Despite their unbreakable connection, salmon harvest and habitat restoration continue moving down separate roads in western Washington. Many people either don’t see or choose to ignore the fact that habitat determines harvest, and that we continue to lose habitat faster than it can be restored.
Indian and non-Indian harvest has been cut to the bone this summer because of expected historically low returns, especially coho. Yet habitat loss and damage – the root of the problem – continues every day throughout our watersheds and nearshore marine waters.
Poor ocean survival conditions certainly played a role in the low salmon returns of the past several years. But even when we can restore or protect salmon habitat, we aren’t helping ourselves enough.
You might be surprised, but fish really do grow on trees. Trees keep water temperatures low, the way salmon like it. Their roots help to prevent soil erosion that can smother salmon eggs. When they fall into a river, trees provide diverse rearing habitat for fish. When the salmon spawn and die, their nutrients feed the trees.
Yet from 2006 to 2011 we lost the equivalent of two Seattle-sized forests or about 170 square miles, according to the treaty tribes’ 2016 State of Our Watersheds Report. The report can be viewed at nwifc.org/sow.
When we lose habitat, we also lose the natural production of salmon it provides. The collapse of our fisheries is simply mirroring the collapse of the eco-systems that support them.
For more than 100 years, hatcheries have tried to make up for that loss, but hatchery salmon depend on the same declining habitat as naturally spawning salmon.
About half of the salmon harvested in western Washington are hatchery fish. Continued habitat loss means we will have to depend on hatcheries for as long as lost and damaged habitat continues to restrict natural salmon production and threaten treaty rights.
Hatcheries are simply a tool. Some provide fish for harvest while reducing harvest pressures on weak stocks. Others serve as nurseries to protect threatened salmon stocks. All are essential to salmon recovery and should be integrated in our salmon recovery efforts for every watershed. We need every tool in the box to reinforce remaining salmon populations as we work to restore habitat.
The importance of this tool should be reflected in its funding, but as the need for hatchery fish has increased, state funding for hatcheries has declined or remained flat. Treaty tribes have stepped up to fill the gap in recent years and provide more salmon for everyone by picking up the costs at a number of state hatcheries where production was threatened by budget shortfalls.
The connection between harvest and habitat is clear. We cannot expect to harvest salmon – either hatchery or naturally spawning – as long as we continue to destroy salmon habitat. In the meantime, hatcheries must continue to help bridge that gap and be included as the essential part of salmon recovery that they are.
Lorraine Loomis is the chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
SHELTON – The combination of dam removal and aggressive habitat restoration has meant record runs of juvenile coho salmon in Goldsborough Creek for 2015.
This year’s run of 113,000 juvenile counted by the Squaxin Island Tribe continues a strong trend of increasing the numbers of juvenile coho leaving the Goldsborough watershed. The previous record was 61,000 coho.
Almost 15 year ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed a dam on Goldsborough, opening over 30 miles of near intact habitat to salmon. Since then, the Squaxin Island Tribe has worked with community partners to further improve the habitat through restoration projects throughout the watershed.
“The lesson of Goldsborough Creek is pretty basic: If you give salmon habitat, they’re going to succeed,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the Squaxin Island Tribe.
For example, a couple of years ago, the tribe worked with the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, Simpson Lumber, the Green Diamond Resource Company and Miles Sand and Gravel to restore habitat along the creek. The project partners added wood structures to the stream, which give both juvenile and adult salmon places to feed and hide.
A year earlier, the Tribe and the enhancement group replaced undersized culverts just upstream from the old dam site that were blocking a tributary to Goldsborough. The project opened nearly a mile of new spawning and rearing habitat that had not seen salmon in over 100 years.
“These projects, coupled with dam removal, reversed a negative trend for coho on Goldsborough,” Whitener said.
The tribe has operated at least one smolt trap on the creek since dam removal to count out-going salmon migrants. Smolt traps are safe and effective devices for counting young fish. Smolt comes from the word “smoltification” which is the term used to describe the physiological changes that young salmon undergo while in freshwater, just before migrating downstream and entering saltwater.
“By using the trap every year, we’re getting a great picture of the benefits salmon see from good habitat,” said Daniel Kuntz, fisheries biologist for the tribe.
Most importantly to coho salmon, the removal of the dam opened up access to a series of wetlands where juvenile salmon could rear. Unlike most other species of salmon, coho spend an additional year in freshwater before heading out to sea.
The Tribe along with WDFW also conducts yearly adult spawning surveys on Goldsborough Creek above the former dam site. “We get a good look at these salmon at both ends of their life-cycle – as they leave as juveniles and as their returning as spawning adults,” Kuntz said.
“The success salmon have seen since we’ve begun restoring the watershed shows directly how much salmon really do depend on habitat,” said Whitener. “
Tribal and state co-managers continue to improve their ability to track hatchery salmon in the Snohomish watershed.
Both the Tulalip Tribes’ Bernie “Kai-Kai” Gobin Hatchery and the state’s Wallace River Hatchery recently installed new chillers to better mark hatchery chinook, coho and chum salmon.
“One hundred percent of all Tulalip chinook, coho and chum, and all regional chinook hatchery production, is now marked by location and brood year,” said Mike Crewson, Tulalip salmon enhancement scientist.
By altering the water temperature during incubation, hatchery managers can leave a distinct pattern on each fish’s otolith – a mineral structure often referred to as an ear bone, which accumulates daily rings. When fish return as adults, their otoliths are examined under a microscope to identify where and when they were released.
A portion of Snohomish regional hatchery fish also have coded-wire tags inserted into their snouts for identification in fisheries where otoliths are not examined. Also, adipose fins from most hatchery chinook and coho are clipped, which identifies them as hatchery fish but does not tell fishery managers where they are from.
While both of these methods can be expensive and hard on the fish, otolith marking is a cost-effective way to ensure that all the fish are marked and uniquely identifiable simply by changing the temperature of the water going to the eggs.
Tulalip also has hired additional staff and increased the number of returning fish that are sampled from the spawning grounds and in regional fisheries and hatcheries. Tribal technicians remove the heads of spawned-out fish in rivers and hatcheries, and from a representative number of the catch, and read the otoliths in the tribes’ stock assessment lab.
“We run all the otoliths for the entire area,” Crewson said. “It’s an important tool to assess straying and genetic risk and protect tribal treaty rights.”
Data show a significant reduction in hatchery strays since 2004 when 100 percent of the remaining hatchery chinook production was switched to the local native Skykomish River summer chinook broodstock.
“Our treaty fishing rights depend on these fish,” said Terry Williams, Tulalip’s fisheries and natural resources commissioner. “As long as natural production is limited by habitat loss and damage, we will need hatcheries.”
The Squaxin Island Tribe is conducting snorkel surveys throughout the Deschutes River watershed, looking for stretches where coho go to feed and grow.
Each spring for the last three years, the tribe has released 100,000 juvenile coho into the Deschutes. They then follow up for months with snorkel surveys to see where the fish go. “What we’re looking for is coho habitat to protect and restore,” said Scott Steltzner, salmon biologist for the tribe. “And, obviously, the coho know where the best coho habitat is.”
The problem, however, is that low runs of coho to the Deschutes in recent decades mean there aren’t even enough coho to fill the available habitat. “We can guess what sort of habitat coho want, but the best way is to get out there and find out first hand,” Steltzner said. “But, to find where the good coho habitat is in the Deschutes, we need to put some coho in the river first.”
Because coho salmon spend an extra year in freshwater before heading out to the ocean, they are more dependent on river habitat than other salmon species.
In the past, the Deschutes River was the largest producer of coho in deep South Sound. Coho have been returning in low numbers for over 20 years since a landslide sent tons of sediment into the river. “The landslide wiped out coho in their main stronghold on Huckleberry Creek and they haven’t been able to re-establish themselves,” Steltzner said.
New forest practice rules put into place since the landslide would likely prevent the same type of catastrophic event from happening again.
The tribe will use the information from the snorkel surveys to plan on-the-ground restoration and protection efforts. “Finding where salmon rear in the Deschutes is the single largest data gap in proceeding with much-needed habitat work,” Steltzner said.
Because the upper Deschutes River is relatively undeveloped – less than 10 percent has been paved over – it’s still possible to restore salmon habitat and productivity. “There is a chance here to restore salmon productivity to historic levels,” said Andy Whitner, natural resources director for the tribe.
“Our way of life, our culture and economy have always been based around natural resources,” Whitener said. “Protecting and restoring salmon habitat is the most important thing we can do to restore salmon in the Deschutes and protect our treaty right to fish.”
A federal fisheries management panel has approved what some charter captains are calling the best ocean fishing season in 20 years.
It’s a big turnaround from the recent past when ocean salmon fishing was sharply curtailed or not allowed at all.
Fishery managers are predicting strong returns of wild and hatchery-raised salmon to the Columbia, Klamath and Sacramento Rivers this year. These runs provide the backbone for the ocean salmon fishing season. This year’s spawners benefited from good river flows when they were young and productive ocean conditions as adults.
Coho Charters owner Butch Smith of coastal Ilwaco, Washington is looking forward to a seven day a week summertime fishery in the ocean.
“Fishing for both Chinook and coho salmon are some of the best we have had for a long time,” said Smith. “Salmon fishing — the fishing industry — to my town is like Boeing and Microsoft is to Seattle. It’s very important. It is the lifeblood.”
The good times may not last because of drought conditions in southern Oregon and California. Poor spawning and juvenile survival conditions today will probably dampen future returns. This could lead to varying degrees of restrictions coast wide in coming years.
“Hopefully, we’ve still got a couple more of these good cycles left before we happen to see an unfortunate downturn,” said Smith.
Meeting at a hotel in Vancouver, Wash., the Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted the 2014 season quotas unanimously on Wednesday after days of lengthy negotiations between commercial troll and recreational fishing representatives, treaty tribes and government regulators.
A new court decision reduces the number of hatchery fish releases into Oregon’s Sandy River this year.
The Sandy River Hatchery will be allowed to release 200,000 coho salmon this year. That’s less than the 300,000 coho hatchery managers were planning to release.
Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said in a statement that the reduction won’t harm sport fishers.
“This is good news for our industry,” she said. “We are very happy the anglers and businesses that rely on fishing on the Sandy River will not be negatively impacted by this ruling. This is great news for hatcheries in Oregon and for anyone who fishes in the Northwest.”
Judge Ancer Haggerty said hatchery managers needed to do more to ensure the hatchery fish released into the Sandy weren’t going to put protected wild fish at risk.
His latest decision issued Friday follows up on that ruling. It allows the hatchery to continue releasing fish -– but not as many as planned.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by the Native Fish Society. Michael Moody, executive director of the Society, said his group had asked the court for a larger reduction in hatchery releases – not just for coho but for chinook and steelhead, too.
“We’re disappointed,” he said. “We don’t think it was beneficial to wild fish as much as we’d hoped.”
DAVENPORT, Calif. — By now, water would typically be ripping down Scott Creek, and months ago it should have burst through a berm of sand to provide fish passage between freshwater and the ocean.
Instead, young coho salmon from this redwood and oak-shaded watershed near Santa Cruz last week were swirling around idly in a lagoon. There has been so little rain that sand has blocked the endangered fish from leaving for the ocean or swimming upstream to spawn.
Scott Creek is one of dozens of streams across California where parched conditions have put fish in immediate danger. With the drought, stream flows have been so low that even months into winter, sandbars have remained closed and waters so shallow that many salmon have had their migratory journeys obstructed.
To prevent further stress to salmon and steelhead, state wildlife officials have closed dozens of rivers and streams to fishing, including all coastal streams west of California 1. A storm that soaked parts of Northern California over the weekend should offer a short respite, but experts say streams like Scott Creek will need several inches of rain a week to stay open and connected to the ocean.
Nowhere is the situation more pressing than on California’s North and Central Coast, where a population of only a few thousand coho salmon were already teetering on the edge of extinction.
“This is the first animal that will feel the impacts of the drought,” said Jonathan Ambrose, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist who stood at the sand-blocked mouth of Scott Creek to offer his assessment Wednesday. “It’s going to take a lot of rain to bust this thing open. And if they can’t get in by the end of February or March, they’re gone.”
Historically, hundreds of thousands of Central California Coast coho salmon started and ended their lives in creeks that flow from coastal mountains and redwood forests to the coast from Humboldt County to Santa Cruz.
Of those that remain, most at risk are coho salmon from about a dozen streams on the southern end of the species’ range in North America. If not for a small hatchery near the town of Davenport keeping the population going and genetically viable, coho salmon would probably already be long gone south of the Golden Gate.
The Central Coast population of coho has plummeted from about 56,000 in the 1960s to fewer than 500 returning adults in 2009. Over the last several years it has hovered around a few thousand, according to estimates from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The population was listed as federally threatened in 1996 and reclassified as endangered in 2005. A 2012 federal plan estimated its recovery could take 50 to 100 years and cost about $1.5 billion.
“Coho are the fish that are really in trouble in the state right now,” said Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Right now, they’re cut off in many of the streams. They’re stuck in pools,” Lehr said. “As we move deeper into this drought, every life stage is going to suffer increased mortality.”
It’s not only Central Coast salmon that are in peril.
To the North, on Siskiyou County’s Scott River, more than 2,600 coho salmon returned this winter to spawn — the highest number since 2007 — but they encountered so little water they weren’t able to reach nine-tenths of tributaries to spawn, said Preston Harris, executive director of the Scott River Water Trust.
In the Sacramento River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release more than 190,000 hatchery-reared chinook salmon Monday to take advantage of recent rainfall. Commercial fishing groups, however, are urging wildlife officials to consider trucking chinook downstream.
“We’re in such extremely low-flow conditions that they might as well dig a ditch and bury these fish rather than trying to put them in a river,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
On the banks of Big Creek, a tributary of Scott Creek a few miles from the coast near Santa Cruz, some 41,000 coho salmon just over a year old are being raised to be released this spring at a conservation hatchery operated by the nonprofit Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project.
For now, hatchery managers can only wait and hope for rains heavy and consistent enough to swell the creek’s waters and give the fish a route to the sea. Barring that, wildlife officials overseeing the hatchery are considering drastic measures, such as bulldozing a channel through the berm of sand or releasing the young fish directly into the ocean.
Salmon have existed more than a million years and have evolved with California’s climate. Scientists say they have survived dry spells much worse than this one.
What has changed in recent generations is the pressure California’s growing population has exerted on the water supply and their habitat. Farms, vineyards and cities now divert stream flows while roads, logging and urban development have degraded water quality.
Coho salmon also have a rigid life cycle that makes them more vulnerable during droughts. After three years, they must return from the ocean to the stream where they were born to spawn and die.
That urge was all too apparent when scientists observed this winter’s returning Central California Coast coho salmon. Hundreds of the roughly 1,000 adults that arrived were schooling in estuaries, waiting for rain to provide them passage upstream.
“Many of these fish may simply die in the estuary without reproducing if they can’t access spawning grounds,” said Charlotte Ambrose, salmon and steelhead recovery coordinator at the National Marine Fisheries Service. “While some rain has come, for coho this year it may be too little too late.”
Every year, the Lummi Nation releases a million coho yearlings from its Lummi Bay Hatchery in two batches of 500,000 fish. The fish are spawned at the Lummi Bay Hatchery and reared at the state’s Kendall Creek hatchery until they are yearlings. Then the fish are transported back to Lummi Bay where they are released.