Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Posts Tagged ‘steelhead’

Steelhead listing brings protection to smaller streams

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

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

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

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

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist