PORT TOWNSEND — Cheri Scalf has always been curious about nature, but she didn’t realize the endangered nature of salmon until she reached adulthood.
When she learned about Salmon Creek and the watershed that flows directly to Discovery Bay, Scalf wanted to do something about it.
That was in 1992.
Today, Scalf is known to many as the “godmother of salmon,” a leader in volunteer salmon monitoring and restoration projects, said Sarah Doyle, the North Olympic Salmon Coalition stewardship coordinator.
Scalf was honored Thursday with the 15th Eleanor Stopps Environmental Leadership Award during the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s annual stewardship breakfast at The Commons at Fort Worden.
“For some of us, it has been 27 years, and nine life cycles of summer chum have returned home,” Scalf said. “Our work now is to monitor the populations on these streams to verify that the numbers are sustainable.”
Scalf helped to incubate and raise juvenile endangered Hood Canal summer chum salmon when their returns on Chimacum Creek were virtually zero.
“We intervened and used a remote site to incubate the eggs,” she said before she accepted the award.
Today, that population has been boosted to more than 1,500 wild salmon, according to a press release from the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.
She’s also worked to restore salmon runs on the Salmon, Snow, Jimmycomelately, Thorndyke and Tarboo creeks.
Scalf grew up in Port Townsend and moved to Discovery Bay in 1966, when she was in the middle of second grade.
“It felt traumatic at the time, but over time, I came to realize it was a great twist of fate,” she said.
The salmon habitat in the area was suffering from a “death by 1,000 cuts,” she said.
“Logging, agriculture, the straightening of channels — just a lack of awareness of the needs of the salmon,” Scalf said.
Her original goal was to restore summer chum salmon to Chimacum Creek, but she accomplished many other things along the way.
Scalf was a strong voice for the construction of a bridge across West Uncas Road, according to the release.
During the 10-year span for the culvert to be removed and the bridge built, she recruited volunteers and hauled sandbags to help salmon get through the culvert to spawning habitat upstream.
Scalf also worked with stakeholders and political leaders to advocate for the project, which was completed last year.
During her acceptance speech, Scalf said her background as a nurse made her think of CPR.
“Keep the patient — in this case, the fish — alive in the moment, but change the surrounding lifestyle — in this case, the habitat — to help the fish remain alive in the future,” she said.
“We were boosting the salmon population back to a number that could sustain itself as long as the habitat and harvest issues were addressed — the ongoing and everlasting struggle,” Scalf said.
The Environmental Leadership Award is named for Eleanor Stopps, who was active in Pacific Northwest conservation from the 1960s through the 1990s. Stopps founded the Admiralty Audubon chapter and pushed for the establishment of the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge in 1982.
Stopps died at age 92 in 2012.
The annual award has been sponsored by the Port Townsend Marine Science Center since 2009.
“This event really captures what is best for the marine science center,” Executive Director Janine Boire said Thursday. “We’re all gathering together for positive action.
“It helps to be reminded that, while the work we do is hard, we do it together.”
Doyle, who introduced Scalf, was honored with the award last year. She told the story about how Scalf pushed to get the bridge built on West Uncas Road.
“It was a pretty amazing fight and a success story as well,” Doyle said.
Scalf said she and her husband, Al, and her three daughters went on a year-long adventure with Wild Olympic Salmon to learn about the hydrological cycle.
Eventually, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife hired her as a project leader, and she said she coordinated the volunteer crews that make the work possible.
“This is education through participating and, like the salmon life cycle, we need to keep this story rolling,” Scalf said. “By taking care of the salmon, we are taking care of our watershed and ourselves.”
Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at [email protected].