Tag Archives: Salmon

Puget Sound Partnership may confront net pen controversy

Puget Sound Partnership may take a stand on whether fish farms should be allowed to remain in Puget Sound waters.

The partnership is charged by the Legislature to oversee the restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem. On Wednesday, the partnership’s governing body, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, received an update on last month’s collapse of a net pen containing 305,000 Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island in northern Puget Sound.

About two-thirds of the escaped fish have been accounted for so far, with about 146,000 found dead or alive in the damaged net pen and about 55,000 caught by fishermen. (All but about 5,000 of those were caught by tribal fishers in Puget Sound.)

This video, taken by a private party and released by state agencies, shows the collapse of the Cypress Island net pens on Aug. 19

About 100,000 Atlantic salmon apparently escaped and have not been caught by people, although most of those probably were eaten by predators, experts say. Officials continue their efforts to figure out where any remaining fish have gone, specifically any that swam up into the streams, according to Amy Windrope of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Atlantic salmon, an exotic species in Puget Sound, don’t appear to be eating anything, let alone young native salmon, Windrope said, and there is not much concern that they will breed with native fish. The greatest concern is that they might somehow disrupt the spawning behavior of native salmon, whose populations are already stressed by adverse conditions in both marine and fresh water.

The Atlantic salmon appeared to be healthy and free of parasites at the time of the release, she said, but they became less and less healthy as starvation set in.

In addition to Windrope, the presentation to the Leadership Council included reports from representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources, which leases the seabed where the pens are located, and the Department of Ecology, which issues permits under water-quality laws.

Puget Sound tribes are about to release a position statement opposing salmon farms in Puget Sound, said Russell Hepfer, a member of the Leadership Council and vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council. He did not elaborate, except to say that the non-native fish don’t belong here.

According to Windrope, the tribes see Atlantic salmon as weeds in the garden of Puget Sound. Such cultural viewpoints should be taken into account in the overall discussion, she added.

Soon after the Cypress Island net pen collapse, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued a moratorium blocking further net pen approvals until an investigation is complete.

Maradel Gale, a resident of Bainbridge Island, addressed the Leadership Council at Wednesday’s meeting near Port Gamble, saying the Bainbridge Island City Council has effectively limited the expansion of net pens at the south end of the island and would like to get rid of net pens altogether.

She said Cooke Aquaculture, which owns all the net pens at four locations in Puget Sound, receives the benefits of using the public waterways and placing the ecosystem in peril while taking very little risk upon itself.

Dennis McLerran, a member of the Leadership Council who has worked for various environmental agencies, said Washington state law has long provided a preference for aquaculture over many other shoreline uses. Like it or not, he said, those preference are “baked into state policies” that direct state agencies to support aquaculture, including salmon farms.

“That is where the Leadership Council should have some discussion,” McLerran said. “Are those preferences in state law appropriate?”

The state of Alaska prohibits salmon farms, while California’s complex regulations allow them only under specific conditions related to water supplies, said Kessina Lee of Ecology.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council and former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said the Legislature will no doubt want to hear a complete report on the Cypress Island net-pen collapse, and he urged the agency officials to be fully prepared to answer questions from lawmakers.

“You will be asked, when the Legislature comes back, ‘How big a deal is this?’” Manning said, noting that he has heard from some people that it is a very big deal, while others say it is nothing at all.

Windrope noted that native salmon populations are already struggling, “and this is one more injury to the salmon.” But since the escaped Atlantic salmon don’t appear to be competing for food, the question comes down to whether they are affecting native fish in other ways. That question is not fully answered, she said.

“For DNR, this is a very big concern,” said Dennis Clark, who helps manage aquatic leases for the agency. “We have a contract with a multinational company, and they failed to adhere to it.”

DNR serves as the landlord for the Puget Sound net pen operations, he said. The aquatic leases run out at various times, from 2022 to 2025, and the agency is taking a closer look at the net pen structures to see what should be done from both a scientific and landlord perspective. Commissioner Franz is taking a special interest, he added.

“We are trying very hard to learn from this (incident),” Clark said, “and we understand that we may need to devote more resources.”

Rich Doenges of Ecology said the Atlantic salmon that got away are considered a “pollutant” under Washington state law. While no long-term effects have been seen following previous escapes of Atlantic salmon, there is some risk to native salmon. The key is to quantify that risk and determine if it is low enough to make the operations worthwhile. If necessary, he said, compliance orders can be issued and state water-quality permits can be amended to require additional safety measures.

Seattle attorney Doug Steding, representing Cooke Aquaculture, said he wanted to convey “sorrow and regret” from the company over the potential impacts of the escape.

“We want to make right with respect to this terrible accident,” he said, adding that the company is committed to working with investigators into the cause of the escape and finding ways to make sure that it never happens again.

Steding noted that Cooke recently acquired the Puget Sound facilities and did not own the Cypress Island net pens when the fish were placed in them. The company should have shared more information with the public about plans to upgrade the facilities, he said.

“You have an important task sorting through the difficult science and integrating with the values of the people of Washington,” Steding told the Leadership Council, adding that Cooke hopes to remain a part of the discussion.

Collapsed fish pens could shift the debate over Atlantic salmon farms

UPDATE: Aug. 30

Democratic members of Washington state’s congressional delegation are calling on federal agencies to take immediate steps to minimize damage from the net pen collapse and release of Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island. Read the news release.

“Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington state,” the letter states. “Most concerning is the threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose to the wild Pacific salmon populations stocks in Puget Sound. Farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat, which is important for spawning. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement, but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response….”

Meanwhile, a public hearing about the expansion of the Port Angeles net pen operation has been cancelled at the request of the owner, Cooke Aquaculture. Read the letter from Steve Gray (PDF 155 kb), Clallam County’s deputy planning director.
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The recent collapse of salmon pens near the San Juan Islands could become a turning point in the war against salmon farming that is being waged by environmental groups in Puget Sound.

Yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz announced a moratorium on new state leases or permits for any fish farms using Atlantic salmon. The moratorium will remain in place until state officials can fully review the escape of more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon from net pens near Cypress Island, according to a joint announcement (PDF 107 kb).

The video, by Glenn Farley and Travis Pittman of KING 5 News, was posted Friday.

The owner of the pens, Cooke Aquaculture, has applications pending to move and expand its net pen operation near Port Angeles to an area 1.8 miles offshore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cooke, a family-owned company, acquired all of the salmon farms in Puget Sound from Icycle Seafoods last year. The deal was touted as a way to infuse capital and modernize operations on the West Coast.

“The deal will enhance the family’s investments in both the wild fishery and the aquaculture sectors, making them leaders in the U.S. salmon farming sector and a major player in the Alaskan salmon fishery,” said a news release about the acquisition. See the story by Cliff White in “SeafoodSource.”

Perhaps the company did not have time to upgrade its facilities to reduce the risk of the net pens collapsing at Cypress Island and other farming operations. In a news release (PDF 251 kb), Cooke said it had applied for permits to update its Cypress Island site. Still, this latest incident cannot instill confidence in the company nor the salmon farming industry as a whole.

In fact, one could argue that that the company’s extensive “Fish Escape Prevention Plan” (PDF 1.4 mb) and Operations Plan (2.4 mb) should have raised red flags for the company. Cooke cited unusual tides and currents as contributing factors in the pens’ collapse, despite the fact that these tide levels are seen several times each year and stronger currents can be anticipated at times.

Cooke proudly proclaims its commitment to the environment on the company’s home page. But shooting itself in the foot on Cypress Island will leave a bad feeling for many Puget Sound residents. For environmental groups, this event will provide ammunition in their effort to stop the expansion of net pens in Puget Sound and phase out their use entirely.

It is often pointed out that Washington is the only state on the West Coast that allows salmon farming. (See “Our Sound, Our Salmon.” Meanwhile, a serious debate over the pros and cons of industrial-scale aquaculture goes on and on in British Columbia, where more than 100 salmon farms are well established. Take a look at reporter Gordon Hoekstra’s story in the Vancouver Sun.

The war on salmon farms has been waging for years on both sides of the border. While battles ought to be won or lost based on credible information, I’ve seen facts distorted to fit political goals on both sides of the argument.

Now the Cypress Island incident will raise the profile of the debate in Washington state. Let’s hope that the investigation called for by Gov. Inslee and Commissioner Franz will lead to findings that go beyond the question of why the net pens collapsed and look at the overall risks and benefits of keeping these salmon farms around.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, told me in an email that he is working today to sample 50,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon that escaped from the Cypress Island net pens. Experts will be looking for viruses, parasites and stomach contents.

I believe the information about stomach contents will be particularly valuable, because of concerns that the escaped fish could be consuming wild salmonids — including young chinook and steelhead, both of which are listed as threatened species. Obviously, we don’t have enough out-migrating chinook and steelhead as it is. (You may wish to review my recent story about salmon recovery in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

Meanwhile, Wild Fish Conservancy, a staunch opponent of salmon farming, has filed notice that it intends to sue Cooke Aquaculture for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“The Conservancy is deeply disheartened by Cooke Aquaculture’s glaring negligence, negligence which has led to an environmental disaster of epic proportion,” states a news release (PDF 115 kb) from the organization. “The needless escape of up to 305,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound represents a dire threat to already imperiled wild fish populations, beloved marine mammal species, and the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem at large, and Wild Fish Conservancy fears impacts to these critical aspects of our region will be felt for years to come.”

The 60-day “letter of intent” (PDF 1.9 mb) from Wild Fish Conservancy outlines a number of alleged violations of federal law resulting from the release of Atlantic salmon and the management of debris. The group says it will seek monetary penalties of up to $52,000 a day, as provided by law, and “injunctive relief to prevent further violations.”

When I asked Kurt what he thought the lawsuit could accomplish, he wrote, “Simply speaking, I believe It’s in the best interest of our sound, our salmon and future generations to pursue all legal avenues to quickly remove Atlantic salmon net pens from Washington’s waters.”

The group — which is part of Our Sound, Our Salmon — is planning an on-the-water protest off the south end of Bainbridge Island on Sept. 16. See “Flotilla: saying no to Atlantic salmon net pens.”

In response to the Cypress Island incident, an “incident command” structure has been set up by the Washington state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology, along with the Office of the Governor and Emergency Management Division. The idea is to share information and make joint decisions about the cleanup operation.

“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon…,” Gov. Inslee said in a statement. “Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again.

“I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters,” he added.

A new website called “Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Pen Break” will be the distribution point for public information — including “situation updates” from Cook Aquaculture, “Next steps” from DNR, minutes from agency conferences, news releases and other documents.

The Clallam County Hearing Examiner will hold a hearing on Sept. 7 regarding the proposed relocation and expansion of the Port Angeles net pens. Many documents related to that application and Cooke Aquaculture operations can be found on the website titled Clallam County Online Permit System. Click on the permit number for American Gold Seafoods.

Recalling the voice and wisdom of Billy Frank Jr. in a new animated video

It is very nice to hear once again the distinctive voice of the late Billy Frank Jr. in a new animated video called simply “sčədadxʷ” — or “Salmon.”

Billy was the voice for the Nisqually Tribe, for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, for native people everywhere and for the human race, which he believed holds a special relationship with salmon and all of nature’s creatures.

The new video was produced by Salmon Defense, a nonprofit organization created by the 20 Western Washington treaty tribes to foster the welfare of salmon. The short animation was distributed by Northwest Treaty Tribes, the communications arm of the NWIFC.

In the video, the animated Billy is seen floating down a river in an Indian canoe. While passing historical landscapes, Billy talks about Indian culture, the coming of settlers and the relationship between the two societies.

“We don’t walk on this Earth very long,” Billy says in the video. “We got a lot of changes here that is happening in this century, and we have to work together and remind each other about what was the past and our history and be able to live together and survive together.”

Billy’s words are still inspirational, and his passion still comes through. His voice causes me to recall the many talks and speeches I heard him give through the years. His words would flow at a different pace than other speakers who appeared on stage before him. To hear Billy, you would need to slow down and listen, not necessarily to the precise words but rather to the broader, heartfelt meaning behind his words.

His grammar wasn’t perfect. He would sometimes pepper his speech with swear words, especially when expressing frustration in his fairly reserved way. And then he would catch you off guard with a humorous phrase or story of human foibles. To me, Billy’s message was always clear: No matter what our differences, we can save the salmon and make a better life for all humans by working together.

Most remarkable to me — and recognized by many others — was Billy’s warm relationship with everyone who knew him. He treated everyone like a brother or sister, greeting them with a broad smile and a hug or pat on the back. He constantly opened doors to new relationships. It didn’t matter who you were — from the president of the United States down to everyday news reporters like me.

Billy rarely talked about his own personal sacrifices and struggles, but he would remember the specific efforts of others. For example, while I was covering the federal lawsuit dealing with salmon-blocking culverts, Billy thanked me for writing about the issue and for helping people understand the science behind the needs of salmon. See Kitsap Sun, March 21, 2009.

Billy died in May of 2014 at age 83. Read his obituary in Indian Country Today. Also review two pieces I wrote shortly after Billy’s death:

I thought this might be a good time to present two other videos featuring Billy Frank and his family history. If you’ve seen these videos, they might be worthy of another look. The second video on this page is “As Long as the Rivers Run,” a 1971 documentary that chronicles the conflict and civil disobedience leading up to the landmark George Boldt decision. The third video is a special edition of Northwest Indian News called “Remembering Billy Frank Jr.”

No end in sight for dispute over pesticide injury to salmon

It has been 15 years since a federal judge ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service must consider whether pesticides increase the risk of extinction for Northwest salmon populations.

Chlorpyrifos

Since 2002, NMFS (also called NOAA Fisheries) has determined that some pesticides do indeed pose a significant risk to the ongoing existence of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet, after all these years, permanent protective measures have not been imposed by the EPA, which is responsible for regulating pesticide use.

One could argue that progress has been made in the face of litigation from environmental groups. The EPA has acknowledged its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, and the agency has adopted a new and evolving methodology for measuring the risk to listed species.

After its initial assessments were thrown out by the courts, NMFS has agreed to complete new biological opinions for five pesticides that pose some of the highest risks. Studies for chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon are scheduled to be done by the end of this year, followed by carbaryl and methomyl by the end of next year.

What we don’t know is whether President Trump’s anti-regulatory efforts and pledge to dismantle the EPA will slow or stop the process of protecting salmon. When it comes to pesticides, environmental activists will tell you that the Trump administration has already taken steps to undermine not only salmon but also human health.

For example, the insecticide chlorpyrifos was scheduled to be banned by the EPA after a new analysis found that its ongoing use on food crops could pose unsafe risks for people, especially young children whose brain development could be impaired.

In March, just before the ban was to go into effect, Trump’s new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed EPA’s course, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture disagrees with the methodology used by the EPA in developing the ban.

Environmental groups, which had already obtained a court order to force the EPA to reconsider its approval of the pesticide, were outraged. They filed yet another lawsuit, as described in a news release from Earthjustice.

“EPA’s stunning reversal on chlorpyrifos in the face of overpowering scientific evidence of harm to children signals yet another dereliction of duty under the Trump administration,” Kristin Schafer, policy director for Pesticide Action Network, said in the news release.

After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to force the EPA to take immediate action on chlorpyrifos, nine U.S. senators stepped in to draft legislation that would ban the chemical. See news release and video from Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and a separate statement from Earthjustice.

Chlorpyrifos is among numerous pesticides that can harm salmon directly and indirectly in a variety of ways, including destroying salmon’s ability to make their way upstream to spawn and killing off the insects they eat.

In its latest biological evaluation released in January, the EPA looked at more than 1,400 toxicity studies before concluding that chlorpyrifos in all its various uses could be expected to have an adverse effect on all threatened and endangered species throughout the U.S. — including killer whales in Puget Sound. Check out the news story by Adam Wernick, Living on Earth.

Of course, chemical manufacturers and farming groups — including apparently the USDA — are not easily convinced that certain pesticides are harmful. They want to go on selling and using these chemicals, as they have for many years. Consequently, they want the EPA to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a chemical is causing damage. But federal law actually requires that all chemicals on the market be proven safe, so any doubt should trigger a reduction of pesticide use or at least greater restrictions on their application.

It is easy to complain about the adequacy of any scientific study. In fact, a disputed difference in methodology between the EPA and NMFS led to a National Academy of Sciences Review, which eventually made suggestions for unifying the agencies’ different scientific approaches.

Through the years, one thing that I have found remarkable is that chemicals rarely appear to get safer with time. For most pesticides, more study raises more concerns, and when you mix pesticides together you never know what you’ll get.

In 2008, shortly after I started writing this blog, I reported on a study by Nat Scholz, a NOAA toxicologist in Seattle who has been studying the effects of chemicals on salmon and other species. This particular study examined mixtures of chlorpyrifos and four other pesticides.

The biggest surprise, Nat told reporter Erik Stokstad of Science magazine, was the strength of the synergistic punch from the pesticides diazinon and malathion. Together, the two chemicals killed all the salmon exposed to them. Even at the lowest concentration, fish were extremely sick.

“It was eye-opening,” Nat was quoted as saying. “We’re seeing relatively dramatic departures” from what happens with each pesticide by itself. See Water Ways, Feb. 19, 2008.

Such findings raise questions about the adequacy of all studies conducted on single pesticides. Pending final reports on pesticide effects on salmon, the courts have imposed 60-foot no-spray buffers along streams (300 feet for aerial spraying) to reduce chemical exposure to salmon and other species.

Nobody can say for sure if those buffers are adequate, but biological opinions from NOAA due out at this end of this year could shed new light on the problem. Meanwhile, chemical manufacturers are hoping those court-mandated reports never see the light of day — and they are putting pressure on the Trump administration to slow down the process.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a lawyer for the three companies — Dow AgroSciences, ADAMA and FMC — called on the EPA to withdraw its biological evaluation, saying the analysis is flawed in several ways. The lawyer also wrote to other federal officials, asking the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delay their biological opinions. According to the lawyer, the court-imposed deadlines are not legally binding.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker of Bloomberg BNA does a nice job describing various viewpoints surrounding this complicated issue. She also describes a close relationship between Dow and the Trump administration.

“The company donated $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee,” she wrote. “Trump appointed Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris to head the White House American Manufacturing Council.”

Dow spent more than $13.6 million on lobbying efforts last year, according to Michael Biesecker, environmental reporter for the Associated Press.

“When Trump signed an executive order in February mandating the creation of task forces at federal agencies to roll back government regulations, Dow’s chief executive was at Trump’s side,” Biesecker wrote.

“’Andrew, I would like to thank you for initially getting the group together and for the fantastic job you’ve done,’ Trump said as he signed the order during an Oval Office ceremony. The president then handed his pen to Liveris to keep as a souvenir,” according to the AP report.

Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office, said Dow executives are doing everything they can to suppress the science surrounding chlorpyrifos and other pesticides — including hiring their own scientists to raise doubts and delay proposed bans for these toxic chemicals.

“We have a person (Pruitt) in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency who really doesn’t believe in the mission of the agency,” Patti told me.

Turmoil over pesticides has been heightened by the Trump administration just when the EPA and NMFS appeared to be coming together to resolve long-held conflicts over how to assess risk and reduce harm to salmon, she said.

Now, after 15 years of court battles, the end of the conflict appears far from over.

“I think we have had incremental progress, because we’ve gotten the agencies to look at this,” Patti said. “Some chemicals are no longer on the market, and some are on the market for only particular uses.”

While there is plenty of disagreement over whether controls on pesticide use are working, for now the no-spray buffers remain in place as a temporary protection.

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.

Winter chum salmon in South Puget Sound fail test for uniqueness

Sam Wright, who has been remarkably successful in getting various fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, has learned that his latest ESA petition — possibly his final petition — has been rejected.

Sam, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after years of studying salmon and other fish, would like to get special recognition for a unique population of chum salmon that return to South Puget Sound in the winter.

Nisqually River near Interstate 5 bridge
Photo: ©2006 Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons

The Nisqually-Chambers Creek run of winter chum is the only population of chum salmon in the world that spawn as late as February, with some fish entirely missing the worst floods of December and January, Sam told me. His petition to the federal government was designed to get these winter chum recognized as a distinct population segment — much as the threatened summer chum population in Hood Canal has been designated as separate from the fall runs of chum throughout Puget Sound.

Being a small population, the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would probably qualify for threatened or endangered status, he said, but first it would need to be recognized as distinct. If not listed initially as threatened or endangered, those decisions could follow if the population crashes, he said.

“The petition was meant to correct what was, from my perspective, a mistake made 20 years ago when they made a coastwise series of reports assessing the chum salmon populations,” said Sam, who is now 81 years old.

“In the entire range of chum salmon — both in North America and Asia — there are 3,500 streams with chum salmon,” he continued, “but there is only one single winter-run chum salmon, and that is the Nisqually.”

Sam’s petition (PDF 4.2 mb), filed more than two years ago, was subject to a 90-day review by the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries. Sam was told that the petition had been misplaced all this time. Last week, he got the news that the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would not be recognized as a distinct population, nor would it be considered for further review without new information being brought forward.

In rejecting Sam’s petition, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center reviewed available data — including a 2015 genetic study on chum populations — and concluded that the original analysis done in 1997 was still valid. That analysis concluded that the winter-run chum are closely related to the fall-run chum in Puget Sound and Hood Canal and that “there is no clear genetic evidence to support the idea that the winter-run chum salmon in Puget Sound are substantially reproductively isolated from other chum salmon populations in southern Puget Sound.” See “Listing Endangered or Threatened Species …”

Sam argues that the winter chum remain genetically isolated from fall chum populations because of their unusual spawning schedule. That is demonstrated by annual population counts, which go up and down independently of fall chum numbers in South Puget Sound.

“They are reacting to different environmental conditions,” Sam explained.

Studies are needed to show the differences, Sam said, but they may have an advantage over fall chum by avoiding most of the winter floods, which can displace salmon eggs incubating in the gravel or else smother them in silt.

Incubation time is based on temperature, so the late-arriving chum are subject to warmer water and faster incubation. The winter chum fry are only a little behind the fall chum fry, Sam said.

One of the most productive areas for winter chum is Muck Creek, a tributary of the Nisqually River that runs through Joint Base Lewis McCord, where the Army conducts military exercises, according to Sam.

“We’ve had decades of battles with Fort Lewis over whether to use Muck Creek as part of their firing range,” Sam told me, adding that he suspects that pressure from the military played a role in NOAA’s original decision to lump the winter chum together with the fall chum.

Personally, I don’t know anything about such conflicts, but Muck Creek has been the site of a major restoration effort involving JBLM, the Nisqually Tribe and other groups. In 2011, reporter Ingrid Barrentine wrote about the annual salmon homecoming for Northwest Guardian, a JBLM publication.

As for the habitat in Muck Creek, Sam told me something else that was surprising. The stream is spring-fed with freshwater bubbling up from below and providing stable flows, he said. That helps the eggs to survive. Unlike many streams in which only 10 percent of the chum eggs grow into fry headed for saltwater, Muck Creek has had a 90-percent survival rate.

One reason that Sam is so concerned about the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum is the uncertainty about what is coming in the future. Climate change is likely to bring higher stream flows in winter, he said, and chum runs that come later may hold the keys to survival of the species.

“To me, the last thing we want to do is throw away that particular piece,” Sam said, paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, whose exact quote is this:

“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Round River)

Sam Wright’s persistence has paid off in the past when he has asked for reconsideration and finally received threatened or endangered status for various populations of salmon, steelhead, rockfish and other marine species. This time, he may or may not provide additional information and ask the agency to reconsider its position. In any case, Sam told me that he has no new petitions in the works, and this may be his last effort.

Whether Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum — or any salmon population — is considered distinct rests on NOAA’s definition of species, 16 U.S.C. 1531, which includes two criteria:

  1. The population must be substantially reproductively isolated from other nonspecific population units; and
  2. The population must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

In turning down Sam’s petition, reviewers pointed to genetic studies that supported the finding that summer chum in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were distinct from other chum runs. A second grouping included the remaining fall, summer and winter runs in Puget Sound, with a third grouping of fall chum from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and Oregon.

The reviewers also pointed out that the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek to the north are not geographically isolated from the rest of South Puget Sound.

As for “evolutionary legacy,” Sam contends that loss of the winter chum would be forever, as with extinct summer chum in many river systems including Chambers Creek. That critical issue, he said, is the very definition of legacy.

The reviewers of his petition found, like the 1997 review team, that winter and summer runs in Puget Sound only showed “patterns of diversity within a relatively large and complex evolutionarily significant unit,” known as an ESU.

“Both the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek watersheds have supported both summer- and fall-run chum salmon in the past, along with winter-run chum salmon,” concluded the agency’s written findings, “so there is nothing unique preventing these watersheds from supporting multiple chum salmon runs.”

Bears have gathered for their annual feast at Alaska’s Brooks Falls

In plain view of one live camera, a bear waits patiently as leaping salmon fly all around. The bear is content to wait for for a big fish to leap into his paws or his mouth.

In front of another live camera, a group of bears forage downstream in the river, going underwater to get their salmon meal. One chews vigorously while standing upright in chest-deep water.

These are a couple of the scenes I’ve been watching this morning at the Brooks Falls overlook in Katmai National Park. I have never been to the national park, but I have enjoyed these live video feeds for years. It seems incredible that we can observe brown bears doing what they do naturally while remaining out of sight and hearing of the bears.

All four bear cams can be viewed at once from the Explore website. Scroll down the page to read comments from the camera operators and other folks watching remotely.

Park officials estimate that more than 100 bears use this mile-long stretch of Brooks River to feast on what they say is the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. These bears are part of a population of 2,200 that live in the park. It is said that bears outnumber people on the Alaska Peninsula.

Another group of live webcams are poised to capture the movements of Northern Resident killer whales in Blackney Pass, one of the primary travel routes for the whales during the summer months. Again, scroll down to view comments. The cameras are coordinated by OrcaLab, Paul Spong’s research station on Hanson Island in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait.

For other critter cams, check out what I posted in April (Water Ways, April 24, 2017).

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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Seals and sea lions may be undercutting chinook and orca populations

Seals and sea lions can no longer be ignored in the effort to recover our threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon or our endangered killer whales.

A new study shows that seals and sea lions are eating about 1.4 million pounds of Puget Sound chinook each year — about nine times more than they were eating in 1970, according to the report. Please read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, also published in an abridged version in the Kitsap Sun.

Harbor seals rest on the breakwater at Poulsbo Marina. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Seals and sea lions in Puget Sound get the first chance to catch the chinook as they leave the streams and head out to the ocean. Since they are eaten at a very young age, these small chinook, called “smolts,” never grow into adults; they never become available for killer whales or humans.

Based on rough estimates, as many as one in five of these young fish are getting eaten on their way out of Puget Sound. If they were to survive the seals and sea lions and one factors in the remaining mortality rate, these fish could translate into an average of 162,000 adult chinook each year. That’s twice the number eaten by killer whales and roughly six times as many as caught in Puget Sound by tribal, commercial and recreational fishers combined, according to the study.

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