Category Archives: Restoration efforts

Are we winning or losing the ongoing battle for salmon habitat?

It has been said that the Puget Sound ecosystem would be far worse off today were it not for the millions of dollars spent on restoration projects over the past 25 years.

Undoubtedly, that’s true, but I think most of us are hoping that these costly efforts will eventually restore salmon populations while improving conditions for other creatures as well. Shouldn’t we be able to measure the progress?

Juvenile chinook salmon
Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

This basic question became the essence of my latest story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound: “Are we making progress on salmon revovery?”

As I describe in the story, what seems like a simple question becomes tangled in the difficulties of measuring population and ecological changes. It turns out that you can’t just count the fish to see if restoration is working. That’s because natural variabilities of weather, ocean conditions and predator/prey populations cause salmon populations to swing wildly from year to year no matter what you do.

While researching this story, I learned a good deal about freshwater habitat conditions needed to help various species of salmon to thrive. Habitat improvements resulting from restoration projects are no doubt helping salmon in significant ways. On the other hand, one cannot ignore human development that continues to degrade habitat — despite improved regulations designed to reduce the damage.

I’ve heard some people say that wild salmon would come back in larger numbers if everyone would just stop fishing for them. This may be true to some extent, especially for high-quality streams that may not be getting enough salmon to spawn. But the key to the problem is understanding the “bottlenecks” that limit salmon survival through their entire lives.

A stream may have plenty of adult spawners, but that does not mean the salmon runs will increase if the eggs are buried in silt or if food supplies limit the number of fry that survive. There may be multiple limiting factors that need to be addressed to ensure healthy ongoing salmon populations.

Small improvements in habitat may actually boost the productivity of salmon in a stream, meaning that more salmon will survive. But the benefits of small projects on large streams may be difficult to distinguish from natural variation. Statistical analysis is used to determine whether increases or decreases in salmon populations are more related to habitat changes or natural variation. It takes a fairly dramatic change to link cause to effect in a statistically significant way.

One ongoing experiment is measuring changes in fry populations in several streams within the same watersheds. One stream is left alone — the “control” stream — while habitat improvements are made in others. Because the streams are closely related, biologists hope to attribute population increases to habitat improvements with a high level of certainty. See Intensively Monitored Watersheds on the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The same issue of statistics applies to the aquatic insects that salmon eat. It appears that food supplies are improving in many salmon streams as a result of restoration, but not all benthic invertebrates are responding in the same way. For many streams, it will take more time to get enough data to determine whether the increased bug populations are statistically significant. This happens to be one issue that I side-stepped in the latest story, but I will be returning to it in the future. For background, check out an earlier story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, “Healthy Streams, Healthy Bugs.”

While habitat restoration is ongoing, so too is human development, which continues unabated at what appears to be an accelerating pace. New regulations are designed to result in “no net loss” of important habitats, including shorelines, streams and wetlands. But questions remain about whether local regulations themselves and/or enforcement of the regulations are adequate.

Biologists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are conducting research to determine whether habitat changes are for better or worse, especially with regard to chinook. We should see some results within the next few years, as the agency prepares to draft the next five-year status report for Puget Sound’s threatened chinook population.

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.

A trick question: Can you locate Anderson Creek?

Let’s talk about Anderson Creek in Kitsap County. Where exactly is that stream?

If you were to say that Anderson Creek is a stream that spills into Hood Canal near Holly, you would be right.

Artist rendering of future bridge on Seabeck-Holly Road. // Photo: Kitsap County

If you are thinking of another Hood Canal stream — the one that you cross north of Seabeck while traveling on Anderson Hill Road — that would be right, too.

And nobody could complain if you believe that Anderson Creek is the name of the stream that flows into Sinclair Inlet near Gorst.

Officially, they are all Anderson Creek, according to the Geographic Names Information System, the official database of true names. GNIS is maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.

I discovered the existence of three Anderson Creeks in Kitsap County as I sat down to blog about a new bridge project being planned on Seabeck-Holly Road north of Holly — over a stream I have always called Big Anderson Creek.

These are the opening lines of the county’s announcement about the bridge work: “Kitsap County Public Works begins construction of a new bridge on Seabeck-Holly Road at the Anderson Creek crossing beginning July 18, 2017.”

I immediately thought that someone in Public Works must have accidentally shortened the name from Big Anderson Creek to Anderson Creek, but I guess I was wrong. I mean, doesn’t everyone call it Big Anderson Creek?

I conducted an online search for “Big Anderson Creek” in Kitsap. Many reliable sources have been calling it Big Anderson Creek in dozens of documents for at least several decades. To name a few of the agencies using the “wrong” name:

  • Hood Canal Coordinating Council in its “Summer Chum Salmon Recovery Plan,”
  • Kitsap Public Health District in its annual “Water Quality Monitoring Report,”
  • Kitsap Public Utility District in its water supply assessment,
  • Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management in its multi-hazard-mitigation plan,
  • Washington Department of Ecology in its inventory of stream-monitoring programs,
  • Point No Point Treaty Council in its nearshore habitat assessment for Hood Canal,
  • Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group in its annual report of restoration projects,
  • The Trust for Public Land in its “Assessment for Freshwater Habitat for Puget Sound Salmon,”
  • And, last but not least, Big Anderson Creek is the name used by Kitsap County Public Works in its stream-monitoring program.

Little Anderson Creek, the one farther north, is in the same boat as Big Anderson Creek. A lot of people use the descriptive “Big” and “Little” when talking about the two streams, but officially they are wrong, according to my assessment.

Ed Smith, Public Works project manager for the bridge construction, told me that he will keep calling it “Anderson Creek.” That’s the official name on the maps that he uses. It is also the name listed on the “hydraulic project approval” issued by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to authorize construction.

Through the years, I’ve written quite a lot about confusing and conflicting names, but I never had a clue about the discrepancy involving Big and Little Anderson creeks. If someone reading this has the time and dedication to officially change the names of these two streams, I don’t think anyone would object. The process begins with an application to the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names. The committee’s coordinator, Caleb Maki, can help people work their way through the process. Please let me know if you tackle this project.

Meanwhile, I will continue using the popular nomenclature of Big and Little Anderson creeks.

As for the new bridge over Big Anderson Creek, a 50-foot concrete structure will replace the aging 29-foot timber bridge built in 1950. The opening for the stream will increase from about 28 feet to about 45 feet, Smith said. That will give the stream slightly more room to shift around during heavy flows.

Work will begin July 18 and wrap up around December, according to the schedule. Seabeck-Holly Road, the main route to and from Holly, will be reduced to one lane during the construction.

The $1.67-million construction project will be carried out by Pacific Pile and Marine of Seattle. An artist’s rendering of the completed structure and other information can be seen on the Kitsap County website titled “Seabeck-Holly Road Bridge #20 at Anderson Creek.”

Facing challenges that could save chinook salmon from extinction

Nineteen years ago this month, then-Governor Gary Locke made a bold declaration about salmon that would echo through time: “Extinction is not an option.”

Juvenile chinook salmon depend on high-quality habitat for their survival.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was a call to action that would lead to major protection and restoration efforts throughout Puget Sound. Still, today, chinook salmon have not experienced a population rebound, as many people had hoped. The failure to thrive has been a disappointment to many, yet we are often reminded that it took 150 years to push salmon to the brink of extinction and it will not be easy to ensure their future.

Last week, concerns about the survival of chinook salmon prompted a coalition of Puget Sound tribes to propose a series of “bold actions,” as I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, later reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” stated salmon expert Dave Herrera, speaking for the tribes. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.”

The bold actions, spelled out in a three-page proposal (PDF 380 kb), include greater controls on the use of land and water, among other things. I won’t describe the details, which you can read in the memo. The ideas were prompted by a new Chinook Salmon Implementation Strategy, designed to accelerate an increase in the Puget Sound chinook population.

The tribes complained that the proposed strategy, as drafted, mostly mimicked the 10-year-old Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan. That plan has made limited progress in restoring wild salmon runs, despite millions of dollars spent to protect and restore habitat while limiting fishing and controlling hatchery production.

In his speech of June 1998, Gov. Locke worried about the risk of extinction for these migratory fish, which are an economic asset as well as a celebrated symbol of the Northwest.

Former Gov. Gary Locke

“In several Puget Sound watersheds, our wild salmon have less than a decade to live, unless we act now,” Locke said in 1998. “And in many more rivers and streams, if the status quo continues, our wild salmon will be gone before my daughter Emily graduates from high school. So we just don’t have any time to waste. For better or for worse, we are about to make history.”

Locke’s speech was indeed historic, as he launched an unprecedented endeavor to rebuild salmon runs at great financial cost. The governor seemed to understand the challenge, as I noted at the time in my coverage of the speech before more than 100 county officials in Tacoma:

“Locke appears to be glancing over his shoulder, ready to duck for cover, as he talks about the financial and political commitments required to keep salmon from disappearing in various parts of the state,” I wrote.

“We need to wake up every morning ready to challenge the status quo,” Locke said, adding that basic changes are needed in the way businesses and average citizens use their land and water resources.

“There is a risk,” Locke said, “in just delivering that message, let alone acting on it.”

The following year, the Washington Legislature created the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to prioritize state and federal funding for salmon recovery. And the next governor, Chris Gregoire, ushered in an even greater ecosystem-recovery effort under guidance of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Wetlands are critical habitat for salmon.
Photo: Eric Grossman, U.S. Geological Survey

Today, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened without these salmon- and ecosystem-recovery efforts. Would the salmon be gone, as Locke predicted? It’s hard to say, but researchers have learned a great deal about what salmon need to survive, and the money is being better targeted toward those needs. As a result, it is understandable why some people are both disappointed with the past and hopeful for the future.

One of the great challenges facing public officials today is to find ways for local governments to truly live up to the standard of “no net loss” of ecological function — a standard required by the state’s Growth Management Act. When new developments affect “critical areas” — such as fish and wildlife habitat — they must include vegetated buffers and stormwater controls to minimize the damage. Then they must enhance degraded habitat — either on-site or off-site — to make up for losses that cannot be avoided.

I used to believe that this goal was unachievable, and I have questioned many state experts about it. How can any developer construct a commercial or residential development and walk away with no net loss of habitat function? The answer is to include a serious restoration component.

One example is the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s In-Lieu Fee Program, which I wrote about last month in Water Ways (May 19). This program was started on a large scale to mitigate for construction at the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor, but it also works on a small scale, as I mentioned in that blog post.

When an older site is redeveloped, there may be no ecological loss, since the damage was done in the past. But when a developer builds in a new location, the local government is charged with measuring the loss, coming to terms for mitigation and making sure the mitigation is carried out. The concept of “no net loss” works only if the mitigation is permanent — another major challenge in many areas.

If no net loss can be achieved while major restoration efforts continue, we will see a net increase in salmon habitat in the Puget Sound region, and that will be a cause of celebration. One success has been in the program Floodplains by Design, which improves critical off-channel habitat for salmon while reducing flooding problems for nearby residents. Checkout the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the blog post in Water Ways, April 15.

Washington State Department of Commerce, which oversees the Growth Management Act, is in the process of updating its Critical Areas Assistance Handbook (PDF 6 mb), which serves as guidance for local regulations. New information about how to protect habitat for all life stages of salmon will be a key addition to a revised version, soon to be released for public review. See the CAO page on the Department of Commerce website.

Local governments in every part of the state must become part of the discussion if we expect them to carry out the mandate of protecting habitat for salmon. Money for planning and regulatory enforcement must be worked out. One idea I’ve heard is a regional approach that involves a group of compliance officials working to enforce the rules for multiple counties and cities.

No doubt the salmon-recovery effort must be improved. Challenges remain for issues including fishing, predation by marine mammals and climate change. But if the protection and restoration of salmon habitat can outpace unmitigated damage from development, we may be justified in believing that extinction is not an option.

Environmental efforts, including Puget Sound, hanging in the balance

I must admit that I have an uneasy curiosity to see how Congress will manage programs that protect human health and the environment now that Republican legislators are in control of both the House and Senate with no concerns about a budget veto.

Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia

Most environmental laws and programs are the result of hard-fought compromise between Democrats and Republicans who somehow agreed on ideas to make the world a safer place for people and wildlife. Do Republican members of Congress really want to back away from those advances? Do they want to explain to their constituents why clean air, clean water and safe food are not as important as they once were?

I was fascinated to read that Republican senators and representatives in the Great Lakes states could be a key to saving federal funding for Chesapeake Bay — and, by the same token, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico and other major restoration projects.

Continue reading

Puget Sound Partnership improves, but some changes still needed

Puget Sound Partnership, created by the Legislature to coordinate protection and restoration of Puget Sound, has improved its operations over the past four years, according to a state audit report, which also makes recommendations for further improvements.

One area where the Partnership is not meeting its legal mandate is to identify partner organizations — including state agencies and county governments — that are not living up to their responsibilities under the Puget Sound Action Agenda, which guides the overall restoration effort.

Likewise, the Partnership has not been calling out partners that have made outstanding progress in their efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound, according to the audit, which was approved last week by state legislators who make up the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, or JLARC.

The video below shows the portion of the JLARC meeting addressing the audit report on the Puget Sound Partnership.

The one legal deficiency involves the old carrot-and-stick approach, shaming those who are failing to protect Puget Sound while praising those doing a bang-up job. One concern I’ve heard is that shaming may be counter-productive, since the Partnership has no legal authority to force anybody to do anything. Nevertheless, the approach is required by state law.

The three primary recommendations coming out of the audit:

Continue reading

Hood Canal property will compensate for Navy construction at Bangor

Hood Canal Coordinating Council has finally found some shoreline property to compensate for environmental damage from the Navy’s $448-million Explosives Handling Wharf at Bangor.

The shoreline of a 6.7-acre property to be used for mitigation of the Navy’s Explosives Handling Wharf at Bangor. // Photo: Hood Canal Coordinating Council

The 6.7 acres of waterfront property — located near Kitsap County’s Anderson Landing Preserve on Hood Canal — becomes the first saltwater mitigation site in Washington state under an in-lieu-fee mitigation program. The $275,000 purchase was approved Wednesday by the coordinating council, which manages the in-lieu-fee program.

The Navy itself is not a party to the transaction, having paid the coordinating council $6.9 million to handle all the freshwater and saltwater mitigation required for the wharf project — including managing the mitigation properties in perpetuity.

The coordinating council’s in-lieu-fee program, which is overseen by state and federal agencies, allows developers to pay a flat fee for their environmental damage instead of undertaking mitigation work themselves.

Continue reading

Protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem involves urban planning

I often write about Puget Sound restoration, sometimes forgetting to include the word “protection.” It really should be “Puget Sound protection and restoration” — with protection getting the first billing and the highest priority in our thinking.

Puget Sound from space // Image: NASA

Protection isn’t very exciting — not like restoring hundreds of acres of degraded estuaries, floodplains and wetlands. Of course, restoration is absolutely necessary to gain back lost habitat, but the immediate result is never as good as habitat that avoided damage in the first place. Even restored habitat generally needs to be protected for a long time before it functions as well as an undisturbed site.

These are issues I have been pondering as I wrote the latest story in a series about Implementation Strategies — a focused effort to make a measurable improvement in the Puget Sound ecosystem. For details, check out the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

If we could freeze everything in place, then habitat restoration would help rebuild the fish and wildlife populations that require special conditions. But we cannot stop time, and we are told that 1.5 million more people will soon be living in the Puget Sound region.

Where can all these future people find homes without further degrading the environment? Will they choose to live in places that minimize the ecological damage or will it even matter to them? Needless to say, this remains an open-ended question — a question that is both public and very personal, touching on issues of freedom and property rights.

Continue reading

New game lets you travel with wacky steelhead as they try to survive

In a new game open to everyone, 48 colorful cartoon fish will soon follow the wandering paths of real-life steelhead that have been tracked during their migration through Puget Sound.

Just like their counterparts in the real world, some of the young steelhead in the game will survive the trip from South Puget Sound or southern Hood Canal — but many will not. The game’s basic tenet is to choose a fish that you feel will be lucky or cunning enough to make it through a gauntlet of hazards from predators to disease. You then watch and learn about the needs and threats to salmon and steelhead as the game progresses over 12 days, beginning May 8.

Continue reading

Hood Canal nominated as Sentinel Landscape with ties to military

Hood Canal and its surrounding watershed have been nominated as a Sentinel Landscape, an exclusive designation that recognizes both the natural resource values and the national defense mission of special areas across the country.

USS Henry M. Jackson, a Trident submarine, moves through Hood Canal in February on a return trip to Naval Base Kitsap – Bangor.
U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Smith

If the designation is approved, it will bolster applications for federal funding to protect and restore important habitats and to maintain working forests in and around Hood Canal. Given the uncertain budget for environmental programs under the Trump administration, it wouldn’t hurt to have the Department of Defense supporting the protection of Hood Canal.

The Sentinel Landscapes Partnership involves the U.S. departments of Agriculture, Defense and Interior. The idea is to coordinate the efforts of all three agencies in locations where their priorities overlap, according to the 2016 Report on Sentinel Landscapes (PDF 5.6 mb).

Continue reading