Community Service: A Day in the Field with NSEA

John Thompson
Office of Communications and Marketing

Western's professional and classified staff are given the opportunity to take one paid day a year as a Community Service Day, and recently my wife Kathy (Western's benefits administrator) and I took ours by spending the day in the field with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA), the local salmon-restoration group, on a spawner survey of two local creeks.

According to Doug Adelstein, associate director of Human Resources at Western, the concept of the Community Service Day came up during Western’s negotiations with the classified unions for the 2013-2015 collective bargaining agreements. It was included as a pilot program and was then included on an ongoing basis in the 2015-2017 collective bargaining agreements. Not too long afterward, the Professional Staff Organization requested it, and the University administration supported this request for the same reasons they supported it for classified staff: because it fosters university efforts to proactively reach out and make a positive difference in many of the communities served by Western.

In the Field

I have volunteered for NSEA for more than 15 years and am a past president of its board, but had never spent a day in the field with them, so I was excited to take advantage of such a great opportunity afforded us by Western! My wife was also interested to get into the field and find out more about NSEA's mission, so it was a perfect fit.

We were lucky enough to have Western alumna Tracy Pennell (Environmental Science, '11) as our guide and mentor for the day; Tracy is working as NSEA's monitoring coordinator as she completes her AmeriCorps year of service, and she is a bright, interested, outgoing young woman who can't say enough about how her education at Western in general and Huxley in particular paved the way for a successful career and life after school. She is pondering many options moving forward for next steps after AmeriCorps and NSEA, but she will be a success at whatever she does -- I never cease to be amazed at how engaged, motivated, and passionate our alumni are.

Gathering data

Spawner surveys are an important data-gathering tool for restoration programs like NSEA, as they provide accurate data on the health of salmon runs on a stream-by-stream basis, and over time, they show trends on how those streams are holding more fish every breeding cycle which, in the broadest of terms, is NSEA's overarching goal - more wild salmon in Whatcom County.

After meeting Tracy at NSEA's headquarters, we drove out to the first sampling site along Macaulay Creek, an area of a past stream restoration effort by the group. The stretch of the creek we sampled runs just a few feet off the Mount Baker highway across the road from Mount Baker High School, and is a waterway that few folks probably know even holds salmon, but as we saw, it sure does!

Each stretch of creek that NSEA monitors for spawners is sampled about every 10 days during the season, which runs from October through February. Our job was to walk up the creek - in full boots and waders - looking for dead salmon that have finished spawning, live salmon in the process of building their nests (called redds), and mark and note any new redds in the sampling area. Macaulay holds coho salmon, identified during breeding by bright red flanks and gill covers and darkish, irregular spots on their backs. We walked up the creek, poking the banks and overhangs, and found three spawned out coho and one live female in the act of building her redd

Beyond the basic numbers of fish counts, our job was to gather important biological information from each fish as well - fork length; a sample of DNA from the gill cover; six scales from each fish; and both of the fish's otoliths, tiny bone-like structures inside the fish's brain cavity that reveal information about the fish the way tree rings tell a story about the growth of a tree. Fishing these otoliths out of the deceased coho was by far the biggest challenge of the day. All this data is saved carefully and sent to the state Department of Ecology for analysis.

After a fabulous lunch at Everybody's Store in Van Zandt, we spent the afternoon sampling Landingstrip Creek near Acme, and turned up four more spawned-out coho and a new redd. We finished sampling just as the rain descended in earnest - perfect timing to finish up a perfect day in the field!

What can you do?

Have you taken your Community Service Day yet? The eligible period runs from July to the following June of each year, so if you did your service day last spring, you are eligible to do so again.

We'd love for you to share your stories with us about what you did on your service day, and our hope is to compile them - stories and photos - into an archive about how Western's staff makes a difference in our community, so even if it's just a quick paragraph describing what you did, or a single photo, please send it us here in the Office of Communications and Marketing at

If you have any questions about your eligibility to take a Community Service Day or how it works, contact Melissa Reed in Human Resources at 360-650-7718. The leave form for the service day is available online.


Friday, November 21, 2014