Category Archives: Streams

Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

Allowable fishing for chinook salmon in the waters of Canada and Southeast Alaska will be cut back significantly this year as a result of a revised 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The goal of the updated treaty is to increase the number of adult chinook returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where they will be available to feed a declining population of endangered orcas while increasing the number of fish spawning in the streams, according to Phil Anderson, a U.S. negotiator on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Most chinook hatched in Washington and Oregon travel north through Canada and into Alaska, making them vulnerable to fishing when they return. Changes to the treaty should reduce Canadian harvests on those stocks by about 12.5 percent and Alaskan harvests by about 7.5 percent, Phil told me. Those numbers are cutbacks from actual harvests in recent years, he said, so they don’t tell the complete story.

If you consider allowable harvest levels under the previous 2009 treaty with Canada, the cutbacks are even greater — up to 25 percent for some stocks, he said. The difference is that actual fishing never reached the allowable levels because of declines in the overall chinook population.

“I think we achieved some major reductions in fisheries from the existing agreement,” said Anderson, a former director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The actual change in allowable catches in some cases is much greater than 12.5 percent. A lot of people doubted that we were going to be able to get any cuts at all, so this is a significant advancement in conservation for Washington stocks.”

Negotiations for the revised treaty were completed in July, but details of the treaty remained under wraps pending full ratification by the United States and Canada. Because the treaty was expiring at the end of 2018, the two governments agreed to impose the new treaty provisions on an interim basis beginning Jan. 1. Consequently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released the chinook chapters to the treaty on Dec. 31.

Because the interests of Washington and Oregon don’t always line up with Alaska, it took nearly a year to formulate the U.S. position, which includes consultation with state and tribal governments. It took another 16 months to reach an agreement with Canada. During that time, the commissioners got together for about 14 meetings as well as many more conference calls, according to Phil Anderson, who represents the interests of Washington and Oregon on the international commission.

“Even though we had some tough issues to resolve, we were able to keep everyone at the table by showing civility and respect for each other,” Phil said, noting that those involved were conscious of the failed 1999 treaty negotiations. That’s when talks broke down, the treaty expired and the thorniest issues had to be resolved at higher levels of government — including the U.S. State Department.

Conservation aspects of the treaty became the driving factor in negotiations, Phil said. Puget Sound chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while Southern Resident killer whales are listed as endangered. Alaskan officials, who represent fishermen with big money to lose, had to be convinced that Washington and Oregon were doing their part to preserve the species.

“If you are asking people to cut their (fishing) opportunities for your conservation reasons, it is not surprising that they need to know that we are doing everything we can here, both in fishery management and on the habitat side of things,” Phil said.

Charles Swanton, deputy commissioner for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, toured the region to observe extensive habitat-restoration projects, hatchery programs and other conservation projects in Puget Sound. Swanton, who has since resigned, represented the interests of Alaska on the Pacific Salmon Commission. Ron Allen of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe represented U.S. tribal interests, alternating in the commissioner post with McCoy Oatman of the Nez Perce Tribe. Bob Turner of NOAA Fisheries represented the federal government on the commission.

Planning for this year’s fishing seasons begins with an estimate of the total number of fish that have survived to adulthood. The terms of the treaty place limitations on Alaskan and Canadian harvest of stocks returning to Puget Sound, the Columbia River and the Washington and Oregon coasts.

The total number can vary greatly year to year, but in recent years Puget Sound runs of hatchery and wild chinook have ranged from about 200,000 to 250,000 fish, while the Columbia River has seen returns of roughly a million chinook. Preseason forecasts for this year’s salmon runs are scheduled to be discussed at meetings Feb. 26 in Montesano and Feb. 27 in Lacey.

Both U.S. and Canadian officials are interested in protecting chinook salmon to feed the 74 remaining Southern Resident killer whales, which travel from southern British Columbia through Puget Sound and down the West Coast to California. A shortage of chinook, their primary prey, has been identified as a major cause of their drop in population from 97 animals in 1996 to 74 today, a decline of 24 percent.

Phil said the commission spent a good deal of time talking about the orcas and the impact of fishing on the prey base. “We did a lot of analysis and modeling to make sure we fully understood the effect (of the agreement) on the prey base. The orca issues were a big deal to both countries.”

Also important is the goal of getting more chinook back to their spawning grounds, where habitat has been improved in many areas.

As harvest managers plan for upcoming fishing seasons, increasing consideration is being given to which chinook stocks are important to the killer whales and where the orcas are likely to hunt for them. The effect of saving salmon for the whales as well as for spawning has led to an overall shift in allowable fishing from the open ocean, where stocks are mixed, to fishing areas closer to the streams. That way more abundant runs can be targeted by fishers after the fish have swum past areas where the whales are most likely to get them.

Fishing seasons are established to allow a percentage of the fish to be harvested in each area along their way back to their home streams. Because Puget Sound chinook are listed as threatened, the federal government has established a maximum percentage of harvest allowed for each stock, known as the “rebuilding exploitation rate.”

Under the previous 2009 agreement, only 17 percent of the Puget Sound chinook stocks would have met the negotiated goal. As a result of further fishing cutbacks the past few years, the RER was actually achieved for 42 percent of the stocks. Under the new agreement, it is anticipated that the goal will be reached for 67 percent of the Puget Sound populations.

That’s a nice jump, but it still leaves a lot of Puget Sound streams that are not meeting the objectives, Phil conceded.

“Yes, we’re not meeting them today,” he said, “and even if we close all fisheries, we would not be meeting them either.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government requires mitigation measures, such as habitat restoration and conservation hatcheries, designed to increase the overall populations. Without mitigation measures, fisheries on depressed stocks would not be allowed at all.

The Pacific Salmon Treaty also covers coho and chum salmon fishing. Provisions for coho were simplified but did not change much. The provisions for chum call for decreased fishing pressure when the runs are low.

One of the steps before full implementation of the new treaty is for NOAA Fisheries in the United States to complete a biological opinion to ensure that the treaty complies with the Endangered Species Act.

In addition, the treaty must undergo a period of parliamentary consideration in Canada and executive approval in the U.S., and Congress must approve funding to implement provisions of the treaty that include habitat restoration, hatchery conservation, marking of Southeast Alaska hatchery chinook, and increased production of hatchery chinook specifically to feed the orcas.

Major funding advances for restoration projects in Hood Canal region

More than $20 million in ecosystem-restoration projects along the Skokomish River in Southern Hood Canal could be under construction within two years, thanks to special funding approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, Washington state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board announced this morning that it would provide $18 million for salmon restoration projects statewide — including a portion of the funding needed to purchase nearly 300 acres near the mouth of Big Beef Creek in Kitsap County.

Skokomish watershed (click to enlarge)
Map: Army Corps of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers has secured $13.6 million in federal funds for restoration on 277 acres in the Skokomish River watershed. Included in the work are levee removals, wetland restoration and installation of large-woody debris, said Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, known as SWAT. About $7 million in state matching funds is moving toward approval in the next Legislative session.

“We’re really happy and a little surprised,” Mike said. “We’d just gotten the design funding through the Corps earlier this year, and we were sort of expecting that we would get into the Corps’ 2020 budget for construction.”

The Corps chose Skokomish for some nationwide nondiscretionary funding to move the entire project to construction, he added, attributing the extra funding to ongoing cooperation among the various parties involved.

Projects approved for funding (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Army Corps of Engineers

Approval of the federal funds marks the culmination of many years of planning by members of the SWAT — including the Corps, Mason County, the Skokomish Tribe, state and federal agencies, nongovernment organizations and area residents, said Joseph Pavel, natural resources director for the Skokomish Tribe.

“The water and salmon are central to the life, culture, and well-being of the Skokomish community, and we are pleased and encouraged to be taking this next great step in the restoration, recovery, protection and management of the salmon resources we depend upon,” Pavel said in a prepared statement.

Specific projects to be funded by the Army Corps of Engineers with distances measured upstream from the estuary on Hood Canal:

Confluence levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Wetland restoration at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Wetland restoration near Grange: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8 . A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Estimated cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

State matching funds would be provided through grants, including the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund and Floodplains by Design Fund, which depend on legislative appropriations, along with the Salmon Recovery Fund.

Another major project in the Skokomish Valley is a bridge and culverts where floodwaters often cover the West Skokomish Valley Road. The $1.2 million project is designed to reconnect wetlands on opposite sides of the road. Much of that needed funding has been secured through the Federal Lands Access Program. The project will be in an area where salmon can be seen swimming across the road during high flows.

See also Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 7.5 mb) by the Army Corps of Engineers.

As announced by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the purchase of 297 acres on Big Beef Creek near Seabeck — including the University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station — will protect the important salmon stream and could provide public recreation in the future, according to Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, which will take ownership of the property owned by the UW.

Big Beef Creek Research Station is part of 297 acres to be purchased from the University of Washington by Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.
Photo: Brandon Palmer

The site includes a fish trap operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as research facilities used for salmon spawning and rearing studies.

“We would like to continue the research there,” Mendy told me. “We’re going to be pulling together multiple agencies and other fish organizations to see if we have the capacity to keep a facility like that.”

The goal will be to balance ecosystem restoration with the potential of future research and salmon-enhancement efforts, she said. It is possible that trails or other recreation facilities could become part of a long-term plan.

The $430,000 provided by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board is a relatively small, yet important, part of the $4.3 million needed to acquire the property, she said. That total amount includes surveys, studies and appraisals as well as the cost of the property.

The project was awarded $980,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Coastal Wetlands Program. Other funding could come from the state’s Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund and Washington Wildlife and Recreation Fund.

The $18 million in statewide salmon funding will go to 95 projects in 30 of the state’s 39 counties. Money will be used for improving salmon migration in streams, restoring stream channels and vegetation, improving estuaries and preserving intact habitat. About 75 percent of the projects will benefit Chinook salmon, the primary prey for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. For details, download the document (PDF 393 kb) that lists the projects by county.

“This funding helps protect one of our most beloved legacies,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “Together we’re taking a step forward for salmon, and in turn dwindling Southern Resident orca whales, while also looking back to ensure we’re preserving historic tribal cultural traditions and upholding promises made more than a century ago.”

Amusing Monday: Wild and Scenic Rivers to be featured on U.S. stamps

In the coming year, you could choose to use postage stamps depicting the Skagit River in Washington, the Deschutes River in Oregon, the Tlikakila River in Alaska, and the Snake River, which runs through portions of Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Skagit River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Tim Palmer

These rivers are among 12 Wild and Scenic Rivers to be featured in a pane of stamps scheduled to be released as Forever stamps in the coming year.

The year 2018 has been celebrated as the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, with a special celebration in October, so I didn’t think I’d be writing about this topic again so soon. But I couldn’t pass up a mention of these stamps that show off some beautiful photographs by Michael Melford, Tim Palmer and Bob Wick. The pane of stamps was designed by art director Derry Nores for the U.S. Postal Service’s stamp program.

Deschutes River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Bob Wick

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was created by Congress in 1968 to preserve sections of rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values. Although the Snake River runs through portions of four states, the designated section is actually just a 67-mile segment downstream of Hells Canyon Dam along the Idaho-Oregon border.

Reporter Kimberly Cauvel of the Skagit Valley Herald wrote about the Skagit River stamp, quoting photographer Tim Palmer and salmon biologist Richard Brocksmith, executive director of the Skagit Watershed Council.

Snake River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Tim Palmer

“Clearly Skagit belongs in that group of rivers to celebrate around the country,” Richard told her. “There’s no other single river anywhere in Washington, maybe even the country, that exceeds all superlatives for its unique beauty, fisheries resources, recreational values, natural free-flowing condition and local contributions to our economy such as Skagit’s agriculture.”

With the largest runs of Chinook salmon among Puget Sound streams, one could also argue that the Skagit plays a key role in the effort to save the Southern Resident killer whales from extinction.

Other Wild and Scenic Rivers featured as stamps in the upcoming release (with photographer) are:

  • Merced River in California (Melford),
  • Owyhee River, a tributary of the Snake River in Oregon (Melford),
  • Koyukuk River, Alaska (Melford),
  • Niobrara River, a tributary of the Missouri River in Nebraska (Melford)
  • Flathead River, Montana (Palmer)
  • Missouri River, Montana (Wick)
  • Ontonagon River, Michigan (Palmer),
  • Clarion River, Pennsylvania (Wick)

Since 1847, official U.S. postage stamps have been used to promote the people, places and events that represent the history of the United States.

Tlikakila River: Wild and Scenic Rivers stamp
Photo: Michael Melford

“The miniature works of art illustrated in the 2019 stamp program offer something for everyone’s interest about American history and culture,” Mary-Anne Penner, executive director of the USPS Stamp Services Program, said in a news release Nov. 20.

The Postal Service previewed 20 upcoming stamps or sets of stamps for 2019 in the news release. The stamps honor people including Marvin Gaye and Walt Whitman and range in subject from the USS Missouri battleship to four species of frogs. So far, I’ve been unable to obtain release dates for these stamps, but some info should be posted soon in the USPS Newsroom. Also, if you haven’t heard, the price of a Forever stamp will rise from 50 cents to 55 cents on Jan. 27, as approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission.

If you’d like to see the state-by-state list of Wild and Scenic Rivers, go to the map on the Wild and Scenic Rivers anniversary website and click on any state.

Previous Water Ways blog posts about this year’s anniversary:

Twelve Wild and Scenic Rivers stamps are scheduled for release in 2019. // Source: U.S. Postal Service

Low streamflows have constrained the salmon migration this fall

If you are hosting out-of-town visitors this Thanksgiving weekend, it might be a good time to take them salmon-watching — or go by yourself if you get the urge to see one of nature’s marvelous phenomena.

Rainfall in Hansville. Blue line shows current trend.
Graph: Kitsap Public Utility District

Kitsap County’s Salmon Park on Chico Way near Golf Club Road tops my list of places to watch salmon. Expect to see plenty of dead fish as well as live ones, as we have apparently passed the peak of the run.

Dogfish Creek near Poulsbo also has a fair number of chum at this time, with a good viewing spot at the north end of Fish Park. Gorst Creek and other streams in Sinclair Inlet are known for their late runs of chum salmon, which are likely to be spotted right up until Christmas at Otto Jarstad Park.

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Some salmon take the low road to get back home to spawn

“Why did the salmon cross the road?”

OK, I’ll admit that I used this line once in a story many years ago when I first observed the Skokomish River overflowing its banks. I was amazed at the number of chum salmon swimming through farm fields and across pavement in the Skokomish Valley as they tried to get back to their spawning grounds.

Despite extensive work in the Skokomish River estuary, the waters still back up and fish still swim across roads during heavy rains and floods.

I was not the first to bend the old joke to ask, “Why did the salmon cross the road?” And I was definitely not the last, as two new videos went viral the past few days, resulting in news reports across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people must have been surprised to see Puget Sound salmon skittering across the pavement in a most unnatural way.

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Salmon migration on display during Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours

Recent rains are bringing chum salmon into numerous streams on the Kitsap Peninsula, according to Jon Oleyar, biologist for the Suquamish Tribe. But more rains are needed to help the salmon reach the upper tributaries and fully seed the system, he added.

Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek on Thursday (11-1). // Photo: Emma Jeffries

“The fall fish are right on schedule,” Jon told me, “but I wish they had more water, especially for the tributaries.”

Folks attending the Kitsap Salmon Tours this Saturday should be able to see fish in most locations on this year’s list. Read on for details.

The fall chum themselves seem larger than average this year, Jon said, which means the streams need a little more water than usual for the fish to easily swim upstream.

Salmon can move quickly upstream and become stranded in too-shallow water after a downpour followed by a dry period, he said. In a worst-case scenario, fish may die before spawning. Once the rains have saturated the soil, the risk of low flows is reduced, but as of today we’re not at that point yet. Heavy rains last Saturday brought many fish into the streams, he added, but streams levels have dropped somewhat since then.

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Legal settlement could help protect salmon eggs incubating in gravel

Washington Department of Ecology has agreed to take steps to protect wild salmon eggs incubating in gravel by developing entirely new water-quality standards to control fine sediment going into streams.

The new standards, yet to be developed, could ultimately limit silty runoff coming from logging operations, housing construction and other operations that can affect water quality. The idea is maintain adequate oxygen to salmon eggs, thus increasing the rate of survival as well as the health of the young fish.

The legal agreement with Ecology grew out of a lawsuit brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. NWEA claimed that the EPA had failed to consult with natural resource agencies while reviewing changes in state water-quality standards, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

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Ongoing lack of rainfall raises concerns for chum, coho salmon

We’ve just gone through one of the driest five-month periods on record in Kitsap County, yet the total precipitation for entire water year was fairly close to average.

Water year 2018, which ended Sunday, offers a superb example of the extreme differences in precipitation from one part of the Kitsap Peninsula to another:

  • In Hansville — at the north end of the peninsula — the total rainfall for the year reached 35.2 inches, about 3.5 inches above average.
  • In Silverdale — about midway from north to south — the total rainfall was recorded as 43.1 inches, about 5 inches below average.
  • In Holly — near the south end — the total rainfall came in at 82 inches, about 3.3 inches above average.

The graphs of precipitation for the three areas show how this year’s rainfall tracked with the average rainfall through the entire year. The orange line depicts accumulated rainfall for water year 2018, while the pink line represents the average. Click on the images to enlarge and get a better view.

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New film celebrates the history of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I was pleased to see that producer/director Shane Anderson and Pacific Rivers are allowing the documentary “Run Wild Run Free” to be shown online for three days before the film goes back into limited showings.

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Amusing Monday: Get out and enjoy the cool rivers in our region

Given the heat wave of the past few days, I realize that I should have been floating down a river. I’m envisioning cool water splashing people on a boat as the sun beats down from above. I recall feelings of calm while traveling across flat water, followed by the invigoration of roiling rapids.

To get you started, Seattle Magazine offers a few suggestions, and there are numerous rafting companies advertising online to help you tackle more challenging waters.

This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I’ve been watching some videos that I would like to share. The law was designed to preserve the free-flowing nature of rivers that contain outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.

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