Washington Department of Licensing has embraced a stylistic work
of art in its new steelhead license plate, which became available
for purchase last week.
The new license plate, which focuses on the eye and head of a
steelhead trout, is an obvious departure from previous wildlife
license plates that feature realistic images of animals. Derek
DeYoung, the artist who created the new plate, specializes in what
he calls abstract paintings of fish faces and flanks, as well as
whole fish. The original steelhead painting is called “Abstract
Steelhead — Horizon Eye.”
Derek, based in Livingston, Mont., is a rare combination of
expressive artist and skilled angler.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
“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 project is gaining support, but it could require a special
legislative appropriation of about $2 million.
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.
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
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
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
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.
A research effort to restore “threatened” steelhead to several
rivers draining into Hood Canal is beginning to yield some
interesting and important results.
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
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
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: