Hood Canal summer chum could be removed from Endangered List

Because no population of salmon has ever been taken off the Endangered Species List, nobody knows exactly how to go about it. Still, Hood Canal summer chum, a threatened species, could be proposed for delisting within about five years.

“I think we are in the home stretch for recovery,” declared Scott Brewer, executive director of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, opening a day-long symposium about the future of Hood Canal summer chum.

“I’m not going to declare victory,” Scott cautioned. “You are not going to see a sign behind me saying ‘mission accomplished.’”

Total run size of Hood Canal summer chum in Hood Canal, not including extinct subpopulations // Graphic: Hood Canal Coordinating Council

And yet, after discussing the remarkable gains in summer chum populations in many local streams, experts at yesterday’s symposium in Bremerton became focused almost exclusively on what it would take to delist this unique population of chum salmon, which lives in Hood Canal and the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Hood Canal summer chum were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. By then, state and tribal officials had already taken actions to reduce commercial harvests of these fish and to boost production with temporary hatcheries. A federal recovery plan formalized actions and goals to restore the overall population. The plan also spelled out criteria for eventually removing summer chum from the Endangered Species List.

Total run size of Hood Canal summer chum in Strait of Juan de Fuca
Graphic: Hood Canal Coordinating Council

The main goal for recovery has been to restore at least one viable run of summer chum in each geographic area where the fish were known to exist. The criteria require an abundance of fish returning and successfully spawning in key areas each year. To ensure that the overall population survives at least 100 years, the various subpopulations need to be diverse — both in their stream location and in their genetic makeup.

Thanks to restoration efforts, the geographical diversity of summer chum appears to meet the delisting goals for the west side of Hood Canal on the Olympic Peninsula — including strong runs in the Quilcene, Dosewallips, Duckabush and Hamma Hamma rivers. But on the opposite side of the canal, on the Kitsap Peninsula, only the Union River stock near Belfair has done well. Efforts to restore summer chum with hatchery projects on Big Beef Creek and the Tahuya River were declared unsuccessful. Meanwhile, summer chum on their own have failed to recolonize the Dewatto River and Big Anderson Creek, where the populations went extinct in the 1980s.

While current conditions might meet the recovery goal for geographical diversity, many summer chum biologists would like to see at least one more success story on the east side of Hood Canal, according to Larry Lestelle, a consultant with Biostream Environmental who is assisting the Hood Canal Coordinating Council with its plans to restore summer chum.

Big Beef Creek might be a candidate for another hatchery project, Larry said, noting that recent restoration projects have restored habitat in the stream. Better habitat would likely increase survival for summer chum in Big Beef.

In addition, transplanting Union River stock to Big Beef Creek the next time around could improve survival over the Quilcene River stock that was used last time, he said. Studies suggest that the extinct Big Beef summer chum were more closely related to those in the Union River than to those in the Quilcene, he added.

Another option would be to launch a small-scale hatchery project on the Dewatto River south of Holly. Conditions in the stream and estuary are still relatively natural, compared to other streams in the region.

When to formally propose delisting to the federal government remains a major question to be answered. Following years of study, salmon biologists have concluded that Hood Canal summer chum generally survive in greater numbers during so-called “cool phases” in the Pacific Ocean. The shift from warm to cool and back again over 20 to 30 years is known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Recent recovery of Hood Canal summer chum has corresponded with the more productive cool phase, Larry noted. In January 2014, ocean conditions abruptly shifted into a warm phase. Effects — such as reduced survival in and near the streams — are fairly quickly observed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but the same effects in Hood Canal are typically delayed by about two years.

“This provides a test,” Larry told an audience of experts and other interested folks at Kitsap Conference Center. “We are staring it in the face. It is time to sit on the edge of our seats and anxiously await… Are the spawners going to come in?”

The answers should become clear during migrations of adult summer chum to Hood Canal from 2018 to 2022, Larry said. The end of that period could be a good time to decide whether to move forward with a delisting proposal — especially if summer chum runs remain strong during the current warm phase in the PDO cycle.

Meanwhile, the effects of long-term climate change also must be considered in the effort to save the summer chum from extinction. Over the coming years, climatologists predict more extreme conditions, including higher winter streamflows that can wash salmon eggs out of the gravel and possibly smother them with silt.

The answer to climate change is to give the salmon a better chance of survival by protecting and restoring floodplains and increasing stream channel complexity. These actions can reduce the rushing waters and help salmon find refuge against the flows.

“The year 2022 could be a decision year, but not necessarily THE decision year,” Larry said. “It is all about letting the fish tell us what is going on.”

Jennifer Quan of NOAA said she is eager to work with local experts to keep restoring the Hood Canal summer chum and eventually assist in legally removing the fish from the Endangered Species List.

“We spent a lot of time over the last decade getting good at listing species,” she said. “Now we are starting to see that turn around. We are starting to develop new skills for delisting.”

Last year, NOAA denied a request to delist the Snake River fall chinook, one of 13 populations of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead protected under the Endangered Species Act. The request came from a group of commercial fishers in Alaska — the Chinook Future Coalition — which said protecting the Snake River fish throughout their range could limit chinook harvests off the coast of Alaska. Even though good numbers of chinook were returning, NOAA biologists were concerned that only one subpopulation was viable because of Hell’s Canyon Dam on the Snake River. Potential delisting scenarios were described in a question-and-answer format (PDF 531 kb).

In 2015, the Oregon chub, a small minnow found only in the Willamette River Basin, became the first fish in the nation to be delisted under the Endangered Species Act. See the news release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That delisting process could provide some guidance for Hood Canal summer chum, Jennifer said.

Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which oversees summer chum recovery, is made up of county commissioners in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties, along with the leaders of the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes. As HCCC director, Scott Brewer said he is prepared to continue discussions right away with experts and others interesting in developing a step-by-step plan for delisting Hood Canal summer chum.

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