Tag Archives: Puget Sound salmon recovery

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.

More coho salmon are expected, but fishing will remain limited this year

Total returns of coho salmon to Puget Sound this year are expected to be significantly higher than last year, and that should help smooth negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers working to establish this year’s fishing seasons.

But critically low runs of coho to the Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers in Northern Puget Sound could limit fishing opportunities in other areas, as managers try to reduce fishing pressure on coho making their way back to those rivers.

In any case, both state and tribal managers say they are confident that they can avoid the kind of deadlock over coho they found themselves in last year, when a failure to reach agreement delayed sport fishing seasons and threatened to cancel them altogether. See reporter Tristan Baurick’s stories in the Kitsap Sun, May 4 and May 28.

“We’re in a much better situation than we were last year,” Ryan Lothrop, a salmon manager with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a large gathering of sport and commercial fishermen yesterday in Olympia.

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Leadership Council adopts ‘leaner’ Action Agenda for Puget Sound

Puget Sound Partnership continues to struggle in its efforts to pull everyone together in a unified cause of protecting and restoring Puget Sound.

This week, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees the partnership, adopted the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda, which spells out the overall strategies as well as the specific research, education and restoration projects to save Puget Sound.

Some 363 projects, known as near term actions, are included in the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda. They line up with three strategic priorities. PSP graphic
Some 363 projects, known as near-term actions, are included in the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda. They line up with three strategic priorities. // PSP graphic

The goal of restoring Puget Sound to health by 2020 — a date established by former Gov. Chris Gregoire — was never actually realistic, but nobody has ever wanted to change the date. The result has been an acknowledgement that restoration work will go on long after 2020, even though restoration targets remain in place for that date just four years away.

A letter to be signed by all members of the Leadership Council begins to acknowledge the need for a new date.

“As the scope and depth of our undertaking expands along with our understanding, federal and state funding is on the decline,” the letter states. “We’re increasingly forced into a position where we’re not only competing amongst ourselves for a pool of funding wholly insufficient to accomplish what needs doing, but we are also feeling the impacts of cuts to programs supporting other societal priorities as well. If we continue at our historic pace of recovery, which is significantly underfunded, we cannot expect to achieve our 2020 recovery targets.”

The cost for the near-term actions total nearly $250 million, with most going for habitat restoration. PSP graphic
The cost for the near-term actions in the Action Agenda total nearly $250 million, with most going for habitat restoration.
PSP graphic

This is not necessarily an appeal for money to support the Puget Sound Partnership, although funds for the program have been slipping. But the partnership has always been a coordinator of projects by local, state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups and research institutions — where the on-the-ground work is done. That much larger pot of money for Puget Sound efforts also is declining.

“These are threats that compel us to action, fueled by our devotion to place,” the letter continues. “We at the Puget Sound Partnership, along with our local, tribal and regional partners, have a vision of a resilient estuary that can help moderate the increasing pressures of a changing world.

“How we aim to accomplish our vision is found in this updated Action Agenda. For the next two years, this is the focused, measurable and scientifically grounded roadmap forming the core of the region’s work between now and 2020 and beyond.”

The newly approved Action Agenda is the outcome of a greater effort to reach out to local governments and organizations involved in the restoration of Puget Sound. Priorities for restoration projects were developed at the local level with an emphasis on meeting the priorities and strategies developed in previous Action Agendas.

Who will do the projects? Most are to be done by *local groups, including cities, counties, special purpose districts, local integrating organizations and lead entities. PSP graphic
Who will do the projects? Most are proposed by *local groups, including cities, counties, special purpose districts, local integrating organizations and lead entities. // PSP graphic

The latest document is divided into two sections to separate overall planning from the work involved parties would like to accomplish over the next two years. The two parts are called the “Comprehensive Plan” and the “Implementation Plan.”

As determined several years ago, upcoming efforts known as “near-term actions” are focused on three strategic initiatives:

  • Stormwater: Prevent pollution from urban stormwater runoff, which causes serious problems for marine life and humans.
  • Habitat: Protect and restore habitat needed for species to survive and thrive.
  • Shellfish: Protect and recover shellfish beds, including areas harvested by commercial growers and recreational users.

Actions are focused on 29 specific strategies and 109 substrategies that support these ideas. Projects, which may be viewed in a list at the front of the “Implementation Plan,” are aligned with the substrategies.

“This leaner, scientifically grounded strategic recovery plan is a call to action,” the letter from the Leadership Council states. “We know that our restoration efforts are failing to compensate for the thousands of cuts we continue to inflict on the landscape as our population grows and habitat gives way to more humans.

“We know that salmon, steelhead and orcas — the magnificent beings that in many ways define this corner of the world — are struggling to persist as we alter the land and waters to which they’re adapted,” the letter concludes. “And we know that warming temperatures and acidifying seawater are moving us toward a future that we don’t fully understand and are not entirely prepared for. Hard decisions are ahead, and we’re past the point where additional delay is acceptable.”