan population winters at the site, as well as the entire population of gray-bellied brant, a subpopulation of brant geese. Birdwatchers are known to screech on their brakes in early spring to catch the inspiring sight of hundreds of snow geese rising off the fields in a graceful wave and settling down again a few feet away. The estuarine and intertidal ecosystems are critical habitat for salmon, other marine fish which use estuaries, and wintering raptors and waterfowl.

Major Policy or Actions Needed to Recover Salmon

Estuary and Lowland Protection and Restoration Identified as Key for Recovery
Washington State, Tribal governments, the Conservation Commission’s Limiting Factors Analysis and the Skagit Watershed Council’s Habitat Restoration and Protection Strategy, have identified loss of habitat in the river’s lowlands and estuary, the heart of the watershed’s agricultural base, as one of the main causes of Chinook declines. Diking and draining, for example, have reduced tidal wetlands by more than 90 percent.
As a result of many factors, farmers and tribal representatives from the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes are meeting to find common ground from which to approach this issue in a way that works for both farms and fish. With high growth pressures, neither farmers nor tribal representatives nor environmental activists want to see these lands developed for residential or other commercial uses.

Too Much Sediment and Too Much Water Can Hurt Salmon and People Too
Salmon need clean, oxygen rich gravel in which to spawn. Increased erosion and run-off from logging and roads fills gravel at the bottom of the river with fine sediment, reducing spawning habitat. Scientists believe that logging practices and river channelization (straightening) contribute to increases in the amount of flooding that occurs. High flows can destroy the redds where salmon lay their eggs. Hydrologists are working to better understand the cause of increased peak flows to determine what actions can be taken to reduce or prevent their negative impacts on egg survival and on human communities. Meanwhile, the Forest and Fish report will serve as one guide for developing actions to address sedimentation. The Salmon Funding Recovery Board has already funded projects to inventory logging roads and identify priorities for closures and improvements.

Trees and Vegetation Are Needed to Provide Food, Shelter, Woody Debris and Other Benefits
Washington State, Tribal governments, the Conservation Commission’s Limiting Factors Analysis and the Skagit Watershed Council’s Habitat Restoration and Protection Strategy have identified loss of riparian corridors in the Skagit basin as a key factor limiting salmon recovery. 42% of the river channels supporting salmon would benefit from riparian restoration. Healthy riparian zones consist of a mix of trees, bushes and ground covers that provide insect larvae from leaf droppings, shade to keep the water cool, prevent stream bank erosion and filter sediment, and reduce flow rates during flood events. Over time, riparian areas also provide woody debris that falls into the river forming pools in which salmon can rest and hide from predators. Groups of local volunteers, as part of the HB 2496 program coordinated by the Skagit Watershed Council and its members, have been working to plant trees and bushes to restore these buffers for quite some time on both public and private property.


We’re Making Progress—Some Accomplishments

Voluntary Projects Are Going Strong
Recovery efforts in the upper watershed are well underway and have enjoyed significant progress. As members of the Skagit Watershed Council, local governments, citizens and community groups have taken action to restore streamside vegetation and improve fish passage along the Skagit and its major tributaries and have prioritized and implemented additional projects based on science and the potential for collaborative action.

Estuary Restoration
Ten years in the making, the Deepwater Slough Project in the South Fork of the Skagit removed two main dikes on state land. This allowed the mainstem and six tributary channels to re-connect and return to their historic paths and restored 200 acres of estuary habitat. The project is expected to produce an additional 1,000 to 2,000 adult Chinook and continues to support important migratory waterfowl and shorebird habitat.

A First in Washington State
In affirmation of Seattle City Light’s commitment to salmon recovery, the utility’s Skagit dam complex recently became the first hydroelectric project in the state to receive low-impact hydropower certification from an independent non-profit certification group that includes American Rivers and other conservation organizations. Seattle City Light, which owns and operates the major dams on the upper Skagit, maintains its strong commitment to putting “fish first.” The utility and its customers regularly forgo some power production to ensure appropriate flows for spawning salmon.

Organizations Involved

  • City of Mount Vernon
  • Samish Indian Nation
  • Crown Pacific
  • Seattle City Light
  • Ducks Unlimited
  • Skagit Audubon Society
  • Earthwatch Institute
  • Skagit Conservation District
  • Fidalgo Fly Fishers
  • Skagit County
  • Huxley College of the Environment
  • Skagit County Farm Bureau
  • Long Live the Kings
  • Skagit County Marine Resources Committee
  • Longview Fibre Company
  • Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group
  • Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
  • Skagit Land Trust
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • Skagit River System Cooperative
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Skagit Valley College
  • North Cascades Institute
  • Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland
  • North Cascades National Park
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Padilla Bay Foundation
  • Upper Skagit Indian Tribe
  • Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
  • WA Department of Ecology
  • People for Puget Sound
  • WA Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Public Utility District #1 of Skagit County
  • WA Department of Natural Resources
  • Puget Sound Action Team
  • WA State University Cooperative Extension
  • Puget Sound Anglers - Fidalgo Chapter
  • Western WA Agricultural Association
  • Puget Sound Energy
  • Wildcat Steelhead Club


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