Seals, Sea Lions Slowing Salmon Recovery

“Being Frank”

By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

A population explosion of harbor seals and sea lions along the Washington coast and in Puget Sound is interfering with recovery of weak salmon and steelhead stocks, threatening tribal treaty rights and posing increasing threats to public safety throughout our region.

At the root of the problem is the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, a well-intentioned law that was needed at the time, but today has led to unintended consequences.

Tribes historically lived in balance with marine mammals, salmon and all other elements of the environment. But commercial hunting and state-directed control measures had driven down many West Coast marine mammal populations by the time the MMPA became law.

Today their populations are healthy and growing steadily. Since the 1950s, California sea lions have increased from about 10,000 to more than 300,000. Harbor seal populations along the Washington and Oregon coasts have grown from about 3,000 to 40,000. West Coast Steller sea lions numbered about 18,000 in 1979; today there are about 80,000.

But while harbor seal and sea lion populations have steadily increased over the past four decades, the opposite is true for many salmon and steelhead stocks in western Washington, which continue to steadily decline.

No one is claiming that the increase in harbor seals and California sea lions is the main reason for the loss of salmon and steelhead. We know that the cause is ongoing loss and destruction of salmon habitat.

Still, the increasing loss of salmon and steelhead to seals and sea lions sends ripples through the whole marine ecosystem. Harbor seals and sea lions can eat from about 10 to more than 100 pounds of fish every day. While they eat other fish too, their impacts can be significant to the weakest salmon and steelhead stocks we are trying to protect and restore.

That means there are fewer salmon and steelhead available for others species that depend on the ocean ecosystem. Threatened orcas, for example, must compete for salmon – their preferred food – with steadily growing seal and sea lion populations and steadily shrinking salmon populations.

As the salmon decline, the fishing rights of the Salmon People – the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington – are increasingly threatened. Our treaty-reserved rights depend on salmon being available for harvest.

As seal and sea lion populations increase, so do their encounters with humans, especially fishermen. Experts at stealing fish from nets and fishing lines, they have been seen taking fish right out of boats tied up to the dock. In many marinas, sea lions lay claim to docks, causing thousands in damage and lost revenue and threatening anyone who gets too close.

With each encounter they become less afraid of people and more aggressive, putting fishermen and everyone else at increased risk. Control measures – such as rubber bullets and firecrackers – just don’t work because seals and sea lions quickly learn to avoid or ignore them.

Federal government action is long overdue to address the problems being caused by the overpopulation of harbor seals and sea lions in Washington marine waters. One encouraging recent development is the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act introduced by U.S. Reps. Jamie Herrera Beutler of Washington and Kurt Schrader of Oregon. The act would streamline the current lengthy process for state and tribal natural resources managers on the Columbia River to remove problem animals if attempts to chase them off are unsuccessful. That is a good step in the right direction. We must reduce the added pressure that these marine mammals are putting on these already diminished resources. We must focus our management efforts on the resources that need the most protection.

Harbor seal and sea lion populations must be brought back into balance with the reality of today’s ecosystems, which cannot support their steadily increasing numbers. We need to focus our efforts on protecting and restoring habitat to successfully recover salmon populations so we can have both sustainable strong runs of wild salmon and healthy marine mammal populations.



“Being Frank” Tell The Truth

Dave Herrera, Skokomish Fish and Wildlife Policy Advisor
Dave Herrera, Skokomish Fish and Wildlife Policy Advisor


Note: Being Frank is the monthly opinion column that was written for many years by the late Billy Frank Jr., NWIFC Chairman. To honor him, the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington will continue to share their perspectives on natural resources management through this column. This month’s writer is Dave Herrera, a Skokomish tribal member who serves as the tribe’s fish and wildlife policy advisor, and who also is an NWIFC commissioner.


By Dave Herrera, Skokomish Fish and Wildlife Policy Advisor

The late NWIFC chairman Billy Frank Jr. left us all many lessons during his time on this earth. One of the most important was also one of the simplest: “Tell the truth.”

But that’s not what the state of Washington is doing when it comes to salmon recovery. You wouldn’t know it from what state government tells us, but the truth is that salmon recovery is failing.

At the center of that truth is the fact that we are losing salmon habitat faster than it can be restored. We cannot recover wild salmon until we stop the bleeding in our watersheds and estuaries.

Another truth is that tribal treaty rights are one of the few things strong enough to stand between all of us and the extinction of wild salmon. We have demonstrated that time and again over the decades.

Most recently, we showed that truth with a victory in the culvert case. We the filed suit in 2001 to force the state to repair hundreds of failing, fish-blocking culverts. These blockages under state roads cut off salmon from hundreds of miles of spawning and rearing habitat. The case was filed as a sub proceeding of the 1974 Boldt decision in U.S. v. Washington that upheld our treaty fishing rights reserved in treaties with the United States.

On March 29, 2013, federal district court Judge Ricardo Martinez confirmed those rights by issuing a permanent injunction. He ordered the state to repair more than 600 of its fish-blocking culverts over the next 17 years. He wanted to “ensure that the State will act expeditiously in correcting the barrier culverts which violate treaty promises.” Martinez noted that funding for the repairs would come from the state’s separate transportation budget, not at the cost of education or other social services.

Judge Martinez clearly ruled that our treaty-reserved right to harvest salmon also includes the right to have those salmon protected so that they are available for harvest. And not only by tribes, but by everyone who lives and fishes in the region.

It’s the same with tribal hatcheries and the 40 million or so salmon they produce every year. Tribal hatchery production makes the pie bigger for all because everyone can harvest those fish.

Without the tribes, the salmon and its habitat would be in far worse shape than it is today. We bring to the table our treaty rights, traditional and scientific knowledge, funding, and a strong cultural commitment to recovering the salmon resource. Everyone benefits from the work we do.

Perhaps most importantly, tribes and our treaty rights bring the rule of federal law to natural resources management. Federal law trumps state law and treaties are protected under the U.S. Constitution as the “supreme law of the land.”

The truth is that tribes aren’t the only beneficiaries of treaty rights. Non-Indians benefit from them as well. Besides sharing the natural resources of the region with the tribes, non-Indians have homes, businesses and schools on lands ceded by the tribes in return for the fishing, hunting and gathering rights tribes reserved in the treaties.

But our treaty rights – and the protection they give to all – are under constant, heavy attack by those who want to close our fisheries, shut down our hatcheries and destroy the salmon’s home. That puts treaty rights at risk for everyone.

We’re all in the same canoe, so let’s tell the truth: salmon recovery is failing. Tribal treaty rights are one of the few things that might keep salmon from disappearing altogether. The tribes will not allow salmon recovery to fail. That is why we must pull together to protect our natural resources and the treaty rights that protect those resources and all of us.

Student built rain gardens are key to salmon recovery

Hanna Bridgham, Cassidy Forler and Tessa Rurup, students at Eatonville High School, inventory plants in a new raingarden built in a courtyard at their school.
Hanna Bridgham, Cassidy Forler and Tessa Rurup, students at Eatonville High School, inventory plants in a new raingarden built in a courtyard at their school.


Source: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Eatonville will keep its title as the “rain garden capital” because of some work being done by the Nisqually Indian Tribe and the Nisqually River Council. Working with local high school students, the tribe and the council are building six rain gardens in Eatonville this year, continuing several years of stormwater mitigation work in the community.

“If we don’t do something, growth in Eatonville will have a massive detrimental impact on salmon and water quality,” said David Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe. “But, if we can handle the growth the right way, we can have salmon and a healthy community. Rain gardens are an important tool in making that happen.”

Dozens of rain gardens have already been built throughout Eatonville, giving the city the distinction of the highest density of rain gardens of any community in the country.

Rain gardens landscape amenities that are designed to capture and absorb polluted runoff from impervious surfaces, like roofs or parking lots. They reduce runoff by allowing stormwater to soak into the ground instead of flowing into storm drains causing pollution, flooding, and diminished groundwater.

As a part of the project, the council’s Nisqually River Education Project is engaging local high school students in building and caring for the city’s growing collection of rain gardens. The education project is working with four students from Eatonville High School to design each new rain garden. Each student also participated in the tribe’s Stream Stewards training course this summer.

Poor stormwater management leads to high flows in the winter and low flows in the summer. The Mashel River, which runs through Eatonville, already is too low and too warm for fish.

Low flows in the Mashel typically occur just as adult chinook salmon are making their way back to spawn. “Adult salmon need cool, deep pools to rest as they swim upriver,” Troutt said.

“This kind of effort is what we’d like to see across the watershed and across the region,” Troutt said. “When we end up saving salmon and Puget Sound, it will be because we’ve found ways to handle the population growth that is going to come.”

State awards more than $42 million in grants for salmon recovery


Organizations in 30 counties receive funding.

Written by Valley View Staff

The Woodinville Weekly December 9, 2013

OLYMPIA – The Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Puget Sound Partnership has announced the award of more than $42 million in grants to organizations around the state for projects that restore and protect salmon habitat, helping bring salmon back from the brink of extinction.

“Salmon are an important part of both Washington’s culture and economy,” said Gov. Jay Inslee. “Healthy salmon populations support thousands of jobs in fishing, hotels and restaurants, seafood processing, boat sales and repair, charter operations, environmental restoration and more. I am very pleased with the work of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and its efforts to fund projects that help our economy and assure future generations of Washingtonians can enjoy the return of wild salmon.”

Funding for the grants comes from the federal Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund and the sale of state bonds. In addition, $24.4 million is from the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund, which is jointly approved by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Puget Sound Partnership in coordination with local watersheds, for projects that will help restore Puget Sound.

Grant recipients will use the money to remove barriers that prevent salmon from migrating, reshape rivers and streams and replant riverbanks so there are more places for salmon to spawn, feed, rest, hide from predators and transition from freshwater to saltwater and back again.

Organizations in King and Snohomish counties were among those receiving grants. Grant recipients in King County will receive $4,458,129 and recipients in Snohomish County will receive $6,189,644.

Creating Healthy Salmon Habitat

Salmon populations in Washington have been declining for generations. As Washington grew and built its cities and towns, it destroyed many of the places salmon need to live. In 1991, the federal government declared the first salmon as endangered.

By the end of that decade, salmon populations had dwindled so much that salmon and bull trout were listed as threatened or endangered in three-quarters of the state. Those listings set off a series of activities including the formation of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to oversee the investment of state and federal funds for salmon recovery.

“Without these grants, Washington’s salmon populations would continue to decline until nothing was left,” said David Troutt, chair of the state funding board. “That’s the trajectory we were on before salmon were placed on the federal Endangered Species Act list. In most areas of the state, fish are increasing or staying the same while in some important areas, fish populations are decreasing. Habitat is the key to salmon recovery and continuing to fund these important projects will help to move all populations in a positive direction.”

How Projects are Chosen

Projects are selected by local watershed groups, called lead entities. Lead entities are local consortiums that include tribes, local governments, nonprofits and citizens who work together to recruit and review project proposals and make decisions about which projects to forward to the Salmon Recovery Funding Board for funding.

Lead entities ensure that the projects are based on regional salmon recovery plans that were approved by the federal government. Then regional salmon recovery organizations and the Salmon Recovery Funding Board review each project to ensure they will help recover salmon in the most cost-effective manner.

“This bottom-up process of local groups identifying what needs to be fixed in their communities and then those projects undergoing regional and state scientific review means only the best and most cost-effective projects will be funded,” said Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Recreation and Conservation Office, which administers the grants. “We have been working for more than a decade to repair the damage that has been done to salmon habitat. But we have much more to accomplish before salmon can be removed from the endangered species list. This process of local priorities and state scientific overview has proven to be the most effective way of getting projects done on-the-ground and it assures we are investing the money we have very strategically.”

The Big Picture

“Restoring our lakes, streams, rivers and ecosystem isn’t just about saving salmon. A healthy ecosystem supports human health, our economy, our traditions, and our quality of life,” said Marc Daily, interim executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency leading the recovery of Puget Sound. “These projects help to protect and perpetuate valuable resources today and for generations to come.”

Recent Oregon studies showed that every $1 million spent on watershed restoration results in 15-33 new or sustained jobs, $2.2 million to $2.5 million in total economic activity, and that 80 percent of grant money is spent in the county where the project was located.

Using the Oregon study formula, these new grants are estimated to provide more than 630 jobs during the next four years and more than $84 million in economic activity as grant recipients hire contractors, crews and consultants to design and build projects, including field crews to restore rivers and shoreline areas.

Information about the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Recreation and Conservation Office is available online at