Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Steelhead listing brings protection to smaller streams

January 15th, 2013 by cdunagan

The little streams and tributaries on the Kitsap Peninsula and elsewhere in Puget Sound are destined for special attention under a proposal to designate critical habitat for Puget Sound steelhead. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.

Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Kitsap Sun file photo

When it comes to endangered and threatened species, most of the attention has been given to Puget Sound chinook, which migrate to the larger rivers and often spawn in mainstem waters and larger tributaries.

As a reporter, I’ve also paid attention through the years to Hood Canal summer chum, which come into the streams along Hood Canal in the late summer and early fall. They generally spawn in the lower part of the streams, because water has not yet arrived to fill upstream tributaries.

Steelhead are an entirely different kind of fish, coming into our local streams in the winter months and swimming upstream as far as they can go. Steelhead may not die after spawning, so they can repeatedly return to spawn again and again.

With adequate rains, there is almost no place on the Kitsap Peninsula where steelhead cannot go. In that respect, they are similar to coho salmon, a fall spawner that remains on the borderline for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Many biologists tell me that protections for steelhead will go a long way to protecting our depressed coho runs as well.

What is needed more than anything is more research on the ecological values of the smaller streams on the Kitsap Peninsula and South Sound region. Where have steelhead been found historically, and what can we do to improve the habitat for them?

On the positive side, it is often easier to fix the smaller streams. Culverts can be replaced, side channels created and streamside vegetation planted, all at less cost than on our major rivers.

On the other hand, given our tight state and federal budgets, we are not likely to see more money for salmon and steelhead restoration. We’ll probably have to spread the existing dollars further. In fact, I’ve been told that some people in chinook territory have tried to slow down the steelhead-recovery effort, because it will mean less money for chinook recovery. And they may have been successful.

Puget Sound steelhead were listed as “threatened” nearly five years ago. The Endangered Species Act calls for designating critical habitat within one year of the listing, but NOAA concluded that the designation was “not determinable” at that time. Now, more information is available, the agency says.

Elsewhere, five populations of West Coast steelhead were listed as “threatened” in August 1997, and four others were listed in March 1998. Critical habitat for all nine listed species of steelhead was proposed in February 1999 and completed a year later. (Their status was later reconsidered, which led to the official listing date actually coming after designation of critical habitat.) As a result of a lawsuit, the court scheduled the deadlines for those steelhead.

Biologists are now working on a recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead in consultation with local governments throughout the region. The ESA does not provide a firm deadline for approving a recovery plan, although federal agencies attempt to get them done within a few years after listing.

More information can be found on the website “Critical Habitat for Lower Columbia River Coho & Puget Sound Steelhead.”

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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