Tag Archives: steelhead

Stealthy steelhead still survive across parts
of the Kitsap Peninsula

More than three years after first proposed, “critical habitat” has been designated for Puget Sound steelhead, a prized fish whose population has declined drastically in the Puget Sound region.

The new designation, announced last week, is the first time that critical habitat has ever been designated on the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)NOAA map
Critical habitat for steelhead (click to enlarge)
NOAA map

Steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2007, and this critical habitat designation is required under federal law to protect habitats — in this case streams — that are considered essential to the recovery of the species.

Under the law, any federal actions that could affect critical habitat becomes subject to careful review to avoid degradation of the habitat. In most areas, this high-level review would apply to alteration of streams, wetlands or estuaries, or any construction covered by federal grants or permits — such as transportation projects.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated many Puget Sound streams as critical habitat for one or more listed species — such as Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal summer chum or bull trout. But this is the first time the agency has provided federal protection for streams on the eastern side of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Interestingly, the marine shoreline all around the peninsula has been designated as critical habitat for chinook. Although the numerous streams are considered too small to support chinook spawning, the shorelines are critically important for juvenile chinook, which must find places to feed, grow and escape predators on their migration to the ocean.

The designation of East Kitsap as critical habitat for steelhead could bring increased scientific scrutiny to this area along with possible funding for the restoration of habitat, as I outlined in a Kitsap Sun story when the habitat was first proposed in 2013. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2013, and Water Ways, March 15, 2013.

Even though steelhead were listed as threatened eight years ago, knowledge remains sparse about the number of steelhead coming back to the Kitsap Peninsula or the habitat needs of the fish, local biologists tell me. Steelhead are stealthy fish, not easily found in the streams, although some information is being revealed by a handful of fish traps used by researchers to measure steelhead productivity.

Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Photo: Kitsap Sun

Steelhead can still be found in Kitsap streams, but in numbers far below what old-timers talk about. Many Kitsap streams have become “flashy,” meaning that streamflows rise and fall suddenly with the rains, because so much of the landscape has been paved or otherwise hardened. Those conditions limit the habitat, especially for fish like steelhead and coho, which make their way far upstream in Kitsap’s numerous little creeks. One difference between the two species is that coho die after spawning, while steelhead often head back to the ocean to spawn again on their next journey.

As for the designation of critical habitat, the Suquamish Tribe was able to convince NOAA Fisheries to maintain closer jurisdiction over 90 miles of steelhead streams on the Kitsap Peninsula where they were originally proposed for exclusion from the designated critical habitat.

In all, more than 2,000 miles of streams throughout the Puget Sound region were finally designated as critical habitat, but more than 1,500 miles of stream escaped the formal designation. That’s because the habitat was said to be protected in other ways or because the cost of protecting the habitat outweighed the benefits.

The Lake Washington watershed was excluded under the cost-benefit rationale, but most of the excluded streams are on private and state forestlands managed under approved habitat conservation plans, which protect a variety of species. About 28 miles of streams on military bases were excluded because they fall under “integrated natural resource management plans.” About 70 miles of streams on tribal lands were excluded out of respect for tribal sovereignty and the role of the tribes in conservation.

While many of the forestlands on the Kitsap Peninsula come under existing habitat conservations plans, the Suquamish Tribe argued that even greater oversight is needed. Streams subject to the HCP are not clearly delineated, nor are areas that would not be regulated by HCPs, the tribe argued. Kitsap County is undergoing urbanization, and these forests are threatened with conversion to residential and commercial development, the tribe said. NOAA Fisheries accepted the tribe’s point of view.

In practice, the listing of Kitsap forests as critical habitat won’t have much effect, since forestland owners are already subject to state rules that are highly protective of stream habitat, said Adrian Miller, policy and environment manager for Pope Resources, the largest forestland owner in Kitsap County. Besides, Adrian told me, federal oversight only kicks in when there is a federal action — such as a new road or stream alteration, and these are rare on working forests.

For Puget Sound, most areas designated as critical habitat are considered “occupied” by fish at this time. One exception is the Elwha River, where steelhead have been moving into areas not occupied by anadromous fish since the Elwha Dam was built in 1910. Since removal of the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam upstream, biologists have not fully documented the full extent of the habitat used by steelhead.

Since much of the upstream habitat is within Olympic National Park, I’m not sure the habitat needs special protection under the Endangered Species Act. But it is nice to know that steelhead habitat in the Elwha is protected at the highest level and just waiting for steelhead to arrive.

For information, see the formal listing of Puget Sound steelhead habitat in the Federal Register. Other documents about habitat can be found on NOAA Fisheries website.

NOAA continues to work toward a recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead. Documents can be found on NOAA’s website about steelhead recovery. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued reports on Puget Sound steelhead populations.

Two weeks ago, five conservation groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries for not completing the recovery plan within a reasonable time. See Wild Fish Conservancy news release, which includes a link to the legal documents.

Steelhead could be running into a trap at the Hood Canal Bridge

Fishermen fish for salmon north of the Hood Canal bridge, but researchers say the bridge may be an obstacle to the migration of young steelhead. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
Fishermen fish for salmon north of the Hood Canal bridge last week, while researchers say the bridge could be an obstacle to the migration of young steelhead. // Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

I’ve often wondered if the Hood Canal bridge might be an obstruction for killer whales, which could simply choose to back away from the wall of floating pontoons, which are anchored to the seabed by a confusing array of crisscrossing cables. Old-timers have told me that orcas used to come into Hood Canal more frequently before the bridge was built.

What I never considered seriously, however, was that the bridge could be an obstacle for fish as well. In Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, I wrote about recent findings from a study tracking juvenile steelhead by means of implanted acoustic transmitters. The study was conducted by researchers at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.


The bottom line is that something is happening at the bridge, where many of the transmitters either disappeared or winded up staying in one place near the bridge, continuing to send out their signals for weeks. The leading hypothesis is that seals or other predators are eating the young steelhead, and some of the acoustic tags are being digested and excreted near the bridge.

Why the bridge serves as an obstacle to steelhead remains unclear. But other studies have suggested that steelhead swim near the surface. As they move out of the canal, the fish may encounter the bridge pontoons as a physical barrier, since the concrete structures go down 12 feet underwater. Also, currents around the pontoons could be a strange condition for the fish. If a young steelhead slows down in the process, a harbor seal or other predator could be waiting to take advantage of the situation.

We’ve all heard about sea lions capturing adult salmon by hanging out at fish ladders at Seattle’s Ballard Locks in Seattle or at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Maybe the same thing is happening at the Hood Canal bridge with smaller prey as the target of the marine mammals.

I was also intrigued by an analysis conducted by Tarang Khangaonkar, a researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Seattle. He told me that in all the models of circulation in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, the bridge tended to be ignored. Since the pontoons go down 12 feet, the bridge disrupts the relatively thin low-salinity surface layer moving out of Hood Canal.

Tarang calculates that the bridge could reduce the circulation by 10 percent or more, which has serious implications, not just for steelhead at the bridge but for the ecological health of all of Hood Canal.

“We have to examine what the bridge is doing,” Tarang told me. “It slows the entire system down. Water quality is maintained in Puget Sound by the flushing effect, which flushes the system out and maintains a balance. Our preliminary finding is that it could slow down by about 10 percent. That effect is cumulative.”

The bridge, he said, could effectively create a more stagnant body of water, where oxygen can become depleted. More study is needed, he said.

Most of the folks I interviewed for this story agreed that the first priority for further research was to see what is happening to the steelhead — and possibly chinook and chum salmon — at the bridge. Studies could focus on the fish, predators and currents at the bridge.

The project is gaining support, but it could require a special legislative appropriation of about $2 million.

Steelhead listing brings protection to smaller streams

The little streams and tributaries on the Kitsap Peninsula and elsewhere in Puget Sound are destined for special attention under a proposal to designate critical habitat for Puget Sound steelhead. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Acoustic tags help researchers track the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Kitsap Sun file photo

When it comes to endangered and threatened species, most of the attention has been given to Puget Sound chinook, which migrate to the larger rivers and often spawn in mainstem waters and larger tributaries.

As a reporter, I’ve also paid attention through the years to Hood Canal summer chum, which come into the streams along Hood Canal in the late summer and early fall. They generally spawn in the lower part of the streams, because water has not yet arrived to fill upstream tributaries.

Steelhead are an entirely different kind of fish, coming into our local streams in the winter months and swimming upstream as far as they can go. Steelhead may not die after spawning, so they can repeatedly return to spawn again and again.

With adequate rains, there is almost no place on the Kitsap Peninsula where steelhead cannot go. In that respect, they are similar to coho salmon, a fall spawner that remains on the borderline for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Many biologists tell me that protections for steelhead will go a long way to protecting our depressed coho runs as well.

What is needed more than anything is more research on the ecological values of the smaller streams on the Kitsap Peninsula and South Sound region. Where have steelhead been found historically, and what can we do to improve the habitat for them?

On the positive side, it is often easier to fix the smaller streams. Culverts can be replaced, side channels created and streamside vegetation planted, all at less cost than on our major rivers.

On the other hand, given our tight state and federal budgets, we are not likely to see more money for salmon and steelhead restoration. We’ll probably have to spread the existing dollars further. In fact, I’ve been told that some people in chinook territory have tried to slow down the steelhead-recovery effort, because it will mean less money for chinook recovery. And they may have been successful.

Puget Sound steelhead were listed as “threatened” nearly five years ago. The Endangered Species Act calls for designating critical habitat within one year of the listing, but NOAA concluded that the designation was “not determinable” at that time. Now, more information is available, the agency says.

Elsewhere, five populations of West Coast steelhead were listed as “threatened” in August 1997, and four others were listed in March 1998. Critical habitat for all nine listed species of steelhead was proposed in February 1999 and completed a year later. (Their status was later reconsidered, which led to the official listing date actually coming after designation of critical habitat.) As a result of a lawsuit, the court scheduled the deadlines for those steelhead.

Biologists are now working on a recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead in consultation with local governments throughout the region. The ESA does not provide a firm deadline for approving a recovery plan, although federal agencies attempt to get them done within a few years after listing.

More information can be found on the website “Critical Habitat for Lower Columbia River Coho & Puget Sound Steelhead.”

Research in Hood Canal could aid steelhead recovery

A research effort to restore “threatened” steelhead to several rivers draining into Hood Canal is beginning to yield some interesting and important results.

<i>Sean Hildebrant of Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group shoots 2-year-old steelhead into the Dewatto River.</i> <br> <small> Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt for the Kitsap Sun</small>
Sean Hildebrant of Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group shoots 2-year-old steelhead into the Dewatto River.
Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt for the Kitsap Sun

In a story I wrote for Friday’s edition of the Kitsap Sun, I described this multi-agency research effort led by Barry Berejikian of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The work keeps piling up critical data that offers hope for the recovery of steelhead in Hood Canal and maybe other areas as well. (See also the video of the latest release.)

One line of study points to the success of growing steelhead more slowly, so that they are ready to go out to sea in two years instead of just one, as in most steelhead hatcheries. Growing two-year-old smolts mimics natural conditions and seems to dramatically increase the chance of survival.

Other work involved in the Hood Canal Steelhead Project is focused on counting fish coming and going, tracking their movements with implanted acoustic tags and examining any shifts in genetics.

Last year, I wrote about the last of the propagated steelhead to be released into the Hamma Hamma River, where supplementation started a decade before. (See Kitsap Sun, March 16, 2008.) Thanks to this supplementation project, the number of steelhead returning to the Hamma Hamma have increased from an annual average of 17 to more than 100.

Barry Berejikian tells me that he won’t be alarmed if the numbers of returning adults to the Hamma Hamma drops somewhat, now that supplementation has stopped. We won’t really know the carrying capacity of the river for a few years, but it’s important to understand that the productive part of the river is relatively short because of an upstream fish barrier.

Available habitat is not so limited with other Hood Canal streams, such as the Dewatto, which is now gaining increasing attention.

So why did the steelhead decline to such feeble numbers in the first place if the habitat has always been there?

One theory is that fishing knocked the numbers of spawners down so low that the populations were just hanging on. If that’s true, then a supplementation program could be the trick to restoring healthy numbers to sustain the run. The Hamma Hamma could be the case that supports this idea.

For additional information about the Hood Canal Steelhead Project, go to the Long Live the Kings Web site.

For other information about Puget Sound steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endanagered Species Act, see two Web pages by the National Marine Fisheries Service:

Puget Sound steelhead distinct population segment
Petition to list Puget Sound Steelhead