Category Archives: Salmon

Shoreline habitat improves after owners remove old bulkheads

Puget Sound’s shoreline habitat is slowly being restored to a more natural state, thanks to the ongoing removal of old bulkheads from private property, one after another.

The latest “State of the Sound” report from the Puget Sound Partnership reports that the amount of bulkhead removed from important “feeder bluffs” has nearly reached the 2020 goal established by the partnership.

For shorelines in general, it appears that the tide has turned in a positive way, with removal of old bulkheads outpacing new bulkhead construction. At the same time, efforts to protect shorelines from erosion have become more focused on natural “soft shore” techniques, as opposed to concrete, wood or rock walls.

The overall effort at removing shoreline armoring from Puget Sound has fallen somewhat short of the Puget Sound Partnership’s nine-year goal to remove more miles of bulkheads than what gets constructed between 2011 and 2020. A major reason for the shortfall is the amount of bulkhead constructed during the early years of the effort — 2011 to 2013 — as shown on a graph in the State of the Sound report.

Things might be a bit better than the graph indicates, because the data do not adequately reflect improvements in shoreline habitat from replacing old-fashioned bulkheads with natural structures — such as carefully placed logs. Man-made installations, even when natural, are still counted as armoring.

The trouble with hard bulkheads below the high-tide line is that they reduce spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt. Bulkheads also increase the risk that juvenile salmon will be eaten by predators as they migrate through deeper water. And shoreline armor also can block the movement of sand needed to maintain healthy beaches, as described by coastal geologist Hugh Shipman in the video on this page.

In Kitsap and Clallam counties, nearly two miles of shoreline armor have been removed starting in 2011, according to the report. That accounts for 43 percent of the total armor removed in Puget Sound during that time.

Thanks to grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, most Puget Sound counties have joined the state’s Shore Friendly program, which provides incentives for private property owners to remove their bulkheads. Each of Puget Sound’s 12 counties have developed individual programs to suit the needs of their residents. One can locate specific county programs on the Shore Friendly page managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

One of the latest ideas for encouraging shoreline restoration is to create a program that can offer low-interest loans to shoreline property owners who wish to remove bulkheads, install soft-shore stabilization or move their houses back from shore as the sea level rises. The feasibility of the program is being studied by research scientist Aimee Kinney of Puget Sound Institute.

As proposed, the program would establish a revolving loan fund, which would be replenished as shoreline property owners pay back the loans, as Jeff Rice of PSI describes in a blog post. The program might operate like Washington’s low-interest loan program for septic system repairs and replacements.

Meanwhile, many of the 12 Puget Sound counties still provide assistance through the Shore Friendly program as funding becomes available. Shore Friendly Kitsap, for example, offers free site assessments to determine the risk of erosion, along with $5,000 to help with design, permitting and construction of a shoreline project.

Over the past three years, Shore Friendly Kitsap has helped with 15 shoreline projects. Bulkhead removals range from 15 feet of armoring in Liberty Bay to 222 feet in Dyes Inlet. In all, 1,177 feet of armor have been removed, according to statistics provided by Christina Kereki, environmental planner for the Kitsap County Department of Community Development.

Before and after photos are available for many of the projects.

A recent shoreline success story (1.6 mb) — including trials and tribulations along the way — is told in writing by property owners Sheri and Michael Flynn, who live on 200 feet of waterfront on Miller Bay in North Kitsap. As they say, their project was “a lesson in patience, persistence and perseverance,” but the outcome will be favorable both to them and the environment.

Mason County shoreline owners also have restoration stories, and I was pleased to help them tell their stories in a project for the Mason Conservation District. See Living Along the Waterfront.

As part of my work for Puget Sound Institute, I’ve written extensively about shoreline armoring and nearshore habitat. Please check out some of our in-depth stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a piece called “Shoreline restoration turns to private property owners” along with “Sources of sand.”

Hopes still rising for ecological benefits from a new Duckabush bridge

A major bridge-replacement project over Hood Canal’s Duckabush River is advancing toward a final design, and a growing number of people are thrilled with the ecological benefits expected from the estuary restoration. Construction could begin within four years.

Bridge over Duckabush River
Photo: Jayedgerton, Wikimedia Commons

The project, estimated to cost roughly $90 million, is being designed to improve the migration and survival of salmon and trout native to the Duckabush River, which flows out of the Olympic Mountains. Special attention is being given to Hood Canal summer chum, Puget Sound Chinook and Puget Sound steelhead — all listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The project also will aid coho salmon, a federal species of concern, and pink salmon.

Washington’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board last week approved $2.8 million toward design of the bridge and purchase of needed properties. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will take the lead in designing a renewed 38-acre estuary, including excavation to restore historic stream and tide channels. In all, $14 million has been approved for design, including $8 million authorized by Congress.

The funding supports completion of the preliminary design, which will be subject to public review, as well as final detailed drawings needed for construction, according to Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, which applied for the state funding.

The new bridge, about 2,100 feet long, will replace two aging bridges totaling about 970 feet. Likely to be higher than the old bridges, the new one is expected to benefit wildlife, such as elk, in their approach to the estuary.

Major selling points among area residents are a decreased risk of flooding and an increased assurance of earthquake safety. Unlike the old bridges, the new bridge is likely to survive a major earthquake that would otherwise halt traffic on the most important thoroughfare on the Olympic Peninsula.

About 120 people attended a meeting on the project last July, Mendy told me. While a few expressed reservations about the cost, “a lot of people are really excited about the project.”

The restoration effort is gaining increasing support from state and federal agencies and Indian tribes who keep pushing it forward, said Theresa Mitchell, environmental planner for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While the cost is significant and there are no guarantees of final approval, it appears that the project remains on track for both congressional and legislative appropriations in the coming years, she said.

The Duckabush restoration is one of the top projects identified through the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project, or PSNERP, a collaboration among WDFW, the Corps and other partners to determine where restoration dollars would best be spent. I wrote about these projects in Water Ways on on Dec. 17, 2016 and again on April 24 of this year.

While the Corps will pay 65 percent of the bridge removal and estuary restoration, the state must pick up the cost for the new bridge and related roadway costs. Transportation infrastructure is not covered by the Corps’ aquatic restoration program.

Design of the Duckabush bridge is the second-largest out of 96 salmon-improvement grants approved across the state by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. The total expenditure by the board in this round will be $26 million. After last week’s approvals, the board, now in its 20th year, has surpassed $1 billion in total investments — including matching funds from grant recipients.

“The work being done across the state on salmon recovery is critical,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “These grants for on-the-ground projects will help us restore salmon to healthy levels that allow for both protection and a robust fishery. We must do everything we can to restore this beloved Washington icon and help orcas, which are starving due to lack of salmon, before it is too late.”

“These grants,” added Phil Rockefeller, chairman of the SRF Board, “create many other benefits for local communities, such as better water quality, less flooding, more resiliency to climate change and a boost to our statewide economy.”

Other funding approved in the Hood Canal region includes a $289,000 grant for purchase of 30 acres of historic floodplain in Moon Valley along the Big Qulicene River and $191,000 for removing invasive knotweed and restoring native vegetation along the Union, Tahuya, Dewatto, Dosewallips, and Big and Little Quilcene rivers as well as Big Anderson and Big Beef creeks. Both projects are under management of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.

Another project in Hood Canal involves the purchase of two acres of land on the Big Quilcene River followed by the removal of structures and the planting of native vegetation along the river. Jefferson County government will receive the $139,000 grant and oversee the project.

And in Mason County, Great Peninsula Conservancy will receive $511,000 to purchase about 100 acres of lowland forest and shoreline near Dewatto Bay on Hood Canal. The land includes about 0.6 mile of saltwater shoreline, 1.2 miles of streams and 8.45 acres of tidelands. The land includes habitat for salmon and surf smelt, as well as eelgrass beds, feeder bluffs, streams and forest. GPC will contribute $721,000 from a federal grant and donations of cash.

Among other major projects approved in the Puget Sound region:

  • Chico Creek: Kitsap County will receive $266,000 to improve habitat along Chico Creek following culvert removal and bridge construction on Golf Club Hill Road off Chico Way.
  • Cedar River: King County will receive $817,000 to reconnect portions of the 52-acre Riverbend floodplain along the Cedar River by removing a half-mile of levee, excavating 180,000 cubic yards of fill, rebuilding side channels and planting native vegetation. The county will add more than $1 million to the project from other grants.
  • Cedar River: Seattle Public Utilities will receive $424,000 to reconnect and enhance floodplain habitat by removing a berm, fill and riprap and adding large logs along the bank of the Cedar River in Maple Valley.
  • Skagit River: Skagit Land Trust will receive $748,000 to buy at least 62 acres of high-quality salmon habitat in the upper Skagit River near Marblemount. A portion of the funding will be used for evaluating other properties for potential purchase. The grant is actually the repayment of a loan issued from a new Rapid Response Fund, which was used to set up the purchase when the property became available. It is the first loan in the new program.
  • Skagit River: Skagit River System Cooperative will receive $750,000 for final design and construction of the long-awaited first phase of the Barnaby Slough restoration project, which includes removing man-made barriers to juvenile salmon and opening up nearly a mile of off-channel rearing habitat.
  • Skagit River: Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group will receive $286,056 to reconnect Britt Slough with 7.8 acres of forested floodplain wetlands. The project will improve rearing habitat for Chinook salmon and create an exit from the wetland to the South Fork of the Skagit River. The enhancement group will contribute $125,000 from a federal grant, and the Skagit Conservation District will provide engineering support.
  • Stillaguamish River: The Stillaguamish Tribe was granted $159,000 to help purchase 248 acres of former wetlands at the mouth of the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County. The land had been diked and drained for farming in the late 1800s. The tribe’s goal is to move the levees back to restore wetland habitat. The tribe will contribute $1.3 million in other state and federal grants to the purchase.
  • Nooksack River: The Nooksack Tribe will receive $579,000 to build 27 log structures to restore side-channel habitat in the North Fork of the Nooksack River near Maple Falls. Native trees and shrubs will be planted on the structures. The tribe will contribute $102,000 from a federal grant.
  • Deschutes River: South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group will receive $595,000 to add root wads and logs along 0.3 mile of the Deschutes River in Thurston County. Vegetation will be planted along a side channel. The group will contribute $105,000 from another grant.
  • South Prairie Creek: Forterra will receive $393,000 to buy 34 acres along South Prairie Creek in Pierce County and design a restoration project. Forterra will contribute $568,000 from a conservation futures grant.

For the complete list of projects approved last week, visit the website of the Recreation and Conservation Office (PDF 472 kb).

News coverage: Killer whale grandmothers help their pods endure

I was surprised to see the sudden surge of news coverage explaining the important role that orca grandmothers play in our Northwest resident pods.

A new research paper adds statistical support to our understanding of why female orcas live long beyond their reproductive years. The new findings are certainly worthy of coverage — although I have never seen a news story about orca research snapped up all at once by the New York Times, Washington Post, Science magazine, National Geographic, London Daily Mail and South China Morning Post, as well as CNN, BBC and Seattle broadcasters.

Most news outlets broke the story within hours of Monday’s publication in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” The sudden news blast resulted from a coordinated effort to keep the story under wraps until the right moment, noted Ken Balcomb, the dean of orca research in Puget Sound who provided data and observations for the analysis.

Ken told me that he has rarely seen such widespread interest in killer whale research. A news release promoting the new findings about orca grandmothers was coordinated by the universities where the leading researchers are employed, namely the universities of Exeter and York, both in the United Kingdom. A timed embargo was imposed on the release to make sure no news reporter got the jump on anyone else.

The new findings are especially interesting, as they support the idea that orca grandmothers have much in common with human grandmothers, playing a nurturing and leadership role within their family groups. Also, the endangered Southern Resident orcas have been gaining worldwide attention as they teeter on the brink of extinction. For example, many people have not forgotten the image of Tahlequah (J-35), the 20-year-old orca mom who carried her dead calf around for 17 days last year.

The pronounced role of grandmothers in caring for their grandcalves has long been understood by orca researchers, but the statistical analysis in the new study clearly shows that “the death of a grandmother reduces the survival of her male and female grandoffspring in the two years following her death,” the research paper states.

A calf whose maternal grandmother dies is 4.5 times more likely to die within the next two years when compared to an individual with a living grandmother, the report says. Furthermore, an individual who loses a post-reproductive grandmother is 1.5 times more likely to die than one who loses a grandmother who is still producing offspring.

In the vast majority of species, females lose their ability to reproduce as they approach the end of their lives. But orcas and a few other toothed whales, as with humans, go through menopause and stick around for many years after they can no longer produce offspring. Grandmothers who do not have to care for their own calves seem to provide extra benefits, including an important leadership role, the new research suggests.

“We suspect when breeding grandmothers are supporting their own calves, their movement and activity patterns are constrained and they are not able to provide support and leadership in the same way as post-menopausal females,” states the paper’s lead author, Stuart Nattrass of the University of York, in the joint news release issued by Exeter as well as from York University. “Also, grandmothers with their own calves will be busy caring for their own calves, and be able to invest less in their grand-offspring, compared to post-menopausal grandmothers.”

It has long been known that killer whales generally stay with their mothers from the time of birth until they die, so that multiple generations of related orcas travel and forage together. Mothers tend to share food with their offspring into adulthood, especially their sons who need more food to survive.

Ongoing studies with unmanned aircraft, or drones, are designed to identify patterns of food sharing and socializing that can contribute to long-term survival.

“A lot of our information is based on historical surface data,” Ken noted. “The new drone work has shown a lot more detail, including underwater contacts that we could not see before. Food is important, but so is socializing.”

Grandmothers have been seen to support their grandcalves, sometimes staying with a calf while its mother is gone for a while. Elder females, often post-menopausal, are known to be the leaders of the matriarchal groups. Their knowledge of where to find fish to eat may be the key to success for the pod — especially in this time of food shortage, as the orcas range over wider areas to find new hunting grounds.

The new study explains for the first time in quantitative terms how older grandmothers can enhance the survival of the young members in the family group, thus providing an evolutionary benefit to pods containing post-reproductive females. The data show why the pattern persists over time.

In fact, the study even looked at survival rates when food was more or less available. It turns out that the loss of a grandmother carries even more risk to a youngster when food is scarce, as we are seeing under current conditions in the Salish Sea, according to Dan Franks, of the Department of Biology at the University of York and senior author on the paper.

“The death of a post-menopausal grandmother can have important repercussions for her family group, and this could prove to be an important consideration when assessing the future of these populations,” he said in the news release. “As salmon populations continue to decline, grandmothers are likely to become even more important in these killer whale populations.”

As food grows more scarce, the pods have been splintering into smaller groups, according to Ken Balcomb. That leads to less socializing with other pods and presumably less opportunities for mating. The need for new calves to replenish the population seems paramount, but survival of the existing orcas during a food shortage is no small consideration. Some studies suggest that a high rate of miscarriage occurs among pregnant females when food is scarce, and we know that pregnancy requires increased caloric intake.

The new analysis was based on 36 years of data about the southern resident and northern resident killer whales collected by Balcomb’s Center for Whale Research along with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Ken’s overall message has remained the same when it comes to the future of the southern resident orcas. It all has to do with getting more salmon, especially chinook salmon, their primary prey species.

“Unless we do something about the prey resource, we will be seeing problems for the next 20 years,” he said. “There is never going to be a big population even if nobody dies. We are not solving the problem now, and we will be damned if we will be able to solve it 10 years from now.”

Headlines about grandmother orcas in stories this week:

Low rainfall during November contributes to smaller salmon runs

Salmon managers are reporting dismal returns of chum and coho salmon to Puget Sound streams this fall, and a sparsity of rainfall during November could result in low salmon survival during the next generation.

Low streamflows in November made it difficult for chum salmon to make it past obstacles, such as this log weir at the mouth of Chico Creek.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

“The run (of chum) was pretty darn small,” said Jon Oleyar, salmon biologist for the Suquamish Tribe who walks many streams on the Kitsap Peninsula. His surveys of living and dead salmon are used to estimate escapement — the number of migrating salmon that return to their home streams.

“Some of the streams had no fish at all in them,” Jon told me, “and many of the fish did not get very far up into the system.”

Low rainfall in November led to low streamflows in the upper portions of many streams, where the water levels were often too low to allow passage of chum and coho. The fish were forced to lay their eggs in the larger channels, where heavy rains this winter could wash the eggs out of the gravel before they hatch.

Low flows disrupted the normal run timing of the chum salmon, according to Aaron Default of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The final in-season estimate of run size for Central and South Puget Sound was 240,000 chum — barely half of the preseason forecast of 444,000. The 10-year average is about 527,000, as I reported in Water Ways in October. Final estimates for the year will come later.

Chum returns to Hood Canal also were low this year, Aaron reported in an email.

For the Kitsap Peninsula, average rainfall in November is second only to December in the longterm records, but this year more rainfall was seen in October and even September. The graphs on this page include nearly flat lines (blue), representing very low rainfall through most of October and November this year. Click on the images to enlarge them.

In Hansville, at the extreme north end of the peninsula, total rainfall for November was 1.14 inches. That was the lowest precipitation recorded in 30 years of records maintained by Kitsap Public Utilities District. The median average rainfall for November is 4.37 inches in Hansville.

In Silverdale, only 1.03 inches of precipitation was recorded during November. That’s just a fraction of the median average of 9.96 inches seen over the past 29 years. It was also the lowest rainfall ever seen for November except for 1994, when 0.90 inches established the current low record.

Holly, one of the wettest parts of the Kitsap Peninsula, received 2.47 inches of rain in November, compared to a median average of 12.41 inches. This November’s rainfall in Holly, as in Hansville, is the lowest amount going back 29 years. The previous record low was 3.29 inches set in 1994.

The shifts in rainfall from one year to the next are hard to explain. Just two years ago, Holly received 22.89 inches of rain in November, followed by 12.41 last year — which just happens to match the median average.

Overall, the low rainfall was detrimental to the salmon, which ended up spawning in the lower portion of streams where flows are higher. But Jon Oleyar observed a few positive features this year, such as beaver dams on Chico Creek — the largest producer of chum salmon on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Although beaver dams can impede the movement of chum during low flows, they also can hold back water during high flows, reducing the risk of extreme currents that can scour salmon eggs out of the gravel.

“In the Chico system, we had about 10,000 fish total, and 95 percent of them spawned below river mile 1.5,” Jon said.

That means most chum and even coho spawned this year in the mainstem of Chico Creek, with very few fish getting to Lost or Wildcat creeks. Those tributaries of Chico Creek normally support large numbers of juvenile chum and coho.

“The only saving grace that I can point to is the beaver dams,” Jon said. “In bad weather, the dams can hold back the water instead of having it shoot downstream like a fire hose.”

Jon spotted only handfuls of chum in some important salmon streams, including Scandia Creek in North Kitsap, Steele Creek in Central Kitsap and Blackjack Creek in South Kitsap.

“This might be the smallest run I’ve ever seen,” said Jon, who has been surveying salmon streams for years, “and some streams didn’t get any fish at all.”

The three-month precipitation forecast calls for above-average rainfall from now into February.
Map: NOAA Climate Prediction Center

Hatcheries in the region may not have enough returning salmon for full production next year, and the coho that did make it back were much smaller than normal. Jon said. Conditions leading to fewer and smaller salmon probably relate to temperatures in the open ocean and upwelling currents off the Washington coast. I’ll have more to say about those conditions along with some observations about chinook salmon in a future blog post.

For now, we can hope for adequate rains — but not enough to cause serious flooding — over the next few months, as the baby salmon emerge from the gravel and begin their fight for survival.

Amusing Monday: Watching a key player in the Salish Sea food web

In the latest video in SeaDoc Society’s series called “Salish Sea Wild,” veterinarian and all-around marine life expert Joe Gaydos goes on a quest to observe herring during their annual spawning ritual — an event Joe calls the Salish Sea’s “most awesome spectacle.”

In this drama, there is a role for nearly all the players in the Salish Sea food web — from plankton that feed tiny fish to killer whales that eat marine mammals. As the story plays out in the Strait of Georgia, commercial fishers harvest herring at the peak of the spawn. These herring are sold overseas, often becoming sushi in Japan.

“This is the only major industrial herring fishery left in the Salish Sea,” Joe says in the video. “Our other herring populations are already too depleted.”

Canadian herring fishers are allowed to take up to 20 percent of the estimated herring run, which has triggered a debate over whether to reduce the quota, change the management system or cease fishing for herring altogether, as outlined in a story by Jolene Rudisuela of the Vancouver Island Free Daily.

A recent story by Randy Shore of the Vancouver Sun describes an ongoing effort by environmentalists to end the herring fishery. Randy raises the prospect of at least setting aside a protected herring reserve, as suggested by Andrew Trites, a marine mammal researcher at the University of British Columbia.

In another “Salish Sea Wild” video, released in October, Joe Gaydos goes out on Puget Sound with Brad Hanson, a federal marine mammal biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center to collect scat and fish scales left behind by our southern resident orcas. These samples can provide clues about what the killer whales are eating at various times of the year as well other aspects of their well-being.

Purchase of Big Beef Creek property preserves habitat, research projects

Nearly 300 acres along Big Beef Creek near Seabeck will be protected from development and could maintain its research facilities, thanks to a $3.5-million land purchase arranged by the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.

Sky view of Big Beef Creek Research Station, showing the Big Beef estuary and Hood Canal at the top.
Photo: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

The property, owned by the University of Washington, contains the Big Beef Creek Research Station, known for its studies of salmon and steelhead. The UW purchased the land, including most of the estuary, in 1965. Various research projects have continued there, despite the university’s decision to sell the property.

Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, said she has been working with multiple funding agencies and nonprofit groups for two years to finalize the acquisition.

“Some funding sources only want to pay for estuary habitat,” she said. “Some don’t want to have any buildings on the site. Others have other priorities. But everybody had a great can-do attitude, and they all wanted to make this work.”

The future of the research station will depend on a feasibility study, which will assess who wants to use the facilities and how proposed operations can be accommodated along with plans to restore the ecosystem.

Land purchased from the University of Washington involves 13 parcels along Big Beef Creek, with Hood Canal at top.
Map: Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group

“We realize that we can’t have full restoration with buildings located in the flood plain,” Harlow said, “but people are already calling me to see if they can work with us. I feel the possibilities are very broad.”

The research station has multiple buildings, including some being used as office space. One building houses incubators designed to hatch salmon eggs. Nine large tanks are available for rearing fish of all sizes.

The facility also has an artificial spawning channel, used during the 1990s to observe salmon behavior. Freshwater ponds, once built for rearing chinook salmon, will undergo scrutiny for potential uses versus restoration back to a more natural condition, Harlow said.

The property is closed to the public, but planning efforts will consider public uses, including trails and recreational activities such as bird watching and fishing.

Big Beef Creek is also under consideration for an effort to restore a natural run of summer chum, a population that disappeared from Big Beef Creek in 1984. A decade later, the entire population of Hood Canal summer chum was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, biologists attempted to restore the salmon run by using summer chum from the Quilcene River on the other side of Hood Canal. That experiment failed, despite successful restoration in other Hood Canal streams. Experts are still assessing the cause of the Big Beef Creek failure and may try again, perhaps with a different stock under different conditions — including better habitat, thanks to stream restoration in 2016 and 2017.

Although the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group now owns the Big Beef property, a fish trap operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will continue to be used by the agency to count salmon coming and going from Big Beef Creek. Those counts are used to predict salmon runs and set harvest levels in Hood Canal.

The property acquisition involved grants totaling $1.9 million from grant programs administered by the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Office of Estuary and Salmon Restoration. Another $980,000 came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fortera, a nonprofit organization, provided $152,000 for the initial purchase and used a loan guarantee from the Russell Family Foundation to buy two remaining parcels. Those properties will be transferred to HCSEG after about $400,000 is raised for the final purchase.

With the acquisition of the research station property, 90 percent of the land along Big Beef Creek below the Lake Symington dam is in public ownership or conservation status, Harlow said. The goal is to acquire more property to continue streamside restoration from the dam to Hood Canal while continuing to improve salmon habitat above the dam.

Without the purchase of the research station property, an important part of Hood Canal could have been lost to development, Harlow said.

“We have been involved with Big Beef Creek for a couple of decades now,” she said. “It is really wonderful to see things working out this way.”

Chum fishing closed in San Juans but opens soon elsewhere in P. Sound

Commercial fishing for chum salmon has been called off this year in the San Juan Islands, but that does not necessarily mean low numbers of chum will be returning to Puget Sound, experts say.

It will be interesting this year to see how the southern resident orcas respond to the movements of chum — the whales’ second choice after Chinook salmon. And, as always, chum salmon provide Puget Sound residents the best chance of observing salmon in the wild.

The San Juan closure is mandated under the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada whenever the number of chum coming through Johnstone Strait is estimated to be less than 1 million fish. This year marks the first closure since this particular treaty provision was put in place a decade ago.

The estimate of chum abundance, based on test fishing along Vancouver Island’s inside passage, is not a direct indicator of how many chum will make it back to streams in Puget Sound, said Aaron Default, salmon policy analyst with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many of the fish in the Johnstone Strait test fishery are headed for Canada’s Fraser River, he noted.

Chum salmon are important to commercial fishers, and this year’s closure in the San Juans could affect the bank accounts of those who had planned to get an early start on the chum fishery, Aaron told me.

“I would say this is a real concern,” Aaron said. “Reef net fishermen, for example, actively fish for chum as well as sockeye and pinks.”

Gillnet and purse seine boats that don’t make the trip to Alaska often get in on the fishing in Areas 7 and 7A of the San Juans, especially in years when the chum runs are strong.

To the south, in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, commercial fishing is scheduled to begin next week — and it won’t be long before the rest of us can visit our local streams to marvel at the annual migration and maybe catch a glimpse of spawning activities.

The year’s first test fishery for chum runs to Central and South Puget Sound was held this week near Kingston. The operation caught 169 chum, compared to a recent 10-year average of 760 chum for the first week, Aaron reported. While that number is low, it won’t be used as an indicator of abundance for at least a couple more weeks, because it could just mean that the run is later than usual, he said.

State and tribal salmon managers predicted a chum run of 444,000 fish this year in Central and South Puget Sound, compared to a 10-year average of about 527,000. Fishing schedules were based on the forecast of 444,000, but fishing times could be adjusted if chum numbers are lower or higher than that.

In Hood Canal, the run size of 518,000 chum is well below the 10-year average of about 750,000. But that 10-year average is a little misleading, because it contains two extraordinary years: 2013 with a return of 1.4 million chum, and 2017 with just over 1 million, Aaron explained. If we exclude those two years, Hood Canal’s fall return this year should be fairly typical.

Nest week’s opening of commercial fishing in Puget Sound and Hood Canal allows nontribal purse seiners to fish on Wednesday and gillnetters to follow on Thursday. Typically, we see a lot of purse seiners lining up south of the Hood Canal bridge for the first day of fishing, and this year should be no exception. For commercial fishing openings, one can check the WDFW Fishing Hotline online, or call (360) 902-2500.

The fishing closure in the San Juan Islands is likely to remain, although salmon managers will reassess conditions on or before Oct. 22, using information from the Albion test fishery near the Fraser River. By then, many of the chum will have already moved through the San Juan Islands on their way to their home streams.

As the chum runs arrive in Central and South Puget Sound, our southern resident orcas are likely to make more treks into these regions, intercepting chum salmon returning to streams along the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula and inside Sinclair and Dyes inlets. The orcas spent about two weeks in Central and North Puget Sound during September, but then headed back to sea. In good years, the whales will venture past the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to hunt chum that are headed to streams as far south as Olympia.

The endangered southern residents now number 73 and their population has reached a critical stage. The Southern Resident Orca Task Force has made recommendations for restoring the orca population, with a primary goal of increasing their food supply.

For humans, we are now approaching prime salmon-viewing season. For years, I have encouraged people to visit our local streams to observe the end of a journey that has taken these fish thousands of miles as they prepare to produce a new generation of chum. Please approach the stream slowly and avoid disturbing the water out of respect for the salmon and to give yourself a chance to observe spawning behavior.

The Kitsap Sun still maintains a map with videos showing some of the best places on the Kitsap Peninsula to view salmon. Some of the videos are out of date, and this year Kitsap County’s Salmon Park near Chico is closed for construction of a new bridge across Chico Creek. Still, the map shows many places to view salmon — including places on this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours.

Eight places will be featured on this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours on Saturday, Nov. 9. This annual event, sponsored by WSU Kitsap Extension, is fun and informative for the entire family.

Erlands Point Preserve won’t have a salmon-viewing platform, as I reported in Water Ways Aug. 23, because beavers built a dam that flooded the proposed viewing site. Nevertheless, the preserve will be the place to visit informational booths, learn about salmon and enjoy some refreshments.

Details on each of the sites on the tour can be found on the Kitsap Salmon Tours website, including these additional outings with knowledgeable guides:

  • Nov. 13, 10 a.m. to noon, at Jarstad Park on Gorst Creek,
  • Nov. 13, 11 a.m. to noon, at Poulsbo’s Fish Park on Dogfish Creek,
  • Nov. 14, noon to 1 p.m., at Poulsbo’s Fish Park on Dogfish Creek and
  • Nov. 17, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Salmon Haven on Dickerson Creek.

Spring Chinook take on high flows because of ‘early-migration gene’

It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that a single, tiny fragment of genetic material determines whether a Chinook salmon chooses to return to its home stream in the spring or the fall.

Photo: Ingrid Taylar (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/dmbyre

I’ve been following the scientific discoveries about spring chinook since 2017, when Mike Miller’s lab at the University of California, Davis, published research findings showing the location of this “early-migration gene” on chromosome 28.

In a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I wrote about some of the latest discoveries surrounding spring Chinook. I also thought it worthwhile to describe the importance of these fish to the ecosystem and to the native people of the Puget Sound region.

Up until the past two years, I never gave much thought to spring Chinook, nor apparently have most people, including many biologists. These are the salmon that often struggle to reach the upper reaches of the rivers when the streams are swollen with spring snowmelt. Much of these upper spawning grounds have been destroyed by human activity, and more than half the spring chinook runs in Puget Sound have gone extinct.

The more I learned about spring Chinook the more fascinated I became. The southern resident killer whales used to arrive in Puget Sound in April or May to feast on spring Chinook from Canada’s Fraser River, but those salmon runs have declined along with many fall runs of chinook. The result is a major change in behavior and migration patterns by the whales.

Spring Chinook were at one time an important food for bears coming out of hibernation, for eagles who had scavenged for food through the winter, and for native people who looked forward to fresh fish after a season of dried foods.

As I researched this story, I learned about the history of spring Chinook in the Skokomish River of southern Hood Canal and how a once-plentiful fish became extinct. I was pleased to describe the success of current efforts to create a new run of spring Chinook with the help of a hatchery in the North Fork of the Skokomish, where adult spawners are showing up nearly a century after the fish disappeared.

Spring Chinook in Salmon River, California
Photo: Peter Bohler, via UC Davis

Genetics is a fascinating field, and advances are coming rapidly in the studies of many species, including humans. The idea that a single gene can completely change the migration timing of a Chinook by four months raises many scientific and legal questions — including whether spring Chinook should get their own protection under the Endangered Species Act. As things stand now, Chinook salmon in Puget Sound — both spring and fall together — are listed as threatened under the ESA. But that could change as things shake out with the ESA in Oregon and California.

Ongoing genetic studies — including those involving various salmon species — are causing biologists and legal experts to re-examine the criteria for listing populations as threatened or endangered, as they teeter on the edge of extinction. No matter what the extinction risk is judged to be, spring Chinook are now recognized as something very special.

Orcas hunting for salmon: Not worth the effort in Puget Sound?

Trying to understand what motivates Puget Sound’s killer whales is difficult enough when the orcas are nearby. But now that they have abandoned their summer home — at least for this year — researchers are not able to easily study their behaviors, their food supply or their individual body conditions.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, was thought to be in good health when he went missing.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

Not so many years ago, we could expect the orcas to show up in the San Juan Islands in May, presumably to feast on spring chinook returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia and to streams in northern Puget Sound. Those chinook have dwindled in number, along with other populations of chinook in the Salish Sea, so it appears that the orcas may not come back at all.

Apparently, they have decided that it isn’t worth their time and effort to set up a summer home in the inland waterway. They have gone to look for food elsewhere, such as off the west coast of Vancouver Island, where it is harder for researchers to tell what they are eating and exactly where they are going.

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Three more orca deaths take census count down to 73 Southern Residents

Four orca deaths and two births over the past year brings the official population of southern resident killer whales to 73 — the lowest number since the annual census was launched in 1976.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, is among three southern resident orcas newly listed as deceased. Here he is seen catching a salmon. // Photo: Center for Whale Research

This evening, the keeper of the census — Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research — sadly announced the deaths of three orcas who have not been seen for several months.

In past years, Ken waited until he and his staff have several opportunities to search for any whales that appear to be missing. But this year the whales have stayed almost entirely away from their traditional hunting grounds in the San Juan Islands, where they once stayed for nearly the full summer.

In an unusual move this year, Ken relied on reliable observers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as other biologists along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The missing whales were not seen during multiple encounters with the Canadians, Ken told me.

The reason the whales have not spent any time in Puget Sound is fairly obvious, Ken said. Their primary prey, chinook salmon, have not been around either.

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