Tag Archives: Salmon

Amusing Monday:
Flying fish for increased survival, savings and fun

The “salmon cannon,” a pneumatic-tube device destined to replace some fish ladders, got plenty of serious attention this fall from various news organizations.

You may have seen demonstrations by the inventor, Whoosh Innovations of Bellevue, that showed adult salmon shooting unharmed through flexible tubes. For dramatic effect, some videos showed the salmon flying out the end of the tube and splashing into water. Among those who found the device amusing were commentators for “CBS This Morning” and “Red Eye” on Fox.

For a laugh, comedian John Oliver recently took the idea in a different direction, aiming his personal salmon cannon at celebrities including Jon Stuart, Jimmy Fallon and… Well, if you haven’t seen the video (above), I won’t spoil it for you.

All this attention has been a surprise for Vince Bryan, CEO for Whooshh, who told Vancouver Columbian reporter Eric Florip that he has spoken with hundreds of news organizations and potential customers from throughout the world.

“It was a nice boost because it says one thing, that people care a lot about the fish, and two, that there really is a need,” Bryan was quoted as saying.

A good description of the potential applications for the “salmon cannon” was written by reporter Laura Geggel of Live Science. Meanwhile, Reuters produced a nice animation showing how the tube works. And a video on the Whooshh Innovations YouTube channel, shown below, provides a clear demonstration how the transport system can work for both humans and fish.

Kitsap rains: not too much, not too little for salmon and aquifers

The on-and-off rains over the past two weeks are nearly perfect for both spawning salmon and for recharging shallow groundwater supplies, experts say.

Chum salmon in Chico Creek. Kitsap Sun photo
Chum salmon in Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo

For October, total rainfall ranges from about 5 inches at Hansville to 12 inches at Holly, according to rain gauges managed by the Kitsap Public Utility District. Fortunately, those rains have not been delivered to us in only a few days.

The intermittent nature of October rains has allowed the streams to maintain their flows without flooding. They’ve also allowed infiltration into the ground without excessive runoff.

“It is the good kind of rain,” said Bob Hunter, interim manager of Kitsap PUD. “We’ve had a couple of days when we’ve had 2-plus inches, but we haven’t seen the streams flash.”

In other words, the streams have not risen excessively fast. Bob attributes that to how dry the ground was before the rains began. Soils were able to absorb much of the early rainfall before stormwater runoff began to increase. Pauses between the rainstorms allowed more of the water to soak into the ground.

“It just goes to show you the variability that we have around here,” Bob told me.

October marks the beginning of the 2015 “water year.” Although we are just a month into the start of the year, the rainfall has been closely tracking all-time highs at some rain gauges — including Holly, which has been monitored since 1999. (See charts below.)

Meanwhile, the rain pattern in October was nearly perfect for salmon, said Jon Oleyar of the Suquamish Tribe, who walks the East Kitsap streams to count migrating salmon as they arrive.

“It seems like we’ve had storms coming in every couple of days, so they are not right on top of each other,” Jon said. “That gives the streams some time to recede.”

When there is not adequate flow, the salmon often wait for the streams to rise. On the other hand, too much flow can wash salmon eggs out of the streambed.

Last week’s rains got the chum salmon moving into most of the East Kitsap streams, Jon told me.

“I checked Chico Creek on Wednesday, and there were almost 11,000 fish in there and going up about as far as they can get,” he said.

A good escapement for the Chico Creek system is between 12,000 and 15,000 chum, and there is still more than a month left — assuming a typical timing of the run, he said. But things are looking a little different this year, he noted, and the bulk of the run may have arrived already.

One indication that timing could be different this year is that Gorst Creek already has a fair number of chum salmon — perhaps 500 — yet the Gorst Creek run usually comes in later and continues well into December.

Is it possible that all or most of the salmon runs are coming in early? It’s a question that only time will answer.

Jon told me that he’s a bit water-logged at the moment, trying to count fish in the rain with the streams running high.

“I’m pretty happy about it,” Jon said. “I have my fish up where they need to be, but it’s just hard to count them right now. If you’re a fish, this is really working for you.”

In the charts below, found on the Kitsap PUD’s website, you can see that October’s rainfall has been tracking the record high rainfall at these stations. Of course, the “water year” has barely begun, so anything can happen. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Rain-Holly

Rain-CK

Rain-Hansville

Experts to talk salmon and habitat at Poulsbo Fish Park on Saturday

Poulsbo’s Fish Park will have a variety of experts on hand Saturday to talk about the salmon run in Dogfish Creek and other North Kitsap streams, as well as restoration efforts taking place throughout the region.

salmon viewing

Fun and educational activities for kids are part of the event, which will go from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. My description of salmon-viewing events on Saturday had the wrong date for the event. Check out the flyer posted by Poulsbo Parks and Recreation.

Paul Dorn, a biologist with the Suquamish Tribe, said the best bet to see salmon in the creek will be earlier in the day, as the tide will be incoming. Natural organic compounds called tannins tend to color the water brown, so it is not always easy to spot migrating salmon in the lower part of Dogfish Creek. If you miss them at Fish Park, it may be worth a trip to Valley Nursery off Bond Road, where I’ve often had luck seeing salmon.

“We just finished a wonderful restoration project,” Paul told me, describing the installation of woody debris and gravel on a tributary of Dogfish Creek at Fish Park. It’s a small stream, he said, but it’s good rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon and cutthroat trout, and adult salmon can go up the stream when the flows are high.

Salmon events are scheduled the following Saturday, Nov. 8:

  • Cowling Creek Center, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 20345 Miller Bay Road.
  • Chico Salmon Viewing Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., adjacent to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.
  • Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with walking tours at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., www.ext100.wsu.edu/kitsap.

For a map of accessible salmon-viewing locations with videos that describe each spot, go to Kitsap Peninsula Salmon Watching. While there, check out the tips for successful salmon-viewing.

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto

Larry Rutter’s legacy connected to salmon recovery

I was saddened to hear of the death of Larry Rutter, senior policy assistant in the Sustainable Fisheries Division at the National Marine Fisheries Service and a U.S. commissioner on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Larry Rutter
Larry Rutter

Larry, 61, was one of the folks who taught me the basics of salmon management more than 20 years ago. He kept me informed through some difficult negotiations over salmon harvest allocations between the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Technically, he was very sharp. Personally, he was patient and kind.

I am pleased that Long Live the Kings has created a Larry Rutter Legacy Fund to carry out his wish for remembrances connected to the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, an effort he helped coordinate across the border between LLTK and the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada.

“It was due in no small part to Larry’s influence that LLTK and PSF were awarded a $5-million grant from the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Southern Fund Committee in 2013 for the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project,” said LLTK Executive Director Jacques White in a statement. “Without his vision and dedication, we simply would not be where we are today.”

To donate to the Larry Rutter Legacy Fund, scroll to the bottom of the Long Live the Kings page on the topic.

Larry was a graduate of South Kitsap High School and the University of Washington. He worked for the Point No Point Treaty Council and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission before taking the job with NMFS (NOAA Fisheries). His obituary in The Olympian says Larry died last Thursday of pancreatic cancer.

To read about the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, go to Long Live the Kings or check out a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun (subscription) last August followed by a blog entry, Watching Our Water Ways.

Amusing Monday: Flipping for the bird

In case you missed this letter to the editor from Richard C. Yerk of Suquamish, I will repeat it here:

Print by Phil Jones. Click on image to purchase.
Print by Phil Jones // Click image to purchase

“I would like to suggest a common-sense approach to protect the endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin (‘Terns to be driven from islands,’ Feb. 9).

“The Caspian terns that nest on the man made islands apparently have a voracious appetite for juvenile steelhead salmon. The Army Corps of Engineers plans a test planting of willows to the open ground the terns favor for nesting.

“A more viable and cost-effective solution would be for the federal officials to plant marijuana, not that it’s legal. Those of us who remember the 1960s warnings from the National Institutes of Health of the personality changes associated with pot would surely endorse such a plan. The terns would nest among the plants, develop an insatiable appetite for the buds, and perhaps eventually wean themselves off salmon.

“I believe, to ensure future runs of endangered salmon, that it is incumbent that federal officials leave no tern unstoned.”

I have heard the phrase “no tern unstoned” before but never with such a strong connection to current events, including efforts to save endangered salmon and marijuana legalization. That was a nice touch.

Here are some more bird jokes:

Vultures on a plane: Two turkey vultures were preparing to migrate north for the summer but, after talking about it, they decided they were too old to fly all that way, so they decided to take a plane. When they were about to board the aircraft, the flight attendant, noticing that both buzzards were carrying a dead armadillo, asked, “Would you like to check those armadillos through as luggage?” “No thanks,” the buzzards replied, “they’re carrion.” WildBirds.com

Penguins on the loose: This guy in a station wagon is riding down the road with the back full of penguins. A cop sees him and pulls him over and says, “I want you to take those penguins to the zoo right now!” The guy says, “O.K.” Next day the cop sees this same guy going down the road with the penguins in the back. This time the penguins are wearing sunglasses. He pulls the guy over again and says,”I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo.” The guy answers, “Yeah, that’s right, we went and had a helluva time. We’re going to the beach today!” WildBirds.com

Crow or raven: I understand that a crow has one less pinion feather than a raven. Therefore, how can you tell a crow from a raven? It’s a matter of a pinion. WildBirds.com

Watch parrot: A postal carrier is working on a new beat. He comes to a garden gate marked BEWARE OF THE PARROT! He looks down the garden and, sure enough, there’s a parrot sitting on its perch. He has a little chuckle to himself at the sign and the parrot there on its perch. The mailman opens the gate and walks into the garden. He gets as far as the parrot’s perch, when suddenly, it calls out: “REX, ATTACK!” Planned Parrothood

Three riddles from Funology:

Q: When should you buy a bird?
A: When it’s going cheep!

Q: Why does a stork stand on one leg?
A: Because it would fall over if it lifted the other one.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road, roll in mud, then cross the road again?
A: He was a dirty double crosser!

Corps completes draft plan for Skokomish River

UPDATE, Jan. 27
The Army Corps of Engineers published a news release today about tentatively selected plan. It lists the total cost of the projects at $41 million. This information was not available when I wrote my story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.
—–

Residents in and around the Skokomish Valley have demonstrated incredible patience, along with some frustration, while waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan to restore the Skokomish River.

Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team
Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team

I was pleased to announce in today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription) that top officials in the corps have now approved a “tentatively selected plan.” This plan will now undergo extensive review inside and outside the agency. Two public meetings are being planned, although they have not yet been announced.

I’ve been following the development of this plan for many years, actually long before I wrote a four-part series in 2009 about the past and future of the Skokomish River. See “Taming the Skokomish,” Kitsap Sun.

As Rich Geiger of Mason Conservation District told me last week:

“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking about a physical project moving forward and not just more planning. We asked the Corps to produce a single integrated restoration plan, and they did.”

Rich did not slam the Army Corps of Engineers for taking so long. He and I did not discuss — as we have in the past — how restoration of the Skokomish River plays an important part in the restoration of Hood Canal as a whole.

But we did talk about dredging, which many area residents believe is the only answer to cleaning the river channel, clogged by sediment and flooded more frequently than any river in the state. The corps has determined that dredging is too expensive for the benefit provided and would require ongoing maintenance. I look forward to reading the analysis by the corps and hearing the discussions that follow. I’m sure there is plenty to be said.

Before the agency releases the tentative plan, a final check must be made by corps officials to ensure completeness of the documents, which will include a feasibility report and an environmental impact statement, according to project manager Mamie Brouwer.

The plan includes these specific projects:

  • Car-body levee removal: Years ago, junk cars were used to construct a levee where the North Fork of the Skokomish flows into the main river. Although the course of the North Fork has changed, the old levee continues to impair salmon migration through the area, Brouwer said. This project would remove the levee and restore the natural flows at the confluence.
  • Side channel reconnection: Restoring a parallel channel alongside the Skokomish would give fish a place to go during high flows and flooding. In recent years, migrating salmon have been washed out of the river and into fields and ditches, where they struggle to survive. A side channel, about 4 miles upstream from where the Skokomish flows into Hood Canal, could provide refuge from the raging river.
  • Nine mile setback levee: A new levee is being proposed nine miles upstream to allow an existing levee to be breached, increasing the flood plain in that area. The new levee would be several hundred feet back from the old one and would allow for new pools and vegetation along the river.
  • Grange levee: Like the nine-mile setback levee, a new levee would be built about 8 miles upstream near the Skokomish Valley Grange Hall. The levee could be set back about 1,000 feet from the river, greatly expanding the flood plain in that area.
  • Large woody debris: Creating log jams in the river would increase the complexity of the channel, adding meanders, gravel bars and pools. Such structure is considered important for the survival of juvenile salmon. Several dozen log jams are proposed in the initial plan, but that could change in the final design.
  • Hunter Creek: Continual springs maintain summer flows in Hunter Creek, a tributary of the Skokomish considered excellent fish habitat. But with few side channels or complexity, the stream has limited spawning habitat and fish can be washed away during high flows. The project would alter the channel for better function.
  • Weaver Creek: Similar to Hunter Creek, Weaver Creek has great potential for increased spawning and rearing habitat along with refuge from high flows. The project would alter the channel to improve natural functions.
In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.
In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.
Kitsap Sun file photo

It’s time to get out and watch the salmon

This year’s return of chum salmon to Hood Canal remains on track to break the record, coming in with four times as many fish as predicted earlier this year.

Watching salmon at Poulsbo's Fish Park Photo by Tristan Baurick
Watching salmon from a bridge in Poulsbo’s Fish Park
Photo by Tristan Baurick

Last week, I reported that the total run size for Hood Canal fall chum appeared to be about 1.4 million fish, according to computer models. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 30 (subscription). The modern-day record is 1.18 million, set in 2003. If conditions hold, this year’s run will easily exceed that.

The large Hood Canal run also is expected to provide an economic boost of some $5 million to $6 million for commercial fishers, not including fish processors and stores that sell the fish.

The forecast models are based largely on commercial harvests. Data collected since I wrote the story only tend to confirm the record-breaking run, according to salmon managers. Final estimates won’t be compiled until the end of the season.

The chum run in Central and South Puget Sound also are looking very good. The latest data suggest that the run could reach 700,000, or nearly twice the preseason estimate and well above average.

Meanwhile, the large chum runs are attracting Puget Sound’s orcas to the waters off Bainbridge Island and Seattle, as chinook runs decline in the San Juan Islands and elsewhere. As I described in a story on Sunday, it has been an odd year for the whales, which may have spent most of the summer chasing chinook off the coast of Washington. See Kitsap Sun, Nov. 2 (subscription).

A chum salmon crosses a log weir at Kitsap Golf and Country Club. Photo by Meegan Reid
A chum salmon crosses a log weir in Chico Creek at Kitsap Golf and Country Club.
Photo by Meegan Reid

The large chum run also promises to provide some great viewing opportunities for people to watch the salmon migration in their local streams. I would direct you to the interactive salmon-viewing map that Amy Phan and I completely revamped last year for the Kitsap Sun’s website. The map includes videos describing salmon streams across the Kitsap Peninsula.

Speaking of salmon-watching, everyone is invited to Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours, an annual event in which biologists talk about the amazing salmon and their spawning rituals. One can choose to visit one or both of the locations in Central Kitsap. For details, check out the Kitsap Public Utility District’s Website.

One of the locations, now named Chico Salmon Park, is undergoing a major facelift, thanks to more than 100 hours of volunteer labor over the past two weekends — not to mention earlier work going back to the beginning of the year. See the Kitsap County news release issued today.

Volunteers working on the park deserve a lot of credit for removing blackberry vines, Scotchbroom and weeds from this overgrown area. This property, which has Chico Creek running through it, is going to be a wonderful park someday after native trees and plants become established. (See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 2, 2013)

If you’re into kayaking, there’s still time to watch from the water. See Olympic Outdoors Center or check out the tips by reporter Tristan Baurick, Kitsap Sun, Oct. 21, 2013 (subscription).

Here’s my final word: If you live on the Kitsap Peninsula — or anywhere around Puget Sound — you should visit a salmon stream to learn what all the fuss is about — and be sure to take the kids.

Purse seine boats working on major chum salmon run on Hood Canal. Photo by Larry Steagall
Purse seine boats make the best of a major chum salmon run on Hood Canal last week.
Photo by Larry Steagall

Puget Sound grants continue ecosystem restoration

About $22 million in state and federal grants were awarded last week for Puget Sound ecosystem restoration, another installment in the struggle to nurse Puget Sound back to health.

About $12 million in state and federal funds came through the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, or ESRP, under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. As the name suggests, these funds are focused on improving nearshore and ecosystem processes.

Another $10 million came from the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) Fund, which is focused mainly on salmon restoration. More of those funds will be awarded before the end of the year.

Reporter Tad Sooter and I wrote about the West Sound projects in Friday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required), focusing a good deal of our attention on a key acquisition of property on the Bainbridge Island shoreline along Agate Passage.

The property includes 4.5 acres of tidelands, including 550 feet of undeveloped beach, along with 7.5 acres of upland woods and meadows, all to be preserved by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust.

Brenda Padgham, stewardship director for land trust, told Tad that this property is one of the last intact nearshore habitats on Bainbridge Island. “The whole reach is so pristine,” she said.

Of the $1.2 million provided for the Bainbridge Island purchase, $810,000 came from the PSAR funds and $396,000 came from the ESRP.

Betsy Lions, who manages the ESRP for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said most of that money this year will go toward removing unnecessary bulkheads, replacing culverts that block salmon passage and restoring tidal functions.

The 20 ESRP grants are described in a news release from Fish and Wildlife.

The salmon recovery money was approved Thursday by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In a news release yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the economic value of preserving the state’s salmon runs:

“These projects will increase salmon populations while giving a boost to the economy. Salmon are important economically to Washington state and these projects will provide construction jobs and help countless numbers of Washington families and businesses, including tackle shops, charter operators, restaurants and hotels, that rely on the world-renowned Pacific salmon.”

David Troutt, chairman of the SRF Board and natural resources director of the Nisqually Tribe, made this comment:

“Puget Sound Chinook are about one-third as abundant as they were a century ago. As we have developed our urban and rural landscapes, we’ve damaged many of the estuaries, floodplains and rivers that salmon need to survive. These projects have been selected as ones that will make big impacts on Puget Sound and salmon recovery. Those two things go hand in hand. Puget Sound needs healthy salmon, and salmon need a healthy Puget Sound.”

The 11 PSAR projects are outlined in a document (PDF 106 kb) on the state Recreation and Conservation Office’s website. By the way, projects in Hood Canal were held up until October, as members of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council continue discussions about priorities.

Why are salmon dying when they reach saltwater?

A new research program, announced yesterday, will work to untangle the mystery of what is killing young salmon after they leave their natal streams. The program is being coordinated in both Washington state and British Columbia — by Long Live the Kings on the U.S. side and by Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada. See today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required).

At high tide, water now covers what had been a farmer’s field after an old farm dike was breached in two places on Monday. Two bridges allow continued access along a trail across the dike. Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt
At high tide, water now covers what had been a farmer’s field for decades on the Union River estuary near Belfair. On Monday, an old farm dike was breached in two places. Estuaries are considered important for salmon survival. / Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

I have conducted hundreds of interviews about salmon through the years. Biologists can usually explain what makes a good salmon stream: clean water, sufficient gravel, vegetation to provide food, woody debris to provide protection and so on.

What they cannot explain very well is what young salmon need to survive in saltwater. Is it clean water, as in freshwater environments? Is it a particular kind of plankton for food, or maybe natural shorelines to provide protection during migration? Is the increased marine mortality of salmon the result of disease or predators? All may be factors, but which ones really count?

When asked to explain why salmon runs are coming in larger or smaller than predicted, salmon managers typically fall back to two words: “ocean conditions.” Conditions may be good or bad in a given year, but what makes good or bad conditions cannot be answered very well.

Biologists who predict salmon runs talk about the “black box” that salmon swim into when they leave the streams and swim back out of when they return. It’s a way of saying that the computer models used to predict salmon runs have a blind spot when it comes to the deep, dark ocean — which we now believe includes the estuary at the edge of the stream, where the salmon change from being a freshwater fish to being a saltwater fish.

“What is currently recognized as a black box appears to be a black hole for salmon recovery,” Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings, told me yesterday in an interview. “If we don’t know what is going on, we can’t make decisions for salmon recovery. It makes it difficult to manage the stocks coming back.”

That’s where the cross-border research program comes in, and it’s no wonder that salmon biologists are excited about the prospect of breaking into the black box. It won’t be easy to track the tiny fish after they leave the streams or to figure out where things are going wrong, but new technology will help. The project is proposed for $10 million in the U.S., with an equal amount in Canada.

Review the Long Live the Kings website for other information about the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. To go deeper into the ideas behind the project, download the proceedings, notes and other information from November’s Salish Sea Workshop Series.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve estuarine and shoreline conditions will continue, using natural conditions as a guide. On Monday, I covered the final step in the Union River estuary restoration, which involved breaching an old farm dike in two places. I watched as the waters of Hood Canal, held back for a century, began to reclaim 32 acres of saltwater march. Check out the story and video in the Kitsap Sun (subscription required).