Tom Reese is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist, educator, artist, and editor based in Seattle. His most recent exhibit, tʔáwi: Creek of Hope, highlights his work along West Seattle’s Longfellow Creek and is currently on display at the Log House Museum. The exhibit is also supported by Duwamish Alive! Coalition and Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association. Tom recently spoke with Puget Soundkeeper Communications Manager Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone about his experience photographing Soundkeeper’s Longfellow Creek Salmon Surveys. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PSK: How did you first get involved with Longfellow Creek?

TR: I knew a little bit about Longfellow Creek from various symposiums and environmental summits I attended while working on my book about the Duwamish River. Later, I became fascinated with the salmon mortality situation. You want to know more—you want to start looking for answers.

PSK: You’re a well-known photojournalist. Is photography the medium you use to ‘start looking for answers’?

TR: For me, it starts with observing. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. And then, questioning what I’m actually seeing. My photos initiate further unanswered questions when I try to puzzle out more fully what meanings they may have.

PSK: It sounds like questions only beget more questions.

TR: We’re in the early stages of understanding polluted stormwater and salmon mortality. The science of 6PPD-quinone was such an amazing and informative breakthrough. It’s a reason to start thinking about how things can improve for the coho salmon in Longfellow Creek, and for people as well. But there’s still so much we don’t know. What else might 6PPD-quinone affect within the marine ecosystem? Is it airborne? It’s a little scary.

PSK: Can you share some examples of what you’ve witnessed in Longfellow Creek that prompted you to ask more questions?

TR: I didn’t have a lot of experience photographing salmon when I started. I was fascinated to see the returning adults, but witnessing Urban Runoff Mortality Syndrome (URMS) symptoms is…not fun. Yet some of the coho do survive and I was able to photograph a spawning pair. Later, I was astonished to find coho fry surviving in this damaged ecosystem.

Returning coho salmon leaping a beaver dam in Longfellow Creek.
Returning coho salmon leaping a beaver dam in Longfellow Creek. Photo by Tom Reese.

Urban creeks haven’t been the focus of most salmon studies—they take place in healthier creeks and streams. As a result, it’s hard to imagine that the fish could reproduce somewhere as heavily impacted as Longfellow Creek. You don’t expect to see them engaging in those normal behaviors.

But then you see things like the males tussling and the females competing for prime redd locations, and you realize that their will to survive is so strong. It’s amazing. It’s an urban creek, so what really fascinates me is the relationship between people and the rest of the natural world. There’s some hope in witnessing the resilience of the fish themselves. 

PSK: Tell me more about your fascination with the relationship between humans and non-humans.

TR: The Longfellow Creek corridor is not just about salmon. There are migratory and resident birds, beavers, other mammals, insects, amphibians, beautiful trees, and other plants. There are few habitat alternatives within the city. That greenbelt is so important for people and wildlife, in order to create interconnected green spaces. 

The creek’s first people formed a sacred and reciprocal relationship with the landscape, but as new people arrived and began colonizing it, Longfellow Creek was tamed and altered. It came to be treated like a sewer. People destroyed an ecosystem that had been there for thousands of years.  

It wasn’t until environmental thinking changed in the 1980s that community members recognized the creek might be able to be more than a dumping ground. When salmon surveys began in the 1990s, people realized that the steel plant water diversions and other blockages made it impossible for fish to get up the creek or survive the journey out. The city had funding for large restoration efforts in about 2000, and they made quite a few improvements to Longfellow. The blockages came out, and I’ve heard that as soon as that happened, the salmon came back. That’s pretty wild.

PSK: There was a moment where it looked like the restoration efforts had been successful, at least in terms of salmon spawning habitat?

TR: Yes, and then the numbers dwindled again. Now we know it’s due to polluted stormwater and 6PPD-quinone, along with the many other challenges all salmon face.

Female coho dying before her time in Longfellow Creek, showing symptoms of Urban Runoff Mortality Syndrome.
Female coho dying before her time in Longfellow Creek, showing symptoms of Urban Runoff Mortality Syndrome. Photo by Tom Reese.

PSK: What’s one of the most surprising moments you’ve had?

TR: Some of the eggs survive and become fry. I didn’t know what would happen when I put a camera underwater. The fry are very hard to see. But they swam right up to the lens and hung out for a while. I don’t know if it was curiosity or the water currents, but they seemed inquisitive. You can see them eating things that fall onto the surface of the water, or down toward them. They’re able to eat and grow.

PSK: But, more often than not, you’re witnessing coho dying from URMS rather than spawning. I know that for Soundkeeper staff and many of our volunteers, it’s incredibly challenging to watch these fish suffer and die. How do you choose which images to share?

TR: I often wonder how people experience being deep in the reality of it. I don’t have a complete answer, because it’s something I think about all the time, and wrestle with. My background is in photojournalism, and you pursue that with a sense that sharing the truth helps people interpret their experiences.

I’m reminded of a quotation by photographer and artist Robert Adams, who says, ‘In common with many photographers, I began making pictures because I wanted to record what supports hope: the untranslatable mystery and beauty of the world. Along the way, however, the camera also caught evidence against hope, and I eventually concluded that this too belonged in pictures if they were to be truthful and thus useful.’

I’m blown away that salmon try to come back into the creek at all, and yet they do. Some of them are hatchery fish, many apparently are not. It’s unlikely any of them were born with the imprinted drive to return here, to Longfellow Creek, specifically. So far, they’re still choosing to come every fall, adapt to the circumstances, and survive.