Chinook born in the Nisqually River are being taken into protective custody by the Nisqually Indian Tribe.
The tribe is trapping and spawning natural-origin chinook this fall because so few have returned in recent years. Instead of passing naturally produced chinook above a tribally operated weir, the tribe will truck them to its nearby Kalama Creek Hatchery.
“We’re seeing a sharp decline of natural-origin chinook returning to the river, so we want to make sure these fish are as successful as they can be,” said David Troutt, natural resources director for the tribe.
At Kalama Creek, the fish are being spawned by hand. Their offspring will be released into the river next spring.
To make sure some chinook spawn in the wild, the tribe will release up to 600 adult hatchery-produced chinook into the upper watershed. That way, even more naturally produced chinook will leave the river next year.
“The genetic difference between natural and hatchery-origin chinook on the Nisqually is small,” Troutt said. All of the chinook in the river are descendants from an imported hatchery stock planted decades ago.
The native chinook stock was killed off in the 1960s in large part due to poor hydroelectric practices that left the river dry for months at a time.
Five years ago, the tribe began closely managing the mix of natural and hatchery-spawned fish in the river to help mitigate hatchery influence on the stock.
“Our goal is to let the natural habitat, instead of the hatchery environment, drive adaptation of the stock,” Troutt said. “By mixing in natural-origin fish at the hatchery, we bring in better genetic traits to improve salmon productivity. This means more fish for everyone.”
Recent declines in chinook productivity because of poor ocean conditions drove this year’s drastic action. “Instead of bringing in just a few, we need to bring in every single natural fish we can to protect them,” Troutt said.
Swinomish Fish Company, owned by the Swinomish Tribe, is supplying Baker Lake spring chinook salmon to the largest independent grocery retailer in the Pacific Northwest.
Haggen Food & Pharmacy has 164 stores in Washington and Oregon, as well as California, Arizona and Nevada. Haggen’s seafood buyer, Amber Thunder Eagle, spent the winter meeting local fish companies and making arrangements for a spring catch to be delivered to Haggen’s seafood cases.
It’s as much a story about habitat restoration and resource management as it is economic development. For thousands of years, Swinomish ancestors living in villages along the Skagit and Baker rivers harvested salmon to meet the people’s dietary, ceremonial and trade needs: chinook from April to June; sockeye from June to August, pinks during odd-numbered years from July to September, and chum from September to November. The ancestors used weirs and traps, nets, spears, and hook-and-line to take salmon and other fish.
The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott made land in this region available for non-Native settlement. The ancestors did not give up their people’s right to harvest salmon on the Skagit and Baker rivers. But in the post-treaty years, new industries – logging, mining, farming — took their toll on the rivers and the salmon. Dams built in the 1920s and 1950s to generate electricity, impeded salmon migration.“Rail lines and logging roads … increased sedimentation in the gravel beds used for spawning,” the Historical Research Associates report states. “In some instances, road embankments spilled directly into stream channels through landslides … Timber harvest methods, such as clearcutting, similarly proved damaging to fish habitat [by] increasing turbidity and sedimentation from erosion …”
In the 1890s, salmon runs were estimated at 20,000, by the time the first dam was built, that was down to 15,000. By 1985, only 99 spring chinook returned to spawn, according to the Historical Research Associates report.
But the health of the run rebounded, thanks to years of habitat restoration and resource management efforts, and conveyance systems that help salmon get to ancestral spawning grounds upstream of Lower and Upper Baker dams. In 2012, a record-high return was recorded with more than 48,000 fish returning to spawn, according to the Swinomish Tribe. The forecast for this year’s spring chinook run was 35,000; the summer sockeye run projection is 46,268, according to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.
“We’re grateful for the restoration of the Baker Lake run,” Swinomish Fish Company vice president Everette Anderson said in an announcement of the Haggen contract. “The community who made this possible are steadfast in the preservation of this run, which will benefit the people of Washington for generations.”
According to the Swinomish Tribe, the Swinomish Fish Companyis the largest Native American-owned seafood wholesaler, retailer and custom processing plant in the United States. Its brand, NativeCatch, is all-natural, wild, and sustainably harvested, and distributed around the world.
Thousands of fall chinook salmon are swimming up the Columbia River every day right now. This year’s migration is expected to be one of the largest in recent years. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why fall chinook have made such a big comeback.
Salmon and steelhead restoration has been a big push throughout the Northwest — from Puget Sound to coastal streams to the Columbia-Snake River Basin — where fall chinook were nearly extinct by the 1960s.
Billy Connor is a fish biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based near the Clearwater River in Idaho, where many of these fish end up.
“There’s been an incredible amount of effort spent trying to restore salmon and steelhead populations throughout the Northwest. And the Snake River Basin fall chinook population is a pretty unusual case because it’s rebounded so dramatically,” Connor said.
He’s been researching fall chinook for 27 years, his entire career. For years, fall chinook weren’t the salmon people wanted to study. They weren’t as economically important or as tasty as the spring salmon runs.
But fall chinook have made a big comeback recently. Last year, a record 1.3 million fall chinook made the migration. This year’s run won’t break that record, but biologists say the numbers are still high.
And no one really knows why.
“We can’t point to any one action and say that’s it. That’s what did it,” Connor said.
There are good ocean conditions, habitat restoration, changes in dam operations, reductions in salmon predators and harvests. The list goes on.
Rich Zabel is the director of the fish ecology division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Science Center. He understanding which factors help and which hurt fall chinook populations will help recovery efforts.
Zabel said one factor that’s overlooked is the fish’s adaptability. Historically, fall chinook spawned in sections of the river now blocked by the Hell’s Canyon Dam. Now, the salmon spawn on the Clearwater River and migrate at slightly different times of year.
“It’s taken the population a while to adapt. We’ve seen, over the last 20 years, some pretty major differences,” Zabel said.
Connor said teasing out the causes of these large numbers will be the study of his career.
He’s creating a computer model to narrow down the lengthy list of things that might be helping out the fall chinook runs. He says some pieces of the puzzle will affect salmon runs more than others.
To make the models, Connor and his team have been collecting data for 20 years. He says that’s why it’s taken so long to get to this point.
“These models are incredibly data hungry. There are thousands and thousands of bits of information that go into them,” Connor said.
Zabel said modeling like this, and other models that NOAA biologists are working on, shows how research and monitoring feed into management practices.
“As we’ve learned more and more about fall chinook through field research, we can understand through modeling and the collecting of data what the factors are that are harming the populations and can develop plans based on that information,” Zabel said.
Connor said biologists can apply what they learn with his model to help other salmon populations in the Northwest. He hopes to finish up this research by 2017.
As soon as you arrive in Sekiu, Washington, you get a whiff of salty ocean air laced with the unmistakable smell of fresh fish. The scent fills your nostrils as the gulls mew nearby, fighting for the remains of the day’s catch in the protective cove.
Located 20 miles east of Neah Bay by car, the fishing village has a long reputation for good salmon fishing. It’s also where we pick up the trail of the Lake Washington chinook. The subset of the Puget Sound salmon were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999 and traced here by scientists who tag them.
The fish spend their adult lives in this open ocean before heading home to spawn in the Cedar River or in Bear Creek, or the state hatchery in Issaquah.
‘A Surprisingly Quiet’ Season
Pulling into Sekiu, one might expect a bustling fishing village with flotillas of boats hooking plenty of salmon, perhaps because the summer’s headlines have touted a record run of Columbia River chinook.
Towns like Westport have been booming with the projected return of 1.5 million chinook, also known as king salmon. Anglers at Buoy 10 on the river this year reportedly spent more time looking for a place to set up their gear than they did reaching daily limits, thanks to successful management of the dams, hatcheries and habitat down south.
Also often mentioned in the reports are favorable ocean conditions that have allowed more adult fish from the Columbia River system to survive. But those ocean conditions aren’t doing much for the fishing in Sekiu.
“It’s surprisingly quiet. Usually one of the peak times of the year is right now,” says veteran guide, Roy Morris, a life-long salmon fisherman who has kept a charter boat at the docks in Sekiu for 20 years.
Unusually Warm Water
Morris says there has been a steady decline in fish stocks. And this year, he says everyone there is reporting “one of the lowest year of catches for salmon, particularly Chinook.”
Roy Morris examines his line. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)
One reason, he suspects, is unusually warm water, which he says it’s been about 5 degrees hotter than normal.
“We’ve been seeing it on our instruments on our boat all year long. We couldn’t believe our instruments were correct when we saw 58 degrees, where usually it’s 49, 52,” he says. “And that changes the conditions for feed for the salmon as well as their desire to be in that warmer water.”
The warm water off the Northwest coast, which is linked to one of the hottest summers the region has ever seen, is what’s believed to have caused a record number of sockeye to bypass Sekiu and many other ports in Washington in favor of cooler waters in Canada. Morris says it probably hasn’t helped the chinook here, either.
“It is surprising, because I know there’s many people working together to try to improve conditions and survival for salmon, but it’s up and down from year to year within a decade, [and] this year is some of the lowest catches for Puget Sound chinook that we’ve ever witnessed,” he says.
‘We Have Only One Chinook In The Freezer’
Ocean conditions are a bit of a black box for scientists; they know that huge percentages of the young salmon that leave fresh water never return as adults, but information about why is scarce. The recent launch of an international research effort, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, seeks to fill the information gap.
But for Morris, it’s just one of many causes. For another, he cites the influence of hatchery fish that are released in droves and feed on limited food sources “like a herd of sheep” while wild fish trickle out gradually. But he links most of the fish’s decline to urbanization and development that destroys fish habitat.
He remembers the days of his youth in the 1950s and ‘60s when salmon fishing was such a popular family vacation that you could hardly find a place to park your boat in places like Ilwaco.
“Because it came with a bounty of fish that were canned and smoked and frozen, so that after your vacation you ended up with two or three hundred pounds of salmon,” he says. “Now, we have only one chinook in the freezer, where last year, we had 15, so we’ll be fishing hard [for the rest of the season].”
Why The Chinook Is King
Chinook hold a special status in the world of sport fishing.
Roy Morris’ wife, Nancy Messmer, holds up a chinook salmon she caught off the coast of Sekiu, Washington. (Courtesy of Nancy Messmer)
“[It’s] called the king because it’s the biggest and the most spectacular,” Morris says, noting that sometime his guests get frightened by how long and hard they’ll pull on a line. Morris calls them “the long distance runners.” He notes that Columbia River chinook traverse nearly the entire state and reach Canada before coming back home. And his favorites, the Puget Sound chinook, even climb mountains.
“They go right to the North Cascades,” he says. And they enjoy iconic status, with tourists coming from all over to seek them out. They’re also some of the tastiest, with firm flesh, he says, “because it chored higher and higher into the watersheds.”
And they get harder to catch at this time of year, when their bodies start changing with physiology that signals it’s time for them to head to home waters and spawn. They lose interest in food, presenting extra challenges for anglers who use special lures and techniques to hook them.
“There’s slang talk like ‘slack jaw’ and more formal talk is ‘waiting fish.’ They’re not so much chowing down to build their body,” he says. “Reproductive capabilities are being developed more than muscle tissue. And as that chemistry changes, their desire to return to the natal stream and spawn overrides their desire to hunt and feed.”
‘I’m Here As A Witness To The Process’
Roy Morris, left, and his wife, Nancy Messmer. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)
Morris is not just a seasoned salmon fisherman; he’s exceptionally passionate about saving the fish. He says he caught his first salmon when he was 5, helped his grandson catch one at age 4 and wants that lineage to continue. But does he ever think it would be better to stop hunting an endangered species?Yes, he says, but as long as the fishing is allowed, he wants to be part of it.
“I’m here as a witness to the process,” he says. “I’m not fishing greedily to catch the last salmon, but I am participating in the seasons and open times that you can enjoy the sport.”
By being out on the water 100 days a year and also volunteering on boards as a representative of sport fishermen, he feels his perspective is an important contribution to augment data sets collected by government agencies. And he sees part of his role as educating the public about endangered fish and the issues they face.
There’s Hope Yet
Nancy Messner looks out at her line. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)
“The chinook is one of the more fragile of the spectrum of salmon in the Northwest,” he says. He remembers when they were first listed 15 years ago and the fishery was closed. He thought it might never reopen, that their declines had gone too far.
“But where barriers are removed, they’re amazing the way that they’ll try to fight for their survival if they’re given half a chance,” he says.
One only needs to look to Issaquah Creek and its Salmon Days festival for evidence, he says. In places where habitat has been restored and fish protected with policies, the fish do come back.
“At one time, those stocks had dwindled to just such small numbers, people had never even seen them or knew they were in the river. Now they throng and there’s a celebration … with booths and festivals, and people hanging over bridges,” he says. “That just is testimony to that if you give’em a chance, they will survive.”
And he sees another ray of hope in the recent return of chinook to the Elwha River, where the nation’s largest dam removal has just been completed.
“We saw fish in a habitat that there had not been wild salmon in for 100 years,” he says. “It’s just evidence that fish can return if they’re given a chance and proper conditions.”
It took some snorkeling and biological detective work to prove it.
But now Jeremy Romer and Fred Monzyk can confidently say they’ve found the first documented examples of Oregon chinook salmon spawning without swimming to the ocean and back.
The two Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists published their findings in an article this month in The North American Journal of Fisheries Management.
The discovery was the result of an investigation that started when they noticed something strange about the chinook salmon fishermen were catching in Green Peter Reservoir southeast of Corvallis: They looked wild.
In photographs printed in local newspapers and on the website ifish.net, several of the chinook being caught in the reservoir clearly had their adipose fins – little fins on their backs that are clipped off in hatcheries to mark the difference between hatchery fish and wild.
But there’s no way for wild fish to get to the reservoir.
The reservoir was created by Green Peter Dam on the Santiam River, a tributary of the Willamette. And the dam doesn’t have a route allowing fish passage to the ocean.
Up until 2008, the state had released excess hatchery chinook above the reservoir. But those fish were essentially trapped. They were only released so fishermen could catch them. And according to their biology, they should only have lived to 2012.
“Several pictures were of chinook captured in 2013,” Romer said. “That’s where the math didn’t add up because the last releases happened in 2008, and fish in the Willamette rarely live to age 6.”
So, the fish being caught in the reservoir couldn’t be the hatchery fish the state released in 2008 – not only because they had adipose fins but also because those fish were supposed to be dead already.
“One of the biggest clues was that we kept seeing photos in local newspapers of happy anglers with salmon we knew we didn’t put in there,” Monzyk said.
So, if these fish weren’t the hatchery chinook released by ODFW, where did they come from?
“It was an ideal opportunity for us to investigate,” Romer said.
The biologists went snorkeling and saw nine adult chinook salmon with their adipose fins intact. They also recovered six carcasses of wild-looking chinook. They ran tests to see if chemistry inside the fish indicated that they’d been to the ocean. It didn’t. Nonetheless, they found four female fish that appeared to have successfully spawned in 2012.
Their conclusion: The hatchery chinook released above the dam didn’t go to the ocean, but some of them spawned anyway. And fishermen were catching their offspring in Green Peter Reservoir.
“It’s another example of the resilience of chinook in the Pacific Northwest,” Romer said. “It’s pretty amazing that even though they can’t fulfill their regular pathways or life history they’re able to adapt and still reproduce. Like Jurassic Park, they’ll find a way.”
You may have heard of kokanee – they’re landlocked sockeye salmon. Chinook don’t usually evolve to live without going to ocean and back, Romer said. It’s been known to happen in a few places, but this is the first time it’s been documented in Oregon. Romer and Monzyk say it likely won’t be the last. They suspect a similar situation has already unfolded in Detroit Lake, southeast of Salem.
For Memorial Day weekend, leaders from the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes opened a two-night commercial gillnet fishery that will bring ample amounts of fresh spring chinook to the salmon-loving public. The latest fishery comes on the heels of an above average spring chinook run which should reach 224,000 returning adults. This spring’s commercial fishery will be the largest in the last four years.
“The tribes are just one the many communities benefiting from this year’s spring chinook run,” said Paul Lumley, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s executive director. “For the first time in four years, we are thrilled to share the coveted spring chinook salmon with our loyal customers that appreciate fresh and locally-caught fish.”
A tribal fisher checks his nets along the Columbia River. (Courtesy Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission)
Indian fishers may be found selling fish at a number of locations along the river including Marine Park at Cascade Locks, Lone Pine at The Dalles, and the boat launch near Roosevelt, Washington as well as other locations. Commercial sales will not occur on Corps of Engineers property at Bonneville Dam. Information on where the day’s catch is being sold is available by calling Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s salmon marketing program at (888) 289-1855 or visiting the salmon marketing website http://www.critfc.org/harvest. Price is determined at the point of sale and sales are cash only.
The tribal fishery is protected by treaties made with the federal government in 1855, where the right to fish at all usual and accustomed fishing places in the Columbia River basin was reserved. The tribal treaty right extends beyond ceremonial and subsistence fisheries to commercial sales. The Columbia River fisheries are adjusted throughout the season in accordance with management agreements and observed returns.
The spring chinook run on the Columbia River has finally picked up, just in time for the season to expire. The popular lower-river fishery for bright, feisty springers closes Monday, and no season extension is planned at this point. After the numbers are crunched, it’s possible an extension could be announced, Fish and Wildlife Department biologist Joe Hymer in Vancouver said, but it probably wouldn’t take place until mid-May and it would be a short extension.
“What I think they’re looking at,” Hymer said, “would be to run it right on into the summer chinook season.”
The springer fishery started slowly, due in part to high, dirty, cold water conditions, Hymer said, and better success rates have followed a clearing, warming trend.
“We got off to a bad start,” he said, “but fishing has picked up the last few days to a point where it looks like we’ll come close to hitting predictions.”
The kings have been scattered from Cathlamet up to BonnevIlle Dam, and fishing has been good one day and not so good the next. Anglers are trolling herring, with or without a FishFlash, on both tides but primarily in a downstream direction. Others anchor on the ebb and put out Kwikfish with a sardine or tuna-belly wrap.
Sardines, anchovies, even herring in a pinch, but tuna belly?
“Yeah,” Hymer said. “Lots of oil and scent there. Works pretty well.”
Popular plug colors include silver, chartreuse, greens and pinks.
State creel checks late last week and over the weekend on the river below Bonneville counted 2,557 salmonid anglers (including 835 boats) with 316 adult and two jack springers, and nine steelhead. Effort had increased through Sunday, when a flight counted 1,300 boats and 1,146 bank anglers on the lower river.
A very good wild-stock steelhead fishery is underway on the Olympic Peninsula, according to Bob Gooding at Olympic Sporting Goods (360-374-6330), and unlike a lot of late seasons, the Sol Duc isn’t the only venue.
“It’s a good run of native fish,” Gooding said. “The hatchery run this winter was disappointing, but the wild fish are showing up pretty well.”
Most of the eight rivers centered in the Forks area that allow retention of one native steelhead per season have been putting out fish, Gooding said. The Sol Duc is probably the best, especially since there are a few spring chinook available on the lower end.
“Add springers to a good late steelhead run and you have a circus,” Gooding said. “Pressure on the Sol Duc has been pretty heavy.”
The Calawah, Bogachiel and Hoh also have been kicking out natives, according to Gooding, which has eased crowding on the Sol Duc a little.
The Hoh is popular, particularly with fly fishermen.
“They don’t catch a ton of fish,” Gooding said, “but a lot of them fish the Hoh. It has a lot of open gravel bars, access is pretty good, and it’s a relatively easy river to fish.”
Almost everyone else uses a float/jig or float/pink plastic worm.
“And I personally don’t care for that gear,” Gooding said. “I may be old-fashioned, but I like to drift my rig down the gravel and feel that ‘tap, tap’ and know I’m about to have a blast. Float fishing, all you do is sit and watch the float all day and when it goes ‘blip’ you start reeling and the fish is either there or it isn’t. Not my cup of tea.”
State Fish and Wildlife Department personnel checked 82 anglers on the Sol Duc over the weekend, 71 boat fishermen and 11 bankers, with two native fish kept and 120 releasedplus two hatchery fish kept. On the Bogachiel it was 12 boat fishermen with 16 natives released and two hatchery fish kept. On the lower Hoh, it was 35 bank anglers and 32 boaters with 22 natives released, and on the upper Hoh, 48 anglers with 13 natives released.
The last razor clam dig on the coastal beaches drew a near-record crowd, probably because of the switch from winter evening tides to the more popular morning tides. Weather and surf didn’t cooperate fully, according to state shellfish manager Dan Ayres in Montesano, and the average number of clams per person swung from 4.1 to about 13, depending on the day and the beach.
Next up is a tentative series of tides as follows: Monday, 6:46 a.m., plus 0.2 feet, at Twin Harbors beach; Tuesday, 7:24 a.m., minus 0.3 feet, at Twin Harbors and Long Beach; Wednesday, 8:03 a.m., minus 0.6 feet, at Twin Harbors and Long Beach; April 17, 8:43 a.m., minus 0.8 feet, at Twin Harbors and Long Beach; April 18, 9:26 a.m., minus 0.8 feet, at Twin Harbors, Long Beach and Mocrocks; April 19, 10.14 a.m., minus 0.7 feet, at Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis and Mocrocks; and April 20, 11:06 a.m., minus 0.4 feet , at Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis and Mocrocks.
Ayres warns clam diggers that a 2014 license is needed. Licenses range from a three-day razor clam license to an annual combination fishing license.
Mike Chamberlain at Ted’s Sport Center in Lynnwood (425-743-9505) looked around the area and came up with the following:
Blackmouth fishing: better the farther west you go, around Port Townsend and beyond; slow locally.
Kokanee: starting to show in Lake Stevens, but probably won’t be steamin’ until at least the end of April.
Smelt: The Oak Harbor Marina and Cornet Bay are putting out surprisingly good smelt jigging, or at least better than it was early in the winter season.
Fly fishing: Pretty fair reports from fly fishermen working Lone Lake on Whidbey Island and Pass Lake south of Anacortes.
For more outdoor news, read Wayne Kruse’s blog at www.heraldnet.com/huntingandfishing.
Both hatchery and wild fish are needed for steelhead and salmon recovery in western Washington, says Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
“There’s no way we can do it without both,” said Frank, responding to a lawsuit against the state of Washington by a group claiming that state hatchery steelhead releases are undermining recovery of ESA-listed wild steelhead, chinook and bull trout in Puget Sound.
The Wild Fish Conservancy wants the program halted and is seeking an injunction to stop the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from releasing nearly 1 million hatchery steelhead this spring. WDFW has said it will not release the fish unless or until it can reach an agreement with the group.
Science guides the operation of hatcheries in western Washington, Frank said. Hatcheries are carefully managed to protect the genetic health of wild fish. Without hatcheries and the fish they produce, there would be no fishing at all.
“It’s important to remember why we have hatcheries in the first place,” he said. “They were built to make up for lost natural steelhead and salmon production that has been nearly destroyed by habitat loss and damage. They have been an important part of salmon management in Washington for more than 100 years.”
Indian and non-Indian fishermen, their families, businesses and many others depend on the salmon and steelhead that hatcheries provide, Frank said. Because wild fish populations have continued to decline along with their habitat, hatcheries are critical to providing fish for harvest.
Hatchery fish are also essential to fulfilling tribal treaty-reserved fishing rights, which depend on fish being available for harvest. Properly managed hatcheries can be a valuable tool for wild fish restoration by supplementing natural spawning and increasing natural-origin fish abundance, Frank said.
“But we must also stop the loss and damage of steelhead and salmon habitat in our watersheds,” Frank said. “The reasons that hatcheries were built in the first place have not changed, and have only gotten worse. We are losing salmon habitat faster than it can be restored and protected, and that trend is not improving.”
That is why lawsuits like the one filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy are so disappointing, Frank said.
Once a hatchery salmon is released, it has the same habitat needs as wild fish. Those needs include clean, cold water; access to and from the sea; and good spawning habitat.
“Lost and damaged habitat, not hatcheries or harvest, is what’s driving wild steelhead and salmon populations toward extinction,” Frank said. “The focus needs to be on fixing and protecting habitat, not fighting over hatcheries and the fish they produce. Climate change and exploding population growth are only making our habitat problems worse, which in turn makes hatcheries even more important for wild fish and all of us.”
If the state ultimately does not release the fish, both Indian and non-Indian fishermen and local economies will feel the effects quickly and for a long time, Frank said. “The tribes and state learned a long time ago that our money, time and energy are better spent working together for the benefit of the resource than fighting each other in court. We need cooperation, not litigation, to achieve salmon and steelhead recovery.”
For more information: Tony Meyer, NWIFC, (360-438-1180) firstname.lastname@example.org; or Emmett O’Connell (360- 438-1180) email@example.com.
The future is looking bright for fall chinook salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers. Predictions are in that this could be another record-breaking year for the fish.
Officials are predicting the largest return on record since 1938. That’s 1.6 million Columbia River fall chinook. Nearly 1 million of those fish will come from salmon near Hanford Reach. These are known as upriver brights, said Stuart Ellis, fisheries biologist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.
“One interesting thing about the forecasts is that even though most of the forecasts are big, it is just the two large bright upriver stocks, the upriver brights and The pool upriver brights that we are predicting to be record high runs this year,” Ellis said.
Last year saw a record number of fall chinook salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers since the dams were built. The upriver bright salmon are predicted to reach the same record as the entire returning fall chinook last year.
Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the advocacy group Save Our Wild Salmon, said the strong numbers are due in part to favorable ocean conditions, enough water spilling over dams during migration season and good habitat at Hanford Reach. That’s one of the longest free-flowing areas on the Columbia River.
Columbia River Indian tribes contend hatcheries also play a part in large Snake River fall chinook returns.
Sara Thompson, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said, right now, a record number of salmon are spawning in the Snake River.
“This is the highest number of salmon spawning in the Snake River Basin that we’ve seen since the Lower Granite Dam was constructed,” she said. The dam, one of four on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington, was completed in 1975.
Thompson said more wild fall chinook salmon are expected to return to the Snake River this year.
Bogaard said even though the fall chinook predictions are high, work still needs to be done to protect other endangered salmon runs.
“While the fall chinook run looks like that they’re as strong as they’ve been in quite a few years, we’ve still got a lot of work to do to protect and restore many other runs that provide the benefits to people and ecosystems in the parts of the basin,” Bogaard said.
The iconic Chinook salmon, for millennia a cornerstone of Pacific Northwest diet, spirituality, ceremony and even the tribes’ economy, is fast becoming toxic in Washington State.
And rather than focus on cleaning up the waterways that year-round salmon reside in, Washington state agencies have issued fish-consumption advisories. The less fish consumed, at the lower limits, the higher concentration of contaminants is deemed acceptable.
But salmon are not just a way of life. They are life. And, Northwest tribes say, the cavalier attitude toward their contamination not only risks health but also guts treaty rights and the very way of life of the land’s original peoples.
Studies of adult salmon indicate that Puget Sound Chinook salmon have higher concentrations of legacy contaminants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), than salmon from other parts of the Northwest. The state’s solution? Limit consumption to one Puget Sound Chinook fillet a week, and two Puget Sound resident Chinook (blackmouth) fillets a month.
Tribal peoples in Western Washington who eat their usual intake of fish and seafood–indeed, the traditional foods they have eaten for millennia–must do so now at risk of disease due to the toxins that lurk in their waters, not to mention in their state politics. People who eat fish more than once a month are not protected by Washington State water quality standards.
Fish, with their high levels of precious proteins and rich omega-3 fatty acids, are touted as improving health and extending life. But fish from polluted waters can expose unborn babies, infants, children and adults to mercury, lead, arsenic, PCBs and other toxins that can compromise immune function, cause cancer and adversely affect reproduction, development and endocrine functions.
Washington State’s Department of Health recommends that residents eat no more than two fish fillets a week, in concert with very strict selection, preparation and cooking criteria, to avoid toxicity. Compare that with Washington State’s Department of Ecology’s fish consumption rate (FCR) determination of an eight-ounce fish fillet a month, or 6.5 grams a day.
The less fish consumed by residents, said Frank, the more pollutants that can be dumped into waterways. The higher the fish consumption rate, the cleaner that Washington waterways will need to be. Establishing a higher consumption rate will force polluters to reduce the amount of new contaminants they dump into the water, keeping salmon and other seafood clean.
Studies reveal that Washingtonians are among the highest fish-consuming populations in the nation. That’s not surprising given that 29 federally recognized tribal nations exist within a state bound by the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River and the Salish Sea, with the state itself wrapped around Puget Sound and interlaced with numerous rivers.
“State government admits that the current rate does not protect most Washington citizens from toxics in our waters that can cause illness or death,” said Frank. Washington’s rate should be at least as protective as Oregon’s rate of 175 grams per day, equivalent to about 24 eight-ounce fillets per month, Frank said.
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s (CRITFC) 1994 fish consumption survey revealed that the average Columbia River tribal member consumed 58.7 grams of fish per day, and also found that they typically ate the whole fish. The survey prompted Oregon to revise its FCR in 1994, which Oregon updated in 2011 in line with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommendations. But industry in Washington, led by Boeing, say that Oregon’s standard is impossible.
Frank said the effort to adopt a more accurate FCR is one of the biggest public policy battles in the country, pitting human health against the economy.
“Industry leaders such as Boeing are digging in their heels to delay or kill rule-making on a more accurate rate because they say it will increase their cost of doing business,” he said.
“Tribal leaders were very disappointed when [Washington] failed to adopt fish consumption standards in 2012,” Ann Seiter, the FCR coordinator for the NWIFC, told ICTMN in reference to InvestigateWest’s five-part series on the issue in 2012.
InvestigateWest’s insightful five-part-plus series describes how former Governor Christine Gregoire was divided between acting for the tribes, powerful supporters who wanted stricter water pollution rules, and her supporters in the aerospace industry, like Boeing, which were against tightening FCR rules, in 2011–2012. Ecology stopped work on changes to water pollution rules in June 2012 with a delay to at least 2014, after which Gregoire would no longer be governor, the team reported.
“The tale of how Boeing and its allies beat back … Ecology’s attempt to change a fish consumption rate that pretty much everyone involved acknowledges is too low provides a fascinating look at how the levers of power are pulled in Olympia,” InvestigateWest said.
The tribes are upset with the continuing delays.
“They’ve taken their concerns to the EPA regarding their Trust responsibilities, as well as their obligations under the Clean Water Act,” Seiter said.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, river water should be clean enough so that people can eat the fish. Environment and fisheries organizations sued the EPA in October 2013 for non-compliance under the Clean Water Act for allegedly failing to protect Washingtonians from toxic pollution entering Puget Sound, the Columbia River, the Spokane River and other waterways.
In a letter to Ecology last June, the new Governor Inslee announced that he would organize an informal group of advisers from local governments, Indian tribes and businesses, according to InvestigateWest. Inslee’s letter to Ecology Director Maia Bellon, released last June 7, called for the agency to help educate Inslee’s advisory group, “including real-world scenarios illustrating how new criteria would be applied and how new implementation and compliance tools would work in the permitting context,” they reported. Ecology officials had already said the “implementation and compliance tools” could include giving businesses up to 40 years to cut pollution levels to the amount that presumably would be required once accurate fish-consumption rates are in place.
Tribal leaders responded by taking their concerns directly to Inslee, Seiter said.
In December China banned shellfish from the West Coast, citing, among other factors, high levels of inorganic arsenic in geoduck clams harvested by the Puyallup Tribe in the Redondo area of Puget Sound, according to Earthfix.opb.org. The ban underscored the direct negative economic impact of pollution on tribes.
“The tribes are not only interested in protecting all the species of fish they eat, but they’re also concerned about protecting their economic interests,” said Seiter.
Washington business associations, cities and counties together hired an engineering firm to prepare a report, released on December 4, 2013, that evaluated technologies potentially capable of meeting Ecology’s effluent discharge limits for revised human health water quality criteria for arsenic, benzo(a)pyrene (BAP), mercury, and PCBs. The report coincided with the public rollout and comment period for Ecology’s proposed rule changes to the state’s water quality standards in early 2014, including human health criteria involving the FCR.
“Currently there are no known facilities that treat to the [health water quality criteria] and anticipated effluent limits that are under consideration,” the report stated. It also reported limitations in proven technologies capable of compliance with the revised health water quality criteria.
One tribal official who spoke on condition of anonymity said tribal leaders are sticking close to these issues.
“As we discussed this ongoing environmental catastrophe, we decided we wouldn’t go to jail anymore like we did in the fish wars,” the leader told ICTMN. “But we are ready to go to war [to] protect the water.”