Summer chum pose enigma for the Union River

The Union River near Belfair — the last estuary you come to when venturing into Hood Canal — slaps us in the face with an enigma.

The Union River flows into the very end of Hood Canal near Belfair. The red outline is part of the Pacific Northwest Salmon Center.

For the moment, I can’t do much more than pose some perplexing questions. But I get the feeling that if we could get the answers, we would understand more about salmon recovery in Lower Hood Canal and possibly other places as well.

The Union River also highlights the customary finger-pointing as to why certain stocks of salmon declined in the first place and what it will take to bring them back. Of the four H’s — harvest, habitat, hatcheries and hydro — the greatest finger-pointing goes on between harvest and habitat.

Let’s take Hood Canal summer chum and focus on the Union River, which was the subject of a story I wrote for Monday’s Kitsap Sun.

First, why did summer chum go extinct in the Dewatto and Tahuya rivers — the closest rivers to the Union — while maintaining a viable population in the Union?

Talking about habitat, the Dewatto and Tahuya are far more intact ecologically than the Union, which is dammed up in the Bremerton watershed and has many houses crowding its banks from Kitsap County down to Belfair.

Researchers believe that one of the main reasons for the summer chum decline was excessive fishing years ago during the early part of the coho salmon run, when summer chum were making their way toward their natal streams.

But if that’s the case, how did the summer chum bound for the Union get past the nets near the Dewatto and Tahuya? Were the nets set clear across those rivers, thus taking nearly every fish going upstream while letting fish bound for the Union to move on by?

Were poachers prowling the more remote Dewatto and Tahuya rivers killing summer chum for the “sport” of it when river flows were at their lowest?

I base these questions on comments I have heard through the years, comments that are almost conspiratorial in nature but deserve an answer. If true, perhaps the summer chum in the Union River survived only because of the larger number of people watching what was going on in and around the waterway.

And what kind of poaching goes on even now? Not so long ago, I received reports each year about small fishing boats coming into the Dewatto. Have those activities been stopped? What about current activities in the river? Has the culture changed enough to really protect the spawners?

As for habitat, it is true that the Dewatto and Tahuya have not faced the same level of development. But, through the years, I’ve heard stories of landowners and even trespassers doing things that damage the rivers, generally out of sight of anyone in authority. I’ve been told about makeshift dikes, dredging during salmon-egg incubation, changing the course of the rivers, and allowing manure and excess pesticides to get into the water. And then there are landslides, some the result of normal geological processes and some caused by landscape alterations.

While we generally believe that the Dewatto and Tahuya rivers are relatively natural, maybe they were heavily altered in a few key places by a few careless people, while those living along the Union limited their impacts, knowing that their actions could affect flooding or water quality for their nearby neighbors. That’s not to say I don’t hear horror stories about the Union River as well.

These ramblings of mine are not facts. They are in the realm of conjecture, but I have heard such stories and would like to get some answers. Perhaps the proposed study on the Union River could lead to a greater discussion about what went wrong for the Dewatto and the Tahuya. It might help to avoid the same problems somewhere else.

2 thoughts on “Summer chum pose enigma for the Union River

  1. Regarding my comment about a dam on the Union River, Kathleen Cahall, Bremerton’s water resources manger, points out that Casad Dam may provide an unusual benefit for the Union River. For one thing, salmon migration is blocked by a natural waterfall, McKenna Falls, below the dam, not by the dam itself. Also, the dam helps to maintain a minimal stream flow during late summer when the summer chum start entering the river.

    How rare is it to find one of the H’s — hydro — that might actually help the salmon run?

  2. The City of Bremerton also safeguards the water quality in the headwaters of the Union River through careful management of the 3,000-acre watershed. This water is protected for drinking water use.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Before you post, please complete the prompt below.

Enter the word yellow here: