Community mural commemorates a lifelong passion

Dr. Jensen and 16-year-old artist Austin Picinich
Dr. Jensen and 16-year-old artist Austin Picinich

Most children grow up fascinated by the world around them. After all, everything is a mystery as they take in the wonders of the world without explanation. But most of the time, as their knowledge grows, their fascination fades, and the things they once thought were incredible begin to seem ordinary.

Only a few lucky people get to keep that awe alive, and Dr. Jeffery Jensen, teaching professor in the University of Washington Bothell’s School of STEM, is one of them.

As a child, Jensen said he was enthralled by fish. “For as long as I can remember, I have been looking for them. I think it’s their mystery,” he said, “because with birds I can step outside, I can see them, hear them and gather an idea of what they are doing. But with fish, there is so much wonder — so much I still don’t know.”

His childhood obsession has proven to be lifelong, as Jensen made a career studying fish behavior, specifically that of salmon. Through UW Bothell’s North Lake Washington Salmon Watchers — a program working to research, restore and raise awareness for stream health and salmon populations — Jensen is sharing his work and, perhaps more importantly, his passion with the community.

“One of the greatest accomplishments of this program is its ability to bring people together,” Jensen said. “People who may otherwise have nothing in common are joining forces in a common pursuit, and building those networks is one of my favorite parts of the program.”

Coming full-circle

This year, the network grew larger after it caught the attention of Austin Picinich, a 16-year-old acrylic painter merging realism with his imagination. He collaborated with Jensen and a handful of local organizations, including the Salmon Watchers program, to create a 112-foot mural at SPUD Fish & Chips in Kirkland, Washington. Their purpose is to draw awareness to salmon sustainability in Juanita Creek and other North Lake Washington creeks.

It just so happened that Jensen used to frequent that very restaurant as a child. He spent his weekends playing baseball across the street from SPUD, and after every game he would head over to get a treat (usually a dill pickle) and then make his way to Juanita Creek in search of salmon. “There is definitely a feeling of resonance with the mural being painted here, of all places,” Jensen said. “It’s very special.”

Photo of the 112-foot mural on SPUD Fish & Chips taken by Austin Picinich

On April 3, 2022, decades after his Little League days, Jensen got to make a new memory at SPUD with the creation of a mural that embodies, and immortalizes, his life’s work. “SPUD is an icon. Lots of people go there, myself included, and for the last half century the building has been just a white wall,” Jensen said.

“Now, people will see 112 feet of salmon and learn about their local streams. It’s amazing.”

Significant discoveries

An informational sign written by Jensen accompanies the mural. It details the health of streams and of the local kokanee salmon that formerly inhabited Juanita Creek, one of the dozen North Lake Washington tributaries classified as a salmon-spawning stream.

The kokanee, a type of sockeye salmon that was once abundant in Juanita Creek, figures prominently in the mural. Jensen explained that because of the many changes that took place in Lake Washington during the 20th century, such as urbanization and pollution, the kokanee population has significantly diminished. “There was also a heavy demand for the waters of this creek for garden and lawn irrigation and, by the end of the 20th century, most biologists considered native kokanee to be locally extinct from Lake Washington,” Jensen said.

In recent years, however, there have been hints that kokanee may have survived, with occasional reports of kokanee-like fish spawning in the Sammamish River and its tributaries. Jensen said that, while exciting, these fish were generally thought to be part of a non-native sockeye population that had been introduced to Lake Washington in the 1930s.

But that theory changed in 2020 when Jensen, along with students at UW Bothell, made a significant discovery. “We ran genetic testing on these kokanee-like fish through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Molecular Genetics Laboratory, and the results showed that these fish were different than the local sockeye but were similar to Sammamish kokanee,” Jensen said. “Even more exciting was that these fish appear to be left over from native populations — so it appears native Lake Washington kokanee survived after all!”

Jensen and the Salmon Watchers are hoping to further restore native kokanee using streamside egg incubators. “Key to this effort is the participation of citizens in learning and caring about Juanita Creek and the life it sustains,” Jensen said. “I think this mural will do a great job in aiding that.”

Community that cares

It already has. More than 140 community members showed up at SPUD to help paint the mural and raise awareness for stream and salmon health. One of these volunteers was a fellow Salmon Watcher, Tony Smullin. He grew up with Jensen and even played on the same Little League team. Naturally, he shares a similar fondness for the site of the art installation.

Tony Smullin, Salmon Watcher and longtime friend of Dr. Jensen
Tony Smullin, Salmon Watcher and longtime friend of Dr. Jensen

“Jeff and I used to come here after every game and then run over to the creek. You know, I have been fishing there my whole life, and it was actually Jeff’s dad who taught me how,” he said. “I have been doing it ever since and have always made a point to keep an eye on the creek, all these years later.”

Smullin is also close friends with Picinich’s family and was the person who put Picinich and Jensen in contact. “When Austin came to me and said he wanted to do a community art project to raise awareness for salmon health, I immediately thought of Jeff. To see what they have done is just amazing, and it’s a special day for me to see this dream come to life,” he said. “I hope it makes an impact on the community and that more and more people become aware of the stream and the importance of keeping it clean.”

Also there to support and participate in the project was Kristin Wyatt and her daughter, Claire, who joined the Salmon Watchers program last year. “I have four kids, and I think it’s really important for them to start to understand that they live in a complex system that they need to contribute to and help repair,” Wyatt said. “It’s an additional resource for me and my kids to learn and have a bit of hands-on experience.”

Kristin and Claire Wyatt, members in the Salmon Watcher program
Kristin and Claire Wyatt, members in the Salmon Watcher program

Claire Wyatt, who is in the fifth grade, has enjoyed learning about the salmon which she says are “so cute” — even after having dissected a frozen fish head with Jensen. “He cut it open, and I got to see the otoliths (the fish’s ear bone) which can tell you all sorts of things like how old it is or if the fish or the fish’s mom went to the ocean,” she said. “It was so cool.”

Bringing people together

Salmon Watchers has brought together old friends, mothers and daughters, scientists and artists, and, at UW Bothell, students from different academic disciplines.

Nicholas Bestauros, a sophomore majoring in Computer Engineering, has been working on an application for the Salmon Watchers program since autumn quarter 2021. He explained that data is currently collected by citizen scientists who report their findings on pen and paper, then email a photo of their notes to Jensen.

“It’s a simple process and is easy for people to do, but the problem is the data has to be manually inputted into the computer by Dr. Jensen, which takes a lot of time,” Bestauros explained. “He wanted an app that would make it simple for people to type in data digitally while also making it easy for him to get the data and put it into his machine.”

He designed an app that functions similarly to Google Forms but is a bit more complex. “It provides prompts for people to enter things such as what stream they are at, how many different species of fish they see, what their GPS coordinates are, the current weather and water quality, and if there is anything peculiar to note,” he said. “The information is then sent to Dr. Jensen as something akin to an Excel spreadsheet, but we are working on having this sent instead to a centralized database.

“This project has been a great experience,” he said.

Jensen said he is as grateful for the work Bestauros has devoted to the program as he is for everyone else who has supported it. “It has been great to see all that the Salmon Watchers program has accomplished.

“And the mural — and all the people it brought together — is an embodiment of that.”

Mural at SPUD Fish & Chips

To learn more about the Salmon Watcher program, check out the video “Local stream watchers add to salmon science” by Kiyomi Taguchi.

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