Category Archives: Salmon

Spring Chinook return to the Skokomish River to start a new salmon run

Spring Chinook salmon are being reared at a new hatchery on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. The hatchery is owned and operated by Tacoma Public Utilities. // Photo: Tacoma Public Utilities

For the first time in decades, an early run of Chinook salmon has returned to the Skokomish River in southern Hood Canal.

These bright, torpedo-shaped hatchery fish are the first of what is expected to become an ongoing run of spring Chinook as part of a major salmon-restoration effort related to the Cushman Hydro Project. Eventually, the salmon run could provide fishing opportunities for humans and orcas.

“it is pretty exciting,” said Dave Herrera, fish and wildlife policy adviser for the Skokomish Tribe. “Our objective has always been to restore the salmon populations that were once here.”

Andrew Ollenburg, Cushman fish facilities manager for Tacoma Public Utilities, reported that 19 spring Chinook — 15 females and four males — have been captured at the base of the lower Cushman Dam on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. As of this week, biologists estimated that 50 or 60 spring Chinook were in the river farther below the dam — and more are coming.

These fish are among the survivors of 131,000 yearling Chinook released into the North Fork in 2016. That was before two new fish hatcheries were constructed as part of a wide-ranging legal settlement that cleared the way for a new federal hydropower license for the Tacoma-owned dams. The dams, built in the 1920s, blocked fish passage until recently, when new facilities were built for trapping and moving fish past the dams. For background, see Water Ways, Jan. 13, 2009.

Before the dams were built, the Skokomish River supported a variety of Chinook salmon runs, including both spring and summer Chinook in the North Fork. Some of the most productive habitat was inundated by Lake Cushman above the upper dam, but the dams were not the only problem facing salmon in the watershed.

“In brief, a combination of effects, escalating in intensity over time, far exceeded the productive resiliency of the indigenous populations for sustaining themselves,” states the “Recovery Plan for Skokomish River Chinook Salmon” (PDF 15.5 mb). “Hydro development, water diversion, floodplain development, estuarine alterations, liquidation of old growth forests, greatly expanded fishing patterns — all of these contributed to the extinction of the aboriginal Chinook populations in the Skokomish River.”

After the dams were built, a small number of spring Chinook continued to spawn in the North Fork below the dams during years when flows were adequate. But official documents from the early 1990s calls the spring Chinook extinct.

Eggs for the new run of spring Chinook came from fish returning to the Marblemount Hatchery, located on a tributary of the Skagit River in North Puget Sound. They were reared for a year at the Lilliwaup Hatchery on Hood Canal before their release into the North Fork. That hatchery is managed by the group Long Live the Kings.

Biologists reported the first of the adult spring Chinook swimming up the North Fork in June, a few weeks later than their counterparts returning to the Skagit, Andy said. These fish had farther to go to reach the southern end of Hood Canal, he said, but they should be ready for spawning in about two weeks — on schedule with those returning to Marblemount.

“Tribal biologists were the first to spot them in the river,” Andy said. “They said they don’t look like any Chinook they’ve ever seen before.”

He said the fish appeared sleeker, somewhat like a torpedo, as opposed to the rounder-looking fall Chinook that return to other hatcheries in the area.

“We don’t know how long the run will last,” Andy said, but hatchery managers will take steps to keep the early Chinook separated from a fall hatchery stock in the Skokomish.

This year’s spring Chinook returns to the North Fork will be used to collect eggs for the next generation to be reared at the new hatchery. More eggs will be needed from Marblemount until enough fish return to the North Fork to provide about 450,000 eggs each year. That will typically require about 100 females, Andy said.

If things go well, some of the spring Chinook returning to the Skokomish will eventually be released above the dams to spawn in the upper North Fork, where pristine habitat awaits them in Olympic National Park. This stock could also be used to rebuild a run of spring Chinook in the South Fork. Details are yet to be worked out in consideration of habitat quality and genetic consequences for fish that would spawn naturally.

Some of the Chinook returning this year could be 3-year-old “jacks” released in 2017. That year, 400,000 eggs were started at Lilliwaup before the newly hatched fish were transferred to tanks at the new hatchery for rearing. Since then, eggs from Marblemount have been taken directly to the new North Fork hatchery. Further testing is expected to reveal how many jacks arrived this year among the first spring Chinook run in modern times.

Andy said excitement is running high as people recognize the start of the new salmon run, which is expected to evolve more localized traits based on conditions in Hood Canal. The new hatchery also is being used to supplement existing stocks of coho salmon and steelhead trout surviving in the Skokomish River system.

A second new hatchery has been built at Saltwater Park on the shore of Hood Canal near Hoodsport. The goal is to restore a run of sockeye salmon — a species that migrated in and out of a much smaller Lake Cushman before the dams were built.

The new sockeye hatchery is receiving eggs from the Baker Lake Hatchery, located on a tributary of the Skagit River in North Puget Sound. After hatching, the sockeye fry are placed in Lake Cushman, where they will grow until they begin their migration downstream. A collection facility on the lake uses flowing water to attract the downstream migrants, which are then moved past the dams. I wrote about the sockeye restoration for the Kitsap Sun in July 2014.

For additional details about the two hatcheries, check out the article and photos by the National Hydropower Association. Additional information can be found on the website of Cushman Fisheries Program.

Getting lost in the tangle of connections called the Puget Sound food web

I’m increasingly amazed at the interwoven nature of the Puget Sound food web. Whenever I become focused on a specific species — Chinook salmon, for example — one of the first questions I ask is: What is this species eating?

I soon learn that the answer depends on the size of the individual doing the eating. Prey for a baby salmon is much different from prey for an adult.

If you really want to learn about why a species is doing well or poorly, you need to look beyond prey availability for your species of interest and find out what the prey are eating as well. Healthy prey must be abundant for any species to do well, so the prey of the prey must also do well.

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The lives of salmon are complex, leading to threats but also hope

Salmon have a tough life. Not only must they escape predators and find enough food to eat — as do all wild animals — but they must also make the physiologically taxing transition from freshwater to saltwater and then back again to start a new generation.

In a four-part series being published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I explain some of the latest research findings about how chinook, coho and steelhead are struggling to survive in the waters of Puget Sound.

Chinook salmon // Photo: Zureks, Wikimedia commons

The first part is called “Opening the black box: What’s killing Puget Sound’s salmon and steelhead?” It describes the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, a major research effort involving more than 200 scientists in the U.S. and Canada. The effort is coordinated by Long Live the Kings in the U.S. and by the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada.

The second part, titled “Size means survival for salmon,” takes a look at salmon and steelhead’s place in the food web from the “bottom up,” as they say. Specifically, what are the fish eating and what is limiting their access to a healthy food supply?

Still to come are discussions about predation (“top down”) in Part 3, and other factors that affect survival, such as disease and chemical exposure, in Part 4.

Our goal for this project has been to describe the important research findings in careful detail without getting lost in complex scientific analysis. I also describe, at the end of Part 1, some new findings regarding potential competition among salmon for food in the Pacific Ocean.

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Dry weather started early this year amid cloudy conditions

UPDATE:
July 5. Greg Johnson, who lives in Hansville and manages the Skunk Bay Weather station there, said the unusually high rainfall in June for Hansville, compared to the rest of the peninsula, was the result of the Puget Sound convergence zone settling over the area on several occasions. Weather conditions brought localized squalls during the month, he said, adding, “This is very unusual for us.”

The reading at Greg’s weather station, 1.98 inches for the month of June, was somewhat lower than the 2.26 inches recorded at Kitsap PUD’s weather station in Hansville.
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Cool, often cloudy conditions have helped obscure the fact that very little rain has fallen on the Kitsap Peninsula over the past two months.

Precipitation in Holly (click to enlarge)

Now that we are in the fourth quarter of the water year, we can see that rainfall levels for this year will be close to average for most areas on the peninsula. What might not be recognized, however, is that April was well above average, while May and June were well below average.

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Two deaths, no births for Southern Resident orcas over the past year

Two deaths — no births. The annual census of Puget Sound’s resident orcas shows a continuing decline in their population, as the normally social killer whales focus their attention on finding enough food to survive.

Crewser, or L-92, a 23-year-old male orca who died in recent months. // Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

The latest whale to go missing and presumed dead is 23-year-old Crewser, or L-92, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research. Crewser was last seen alive by CWR staff in November. That was before coastal observers reported that he appeared to be missing from L pod earlier this year. On June 11, Ken and his fellow researchers got a good look at both J and L pods in the San Juan Islands and concluded that L-92 was indeed gone. (Check out the CWR report on L-92.)

Crewser was one of the so-called Dyes Inlet whales, a group of 19 orcas that spent a month in the waters between Bremerton and Silverdale in 1997. (I described that event for the Kitsap Sun in 2007.) Crewser was only 2 years old when he was with his mom, Rascal or L-60, during the Dyes Inlet visit.

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Whale watchers update guidelines; Canada to restrict salmon fishing

Commercial operators who take visitors on whale-watching cruises in the Salish Sea have vowed to follow new, more restrictive guidelines to reduce noise and disturbance around the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The new guidelines, adopted by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, go beyond state and federal regulations and even beyond the voluntary “Be Whale Wise” guidelines promoted by state and federal agencies and many whale advocacy groups. For the first time, the commercial guidelines include time limits for watching any group of whales.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that it will restrict fishing for chinook salmon — the killer whales’ primary prey — to help save the whales from extinction. The goal is to reduce fishery removals of 25 to 35 percent, but details have yet to be released. More about that in a moment.

The new whale-watch guidelines are based largely on recent research into much how much noise reaches killer whales when multiple boats are in the vicinity, said Jeff Friedman, president of the PWWA.

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New bridges provide improved habitat in two Kitsap County creeks

Contractors are putting the final touches on two new bridges in Kitsap County, both of which are expected to improve the local environment.

A new bridge over the Carpenter Creek Estuary near Kingston helps to restore the upper salt marsh.
Photo; Stillwaters Environmental Center

One is a 150-foot bridge that crosses the Carpenter Creek Estuary on West Kingston Road near Kingston. The other is a 50-foot bridge that crosses Big Anderson Creek on Seabeck-Holly Road near Holly.

Among local residents, the Carpenter Creek bridge may best be known as the bridge that blocked traffic and forced a detour near Kingston for more than a year — much longer than originally planned. (Recall reporter Nathan Pilling’s story in the Kitsap Sun.) While contract issues remain in dispute, the environmental benefits are clear, according to Joleen Palmer of the nearby Stillwaters Environmental Center.

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Voluntary no-go area on San Juan Island stirs conflict over orcas

Fishermen in the San Juan Islands are being asked to make sacrifices this summer to help Puget Sound’s fish-eating killer whales. Whether the voluntary actions will make much difference is open to speculation.

A voluntary “no-go zone” for boats cruising the western shoreline of San Juan Island has been announced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Boaters are asked to stay one-quarter mile offshore for most of the island’s west side. A half-mile protective zone around Lime Kiln Lighthouse is part of the voluntary no-go zone. (See map.)

“This voluntary no-go zone is a good step in helping to reduce human impacts in an important foraging area for Southern Resident killer whales,” Penny Becker, WDFW’s policy lead on killer whales, said in a news release.

Years ago, the western shoreline of San Juan Island was a primary hangout for whales, which eat mostly chinook salmon during the summer months. In recent years, however, declines in chinook runs have reduced the time spent by the whales in any one location, so the effects of the voluntary closure are likely to be muted.

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U.S. Supreme Court justices raise questions about culvert damage

As state and tribal attorneys faced off yesterday in the 20-year battle over culverts, justices for the U.S. Supreme Court drilled both sides about numbers.

A coho salmon tries to leap into a culvert on Gorst Creek where water discharges from fish-rearing ponds. // Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

The culvert case is not about the 50-50 sharing of the annual salmon harvest. The courts ruled years ago that treaties with Puget Sound tribes guarantee Indians half the total salmon harvest, to be shared equally with non-Indians.

The culvert case is about the environment, specifically the idea that culverts are capable of blocking the passage of salmon, reducing the salmon population to a meaningless number and making the treaty right worthless.

From the transcript of today’s Supreme Court hearing, I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting and legally relevant questions.

Opening the hearing and speaking for the state, Assistant Attorney General Noah Purcell said the lower courts have essentially established a new treaty right with the ruling under appeal. If culverts must be replaced as a result of the treaty, then consider what could happen to dams and virtually any development that has ever had an impact on salmon runs, he said.

In legal briefs, state attorneys have argued that the treaties work both ways, that tribes gave up the right to manage the lands they ceded to the U.S.

Justice Samuel Alito noted that the treaty describes the right of Indians to take fish. “What do you think that means?” he asked Purcell.

Three rights come from that language, Purcell said. They are the right to fish in historical places, the right to a fair share of the available fish and a “right to be free of certain types of state actions that are not justified by substantial public interest.”

The tribes, he added, need to show that state culverts specifically are responsible for a “large decline” on a particular river. There are many other causes of salmon declines as well, and the state is trying to work on all of them, he said.

Alito said he doesn’t understand the meaning of “large decline” or even “substantial decline,” the term used by the federal government, which is a party to the case on behalf of the tribes.

“Well,” Percell said, “it has to be more than a fraction of 1 percent of historic harvests or 5 percent of recent harvest. We think, for example, certainly a decline of half the salmon would certainly easily qualify …”

Asked Justice Elena Kagan, “I mean, do you have a number in your head?”

Justice Neil Gorsuch wanted to know whether a 5-percent reduction in the salmon runs would be adequate to support the tribes’ position. “If they could show that 5 percent is attributable to the culverts, would that suffice to satisfy you?” he asked. “And, if not, I guess I’m where Justice Kagan is. What’s your number.”

Purcell said he thought that half would obviously quality but not 5 percent.

“Suppose,” said Alito, “that there were more than salmon than anybody knew what to do with, and then the state did something that caused a decline. Would that be a violation of the treaty?”

“I don’t think that would be a violation even under the respondents’ (tribes’) theory, Your Honor,” Purcell replied. “… and that recognizes the crucial other piece of language… The treaties ceded control of the off-reservation land to future government to regulate in the public interest. And so the government has to have the ability to make some types of decisions, even if they affect the treaty fishing right when there are substantial interests involved.”

Gorsuch said he is struggling with that concept, the idea that state government could pursue other public interests and balance them against treaty rights.

“The point of a treaty, I would have thought, would have been to freeze in time certain rights and to ensure their existence in perpetuity, regardless of what other social benefits a later municipality might be able to claim,” he said.

Purcell said the treaty must recognize interests other than the fishing rights of the tribes, and that includes actions to protect natural resources and public health.

“But where does this public interest theory come in in the treaty?” asked Kagan. “I thought this was an agreement. I give you my land. You give me the right to take fish. And — let’s make it narrower here — I have the right that you will not put up obstructions on these streams such that I can’t take fish.”

“Well, Your Honor,” said Purcell, “if the rule is narrowly limited like that, it’s much less problematic for the state, but the findings would not support that rule and it would outlaw every dam in the Northwest. So it’s inconsistent with the parties’ long-standing behavior.”

Alito asked federal prosecutors in the case whether federal dams also violate the treaties.

Assistant Solicitor General Allon Kedem of the U.S. Department of Justice said that issue was never part of the case and the legal issues have never been developed. Still, he added, many dams are built with fish ladders. In other cases, the U.S. government has compensated the tribes monetarily.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the original language of the treaties, which “gives the tribes the right to take fish in common with all citizens.” One could simply interpret that to mean that nobody should discriminate against Indians, she said.

Kedem said the state had argued that point years ago, but the courts considered representations made by federal officials to the Indians when the treaties were signed. The conclusion, upheld by the Supreme Court, was that the tribes have access to fish in perpetuity.

Justice Kagan returned to the issue of numbers, asking Kedem if he has an idea how much habitat damage constitutes “substantial” degradation — the term used to define a treaty violation.

“So we don’t have a number,” Kedem said, adding that the lower courts used a habitat approach, the idea that loss of habitat would reduce the salmon population.

Later, Justice Alito turned to Attorney William Jay, representing the tribes.

“I hate to keep asking the same question,” he said, but does ‘substantial degradation’ mean a number or “significant degradation’ mean a number?”

“I don’t think it means a hard and fast number,” Jay said. “I think it is something that you would look at in context, in context of the particular species, in context of the strength of the species at a particular time.”

Without giving a number, Jay said, the court found that the state’s culverts are so numerous and reduce access to such a large spawning area that the impact on the fishery is significant.

“I just don’t see how that can mean anything other than a number,” Alito said, “and I still haven’t gotten an answer that seems to give any substance to this.”

Jay said the idea that the local, state or federal government could disregard the intent of the treaty while balancing their own perceived public interests is not consistent with promises made by the president of the United States and ratified by the Senate.

“If the promise made by the United States in exchange for millions of acres of the tribes’ land means anything … it protects against a threat to the fishery like these, a threat that obstructs fish from getting to the usual and accustomed fishing grounds where the tribes have a right to fish.”

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Amusing Monday: Wacky steelhead return for new ‘Survive the Sound’ game

“Survive the Sound,” an online game that features cute little fish swimming for their lives, is back for a second year with some new additions, including free participation for students and teachers in the classroom.

The basics of the game remain as I described them last year. You pick out a wacky cartoon steelhead and then receive daily reports as the fish makes its way through a perilous Puget Sound over a 12-day period. The journey starts May 7, and signups are now open. See Water Ways, April 29, 2017.

As in real life, many fish will not make it to the ocean because of the effects of disease and pollution along with the constant risk of predation. But a few lucky steelhead will survive, and the winners will be recognized.

Individuals join the game with a $25 donation to Long Live the Kings, which will use the money to further research, ecosystem restoration and education. This year, anyone can start a team and encourage others to participate, sharing the joy or heartbreak of the salmon migration. Prizes will be awarded to the winning teams.

This year, teachers can sign up their classrooms for free and play the game while learning about the Puget Sound ecosystem. Extensive educational materials have been developed to go along with the game. Check out “Bring ‘Survive the Sound’ to your Classroom!”

The game is based on the real-life travels of steelhead, which have been tracked using implanted acoustic transmitters. Some fish swim faster than others and some even reverse course. This year, participants will be able to watch the progress of all of the fish making the journey, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings.

Last year, more than 1,100 people joined the game, and organizers hope for even greater participation this year.

If nothing else, you should check out the cartoon fish and the clever things they have to say by clicking on the individual steelhead in the “Survive the Sound” fish list.

If you would like to learn more about the person who turned the concepts for these odd and wonderful fish into creative works of art, check out “Meet the Artist Behind Survive the Sound.” To see more of Jocelyn Li Langrand’s work, go to her website, her Instagram page or Facebook.