A quest for the little red fish

Our friends at the Western Washington Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (USFWS) featured this great story on Kokanee Quest and the little red fish in the USFWS’ national quarterly newsletter. We liked the article so much we asked if we could republish to our blog.


What do you call a program that combines conservation education, smartphones, salmon viewing, and the Amazing Race into one family friendly outdoor adventure?  The Kokanee Quest!  This exciting program was recently launched by the Lake Sammamish Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership in the Seattle metro area. It uses a technological treasure hunt known as Geocaching to connect urban residents with nature while raising awareness of and support for kokanee salmon within the watershed.

Photo credit: USFWS

What are kokanee salmon?  These “little red fish” are essentially sockeye salmon that do not migrate to salt water.  They’re full time Lake Sammamish residents, and one of only two native kokanee populations in western Washington. While they once numbered in the tens of thousands, they’ve suffered dramatic declines due to impacts from urbanization such as habitat loss and pollution.  Since 2007, the number of documented adults has dipped below 150 four times!  This does not bode well for the health of the watershed ecosystem as kokanee are an important source of food for the animal communities.  Kokanee also die after they spawn (reproduce), so their carcasses provide essential nutrients for the plant communities that filter water and reduce flooding and erosion.

Despite their importance, surveys of area residents indicate that many do not even know kokanee exist within their watershed; let alone what the population status is. The Lake Sammamish Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership (comprised of non-profits as well as federal, state, local and tribal governments) has made progress towards restoring this population, but raising awareness is critical.  This is where the Kokanee Quest comes in.

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Photo credit: USFWS

The Kokanee Quest fosters awareness of and appreciation for kokanee through geocaching. Geocaching is an outdoor activity where people navigate to specific latitude and longitude coordinates in search of hidden containers (caches).  There are millions of caches in existence throughout the world, but nine are unique to the Kokanee Quest.  To complete the quest, participants must navigate to and find all nine caches using a smartphone or handheld GPS.  Once found, the participants check in by marking their “passport” using the unique stamp within each cache.  Completed passports are then redeemed for a custom collector’s coin known as a Pathtag.

But there’s a twist.  These are “mystery” and “multi” caches, which require the treasure hunters to correctly answer kokanee-specific questions in order to obtain the necessary latitude and longitude coordinates.  Some questions (and cache locations) focus on kokanee life history, habitat, status and cultural significance. Others ask about recovery accomplishments and future goals, such as restoring native plant communities and removing fish passage barriers.   Participants are provided with web links and directed to educational kiosks that contain the information needed to answer these questions.

Despite the cold and near record rainfall, the Kokanee Quest has already seen plenty of action.  The nine caches have been found over 500 times (cumulatively) since the November 13th launch and the participant feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.  Some of the comments people have left on the geocaching.com cache page log books include:

“Love this series and learning about our little red fish. We’ve spotted a few spawners as we have explored.”

“WoW…walked up and saw about 6 or 7 bright red fish in the creek. BEAUTIFUL.  Loving the lessons.”

Raising kokanee awareness and fostering personal connections with these fish is critical for generating support for their recovery.   This approach can also serve as a great way to connect diverse urban residents to nature, as the Seattle metropolitan area is host to the 15th largest population in the county, where 94 languages are spoken.   And this smartphone driven outdoor adventure is fun to boot!

Visit http://www.govlink.org/kokanee-quest/ for more information about Kokanee Quest.

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