Tag Archives: Salmon

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.

I even received phone calls from relatives in other parts of the country wanting to know more about this phenomenon. All I can say is that it’s not a good thing to have salmon swimming across fields in an uncertain effort to find their way back to the stream channel. Many of them never make it.

“Salmon are known for jumping up waterfalls to get to their spawning grounds, but crossing a flooded road? That’s a new one,” wrote someone on the Facebook page of CBS Los Angeles. (In the Skokomish, it is not a new thing.)

“Why did the salmon cross the road?” wrote reporter Amir Vera of CNN. “Simple. To have babies, at least according to Alexis Leonard, a fish hatchery specialist who recorded the video of more than a dozen salmon swimming across a flooded US Highway 101 in Shelton, Washington, on Saturday.” Leonard was making the video for her sister, who had never seen the sight. The video and story are posted on CNN online.

The other viral video, which is shown at the top of this page, was featured by Ben Hopper of UPI, who credited Terri Sue Potter for the video.

“Why did the salmon cross the road?” One clever response has been “to get to the other tide,” although we know that adult salmon are actually swimming away from tidal waters.

One of the most impressive videos of fish swimming across a road was made two years ago by videographer Terrence Allison, who captured a low-angle shot on a sunny day. The fish can be seen gathering at the edge of the road, then shooting across one by one. Part 2 of his two-part show can be seen in the second video player on this page. Part 1, which better shows the surrounding area, can be seen on Terrence’s YouTube channel.

Jim Ames, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2006, was as impressed as anyone with these road-traveling salmon. To him, salmon are an icon of our state, culturally revered by both Native Americans as well as anyone who appreciates nature. Salmon provide a commercial resource, a sporting adventure and a critical food supply for fish and wildlife, including our endangered orcas. Not everyone loves to eat salmon, but for many they are a good-tasting, healthy meal.

“Salmon deserve their special status for all of those reasons, but more than anything because of their indomitable spirit,” Jim wrote for the WDFW website. “Salmon are the embodiment of a willingness to ceaselessly struggle, and ultimately succeed, against seemingly overwhelming obstacles.”

Jim put an optimistic spin on a still photograph of a salmon swimming across a flooded road. “At this point, it is not possible to determine the ultimate outcome of this particular chum salmon’s struggle,” he said. “However, it seems likely that he will make it across the road and continue upstream to spawn.

“The fate of the other fish waiting in the road ditch is even less clear. The longer they wait to attempt the road crossing, the lower the water will drop… If the receding waters leave no alternate passageway upstream, the salmon will not give up… The salmon will continue to fight to find a way upstream until they are successful, or until their energy resources are totally expended and they die. But, they will never quit.”

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.

The consultation process — which typically involves the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or both — is designed to make sure that endangered species are not put at risk of extinction by any actions involving the federal government.

The lawsuit covered a host of water-quality standards developed under the federal Clean Water Act and approved by Washington state since 2003. The U.S. District Court in Seattle ruled that water-quality standards adopted more than six years earlier were beyond the statute of limitations, but some standards will now be reviewed through consultation procedures.

The settlement process itself has become a political issue, according to environmental groups, as I will describe in a moment.

The levels of ammonia allowed by Ecology in both freshwater and seawater must go through a formal review under ESA within three years, as spelled out in the settlement agreement. Ammonia is a constituent of sewage effluent, livestock operations and some industrial processes. In high enough levels, it can be toxic to fish.

Melissa Gildersleeve, a manager in Ecology’s Water Quality Program, said she believes the state’s current standards for ammonia are adequate to protect salmon and should be confirmed through the upcoming review process — although NWEA contends that the standards are out of date and should be revised.

Gildersleeve said water-quality criteria for fine-sediment is something that Ecology has wanted to adopt, but experts are finding it difficult to develop a measurable standard that ensures that salmon eggs are getting adequate oxygen.

“We have spent a number of years working on this issue, and we realize that there are challenges to monitor it,” she said. “It was on our to-do list. Now we are trying to figure out how to do that and then go through a formal rule-making process and get comments.”

Under the settlement, Ecology has three years to announce a formal proposal and another year to adopt the new standard for fine sediments. The state’s turbidity standards for streams, which touches on the issue of sediment, will remain in place after adoption of new standards addressing adequate oxygen for salmon eggs.

Another issue in the settlement is how the EPA should deal with “natural conditions” — such as stream temperature — that do not allow salmon or other species to thrive. For example, studies may reveal that a portion of a stream can never meet the approved temperature criteria — even if the stream were to be restored to a pristine condition. A judge in Oregon has ruled that any exemption from the normal criteria because of “natural conditions” is effectively a new water-quality standard.

The EPA agreed to review the process in both Washington and Oregon to determine what steps should be taken when states propose an exemption based on natural conditions. One option would cause an exemption to trigger a biological review and public comments to make sure that the exemption is justified.

The settlement, approved yesterday by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle, could have been completed much sooner were it not for a constraining policy issued by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, according to Allison LaPlante, attorney for NWEA. She noted that this was the first settlement in the country to make it through the EPA’S cumbersome review process.

The new policy was issued about a year ago, when Pruitt said it would ensure due process as opposed to a “sue-and-settle” approach. Among other things, it requires publication of any proposed legal settlement along with an extended public comment period.

“The Pruitt policy added more than a year to this settlement process and only resulted in six public comments, all of which supported protecting salmon,” LaPlante said in a news release. “It’s proven to be yet another excuse for agency delays in complying with the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act at a time when we can ill afford it, given the dwindling populations of wild salmon and of the orca whales that depend upon salmon.”

Editorial writer Carl Segerstrom discusses the ongoing Pruitt Policy in High Country News.

Nina Bell, executive director of NWEA, has been outspoken about what she considers a failure of environmental agencies to aggressively protect the environment.

“The result of our lawsuit forces EPA and Ecology to take actions to protect threatened and endangered salmon that these agencies should have taken many years ago,” she said in a news release. “For all of the lip service paid by the agencies to saving salmon, they are consistently short on taking any real actions.

“When species are struggling to survive,” she added, “agencies should not be dragging their feet to do what the law requires.”

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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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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New ways of fishing could better protect endangered salmon

Higher standards of “sustainability” for salmon — recently developed by the Wild Fish Conservancy — are designed to put salmon on people’s tables with virtually no impact on depleted salmon runs.

The new standards, which could become part of a certification program, are built upon the concept that fishing should take place closer to streams with abundant runs of salmon. The standards call for fishing methods that can take a portion of the fish from the abundant runs while allowing fish from depleted runs to pass on by and spawn naturally.

“We want to get away from open fisheries, where you are capturing multiple populations all at once,” said Nick Gayeski, a scientist with Wild Fish Conservancy whose studies have raised the bar for sustainable fisheries.

“If you fish much closer to the estuaries, the fish will sort themselves out,” Nick told me, “and you can fish with much more confidence about taking fish from a specific population.”

This idea of “placed-based fishing,” as described by Wild Fish Conservancy, would surely be good for the wild salmon, including Puget Sound chinook and steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It would also be good for a dozen listed species in the Columbia River system. But, if carried out to its full extent, the idea would just as surely create an upheaval for fishermen and fishing communities from Alaska to California.

Much of the chinook salmon caught in the ocean off Southeast Alaska come from the Columbia River, Oregon Coast, Washington Coast and Vancouver Island, according to a draft of the Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook (PDF 6.5 mb).

“Most Puget Sound Chinook stocks are subjected to very low or zero mortality in Southeast Alaska,” the report says, “but there are notable exceptions. On average since 1999, 48 percent of the fishery-related mortality of Hoko, 7 percent of Stillaguamish, and 23 percent of Skagit summer Chinook occurred in Alaska.”

Those last numbers are significant for the listed Puget Sound chinook, considering the distance that these fish are from home. Although salmon managers have taken significant steps to reduce the take of listed chinook, the fish are still caught in significant numbers along the coast and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Despite the ongoing harvest of threatened and endangered species, many of the fisheries taking these fish are certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international group. Most are also listed as “good alternatives” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

Nick Gayeski acknowledges that the “placed-based fishery” he is promoting cannot be accomplished overnight. Much of the salmon in Puget Sound are caught in fairly long gillnets, which ultimately kill the mixture of salmon caught in open waters.

Key criteria for place-based fishing include an assurance that essentially no fish are killed except for the target stock. If fishing close to the stream cannot offer that assurance, then the fishing gear must allow the non-target fish to be released without harm, according to an article by Nick along with Misty MacDuffee of Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Jack A. Stanford of the University of Montana. The paper, titled “Criteria for a good catch: A conceptual framework to guide sourcing of sustainable salmon fisheries,” was published this week in the scientific journal “Facets.”

Carefully managed set nets, which are gillnets usually attached to the shore, may allow for survival if the fish are removed within an hour or so, Nick told me. The big purse seines may also are able to save the non-target fish from harm if the net and the fish remain in the water while the crew removes and releases the non-target fish. Obviously, these aren’t the most efficient methods from a fisherman’s perspective.

Fixed gear that catches fish with little handling, such as reef nets, work well to protect the non-target fish, Nick said. Reef nets harken back to a time when fixed gear along the shore was more common. (See the first video above.)

Wild Fish Conservancy has been working with Patagonia, the sustainable clothing manufacturer, to find fishing operations that meet strict standards of protecting non-target fish. Because of the huge impact that food production has on the environment, Patagonia decided to go into the business five years ago with a line of food products called Patagonia Provisions. The video below is a short preview for a longer video called “Unbroken Ground.”

The first product sold was sockeye salmon caught with a set net in the Situk River estuary in the Gulf of Alaska, where nearly all of the sockeye are associated with the river. Other species are released unharmed.

More recently, Patagonia Provisions began buying pink salmon from a company called Lummi Island Wild, which operates a reef net on Lummi Island in northern Puget Sound. The reef net allows fish to be lifted gently out of the water. Any chinook or sockeye caught during the process are returned to the water unharmed.

The pink salmon taken in the operation are bled out immediately and placed on ice to produce the freshest fish possible.

“We think this is a good place to begin the educational process,” Nick said. “The fishers are handling the fish less and getting more money. We hope that restaurants and other retailers will see the value.”

Other fishing operations are under review by Wild Fish Conservancy to see if they can meet the stricter criteria.

Even if the fishing industry does not change overnight, when enough people purchase fish caught in place-based fisheries, it could reduce the pressure on endangered salmon trying to make it home to spawn while also providing some chinook to feed Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales.

“This is part of a transition,” Nick said. “It’s not only a down-the-road reconfiguration of West Coast salmon fishing but it involves long-term recovery of the wild runs.”

Can carefully planned fishing seasons help the endangered orcas?

Salmon harvests in Puget Sound have been shared between Indian and non-Indian fishermen since the 1970s, when the courts ruled that treaties guarantee tribal members half the total catch.

Now a third party — Puget Sound’s endangered orcas — could take a seat at the negotiations table, at least in a figurative sense, as their shortage of food becomes a critical issue.

It isn’t at all clear how fishing seasons could be structured to help the Southern Resident killer whales, but the issue was discussed seriously at some length yesterday, when the 2018 salmon forecasts were presented to sport and commercial fishers. Thus began the annual negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers to set up this year’s fishing seasons.

General areas, in blue, where fishing closures in British Columbia are planned to provide extra salmon for Southern Resident killer whales.
Map: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Penny Becker, a wildlife manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a steady decline in the body mass of the Southern Residents has been observed, as the population fell to a 30-year low of 76 animals. People are calling for emergency measures, she said, noting that both Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature are working on ideas to protect the whales. See Water Ways Feb. 23 and Water Ways Feb. 17 and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Nov. 2, 2017.

Concerns are running equally high in British Columbia, where the orcas spend much of their time in the Strait of Georgia. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has proposed an experiment with fishing closures this year in four areas frequented by the orcas:

  • Mouth of the Fraser River
  • West side of Pender Island
  • South side of Saturna Island, and
  • Strait of Juan de Fuca

“The primary objective of the proposed measures is to improve chinook salmon availability for SRKW by decreasing potential fishery competition, as well as minimizing physical and acoustic disturbance in key foraging areas to the extent possible,” states a “discussion paper” (PDF 1.9 mb) released Feb. 15.

The closures would be in place from May through September this year, with increased monitoring to measure potential benefits to the whales. Comments on the proposal are being taken until March 15.

Canadians also are working with ship owners to see if noise can be reduced significantly by slowing down large vessels moving through the Salish Sea. Previous studies have shown that noise reduces the ability of whales to communicate and to find food through echolocation. Experts are compiling the results of the “Haro Strait Vessel Slowdown Trial” conducted last year.

One bill in the Washington Legislature would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots when in the vicinity of killer whales.

Limiting fishing in specific areas of Puget Sound, such as the west side of San Juan Island, could be implemented through state-tribal negotiations, Penny said. The closures would occur during summer when chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — are in the area. One option would be to implement the closures on certain days of the week.

Some people have talked about giving the orcas a clean break from whale watchers, and that could involve excluding whale-watch boats from salmon-rich areas at the same time as the fishing closures.

“We’re looking for creative solutions to make this work within our constraints,” Penny told the group.

One fisherman at the meeting said every person on the water should automatically turn off his motor and sit still when whales are approaching. It’s a courtesy to help the killer whales find fish, he said, and anyway the fish are not going to bite on one’s line while whales are around. Generally, they don’t stay long in one place.

One bill in the Legislature would help the Southern Residents by increasing hatchery production of chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Reaction to the idea has been mixed, because hatchery salmon have been known to affect the fitness and genetic makeup of wild salmon. If approved, the boost in hatchery production would likely be a temporary solution.

Sport fishermen generally like the idea of increased hatchery production, because they would be encouraged to catch all the hatchery fish not eaten by killer whales.

The hatchery bill, HB 2417, was approved unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. No further action has been taken so far, but its provisions could be attached to the supplementary budget with funds specified for hatchery production.

Tuesday’s meeting in Lacey launched the beginning of the negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers, a process known as North of Falcon. The name comes the fishery management area from Cape Falcon in Oregon north to the Canadian border. The full schedule of meetings and related documents can be found on the WDFW website.

Forecasts approved by WDFW and the tribes predict poor returns of several salmon stocks this year in Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River, resulting in limited fishing opportunities.

“We will definitely have to be creative in developing salmon fisheries this year,” Kyle Adicks, salmon policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “I encourage people to get involved and provide input on what they see as the priorities for this season’s fisheries.”

Warm ocean conditions and low streamflows in recent years affected several salmon stocks returning this year. As ocean conditions return to normal, experts hope for improved salmon runs in years to come.

A total of about 557,000 coho returning to Puget Sound is about 6 percent below the average over the past 10 years. Extremely low numbers predicted for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Snohomish River are expected to force managers to limit fishing in those areas.

While hatchery chinook returning to Puget Sound are expected to be 38 percent higher than last year, the need to protect “threatened” wild chinook could mean ongoing fishing restrictions in many areas.

Next month, NOAA, which oversees threatened and endangered species, is expected to provide guidance for managing this year’s fisheries, including possible discussions about protecting Southern Resident killer whales.

A 10-year “Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook” is scheduled to be resubmitted this summer in response to comments received from NOAA on the first draft.

Plans for protecting Puget Sound chinook and Southern Resident killer whales have begun to overlap in major ways, as saving one involves saving the other.

Pesticides and salmon: Can we see a light at the end of the tunnel?

Once again, the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined in official findings that three common pesticides — chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion — raise the risk of extinction for threatened and endangered salmon.

A crop duster sprays pesticide on a field near an irrigation ditch.
Photo: NOAA/USFWS

By extension, for the first time, the agency also concluded that those same pesticides threaten Puget Sound’s endangered orca population by putting their prey — chinook and other salmon — at risk.

This politically and legally charged issue — which has been around for more than 15 years — has gone beyond a debate over potential harm from pesticides. It also raises uncomfortable questions about whether our society will follow science as we try to solve environmental problems.

The immediate finding of “jeopardy” — meaning that the three pesticides pose a risk of extinction — comes in a biological opinion (PDF 415.6 mb) that is more than 3,700 pages long and covers not just salmon but, for the first time, dozens of other marine species on the Endangered Species List.

The report follows a scientific methodology for assessing the effects of pesticides that arises from suggestions by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS report (PDF 14.2 mb) attempted to reconcile differing methods of assessing risk that had been used by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS.

EPA’s original assessment raised no concerns about the effect of these pesticides on the survival of salmon populations. The original lawsuit by environmental groups forced the EPA to “consult” with NMFS, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The result was the first jeopardy finding in 2008. For background, see Water Ways, Aug. 11, 2008, in which I reported that the long wait for regulatory action on pesticides may be about over. Little did I know.

The biological opinion, or BiOp for short, examines both the direct harms to species exposed to pesticides — such as effects on behavior, reproduction and immune function — as well as indirect effects — such as whether the pesticides wipe out insects needed for the fish to eat.

The new BiOp is considered a pilot study for future pesticide assessments.

“Notably,” states the document, “this Opinion represents the first consultation using newly developed approaches and the first to assess all listed species throughout the U.S., its territories, and protectorates. Future Opinions regarding pesticides may utilize different analyses and approaches as the interagency consultation effort proceeds.”

The next step is for the EPA to restrict the use of the pesticides to reduce the risks for salmon and other species. Among suggested measures, the BiOp says those who use pesticides must limit the total amount of chemicals applied in high-risk areas, such as streams. No-spray buffers or similar alternatives are suggested.

Interim no-spray buffers, established by the courts, will remain in effect until the EPA takes action. The interim buffers were put on, taken off, and are back on as a result of the lengthy court battle between the agencies and environmental groups. Pesticide manufacturers have weighed in, arguing about the need for pesticides without undue restrictions.

The Trump administration asked the court for a two-year delay in the release of the BiOp, but NMFS ultimately met the deadline when the judge failed to rule on the request in time to make a difference.

I discussed some of the ongoing intrigue and a bit of history in a Water Ways post last August, after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed course on an impending ban on chlorpyrifos. The proposed ban, approved during the Obama administration, came in response to studies that showed how the chemical could adversely affect children’s brains.

Although it took legal action to get to this point, agency and independent scientists have worked together to study the problem and come up with solutions. The question now is whether policymakers and politicians will take reasonable steps to reduce the risks based upon these findings, which are complex, evolving and rarely definitive for all time.

As I was going back through the blog posts I’ve written about pesticides, I recalled that President George W. Bush wanted to limit scientific consultations in an effort to streamline the regulatory process — much as President Trump’s people are doing today. Check out Water Ways from March 4, 2009, which shows a video of President Obama reversing the Bush policy and speaking out for increased input from scientists.

When it comes to human health and the environment, it is good to remember that without the work of scientists, many species throughout the world would have been wiped out long ago. Human cancer, disease and brain impairment would be far worse today without regulations based on scientific findings. Science can tell us about the risk of pesticides and other threats to salmon and orcas. But knowledge is not enough. People must take reasonable actions to protect themselves and the environment. And so the story goes on.

Last week, Earthjustice, which represents environmental groups in the legal battle, released the biological opinion, which had been sent by NOAA as part of the legal case. The group posted links to the document and related information in a news release. As far as I know, nobody in the Trump administration has spoken about the findings.

Could we ever reverse the trend of shrinking Chinook salmon?

Much has been said about the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon. Often the discussion focuses on how to increase the salmon population, but I believe a good case can be made for increasing the size of these once-mighty “kings.”

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for larger Chinook, not the least of which is the pure joy of seeing — and perhaps catching — a giant salmon. But I’m also thinking about our endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which don’t seem to find Puget Sound very hospitable anymore. As we know, the whales favor Chinook over any other food.

While it might take more energy for a killer whale to chase down a large Chinook versus a smaller one, the payoff in nutrition and energy far outweighs the expenditure, according to Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, who has been thinking about the size issue for some time.

In terms of competition, a giant returning Chinook might be difficult for a harbor seal to handle, and that could give the orcas a special advantage. Still, we are learning that harbor seals create problems for the Chinook population by eating millions of tiny smolts migrating to the ocean before they get a chance to grow up.

Perhaps the major reason that Chinook have declined in size is the troll fishing fleet off the coast of Alaska and Northern Canada, Jacques told me. It is almost simple math. It takes six, seven or eight years to grow the really large Chinook in the ocean. Today’s fishing fleet goes out into the middle of the Chinook-rearing areas up north. The longer the fishing boats stay there, the more likely it is that they will catch a fish that could have grown into a really big one.

Years ago, the fishing boats did not travel so far out to sea, Jacques said. There was no need to travel far when plentiful runs of salmon came right into the shore and swam up the rivers.

“In the old days,” he said, “you didn’t have people risking their necks off Alaska trying to catch fish in all kinds of weather and seas.”

In additional to the trollers, plenty of sport fishermen have taken the opportunity to catch and take home nice trophy fish, putting extra pressure on the biggest members of the fish population. Fishing derbies, past and present, challenged people to catch the biggest Chinook.

Long Live the Kings, a conservation group, once held fishing derbies, Jacques noted. But, after giving it some thought, everyone realized that the effort was counterproductive. “Long Live the Kings is now out of the derby business,” he said.

Gillnets, once common in Puget Sound, entrap fish by snagging their gills. Gillnets tend not to catch the truly giant salmon, because of the mesh size, but they do catch the larger salmon. Often only the smaller ones make it through to spawn — and that breeds another generation of small fish.

Fishing is not the only factor that tends to favor the survival of small fish, but it tends to be a big factor, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. The issue is complicated, and every salmon run has its own characteristics, he said.

Hatcheries, dams and habitat alterations all tend to favor fish that can compete and survive under new conditions, and often those conditions work better for smaller fish. Changes in the food web may create a nutritional deficit for some salmon stocks, and competition at sea with large numbers of hatchery fish may be a factor. Check out the study in the journal Plos One by researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, I’m hoping that experts can make sure that the conditions will be right for larger fish — if they can survive to make it home.

Quinn, along with doctoral student Michael Tillotson, recently published a paper showing how fishing seasons alone can alter the genetic makeup of a population along with the behavior of individual fish.

Although these characteristics are not necessarily related to the size of fish, it directly affects the fitness of the population. When people are fishing on wild stocks during open season, a fish has the best chance of survival if it shows up before the fishing season begins or after the fishing season is over. But that is not nature’s way.

Through evolution, the greatest number of fish tend to come back when environmental conditions are optimal for migration, spawning and smolt survival. If fishing seasons are timed for the peak of the run, that will reduce the percentage of fish taking advantage of the best conditions. Over time, the population gets skewed, as more fish come back during times when conditions are less than optimal.

The result is likely a lower survival rate for the overall population. The real crunch could come in the future as a result of climate change. If temperatures or streamflows become more severe, the fish may be in a no-win situation: If they show up at the most optimal time, they are more likely to get caught. if they come early or late, the environment could kill them or ruin their chances of successful spawning.

“We are reducing the ability of fish to find good environmental conditions,” said Michael Tillotson in a UW news release about the new paper. “We’re perhaps also reducing the ability of fish to adapt to climate change.”

Certain behaviors are bred into wild fish over many generations, and some traits are connected to their timing. Whether they feed aggressively or passively can affect their survival. Some salmon will wait for rain; others will wait for the right streamflow or temperature. Some smolts will stay in freshwater for extended periods; others will move quickly to saltwater. It’s not a great idea when fishing seasons, rather than environmental conditions, dictate fish behavior.

The move to mark-selective fishing — which involves removing the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before they are released — can help solve some problems for wild fish, Tom told me. Under selective fishing rules, fishers are allowed to keep the hatchery fish with a missing fin, but they must release the wild ones that still have all their fins. Some of the wild fish die from injury, but most of them survive, he said.

The key to the problem is a better understanding of the genetic makeup of the individual stocks while increasing the effort to maintain a high-level of genetic diversity. That’s an insurance policy that allows the fish to survive changing conditions.

The genes for giant Chinook have not been lost entirely, as I pointed out in Water Ways on Nov. 25. If we want to have larger Chinook, we must protect the individual Chinook that are larger. That could mean reduced ocean fishing, selective fishing for hatchery populations, and requirements to release fish larger than a certain size. Perhaps it would even be possible to selectively breed larger Chinook in a hatchery for a limited time to increase the size of the fish.

It won’t be easy, because these notions involve messing with billions of dollars in the fishing industry, not to mention complicated international relations. I will save discussions about the Pacific Salmon Treaty for another day. I will just say that this treaty is supposed to be between the U.S. and Canada. But negotiations involve tradeoffs among Washington, Canada and Alaska. Even the Endangered Species Act can’t always protect wild Puget Sound Chinook from being caught in Alaska, with the ultimate outcome that fewer fish make it home to spawn.

What would it take to restore the legendary Chinook salmon?

Giant Chinook salmon of 50 pounds or more have not yet faded into legend, as operators of a salmon hatchery in Central British Columbia, Canada, can tell you.

Ted Walkus, a hereditary chief of the Wuikinuxv First Nation, holds a Chinook salmon caught this year for the Percy Walkus Hatchery on the Wannock River in Central British Columbia.
Photo: Percy Walkus Hatchery

The annual spawning effort at the Percy Walkus Hatchery on the Wannock River involves catching Chinook as they move upstream rather than waiting for them to arrive at the hatchery. This year, fishing crews brought home a remarkably large fish that has lived long and prospered. The progeny of this fish will be returned to the river from the hatchery to continue the succession of large Chinook.

These big fish compare to the massive Chinook that once made their way up the Elwha River and other major salmon streams of Puget Sound. Knowing that these big fish still exist provides hope that we might someday see such large salmon on the Elwha, following the recent removal of two dams and ongoing habitat restoration.

Large, powerful Chinook are suited to large, powerful streams. Big chinook can fight their way through swifter currents, jump up larger waterfalls and protect their eggs by laying deeper redds. Experts aren’t sure that the conditions are right for large Chinook to return to the Elwha, but many are hopeful. I explored this idea in a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in 2010.

As for the two-year-old Percy Walkus Hatchery, big fish are not uncommon in the Wannock River, as you can see in the hatchery’s Facebook photo gallery. By spawning both large and smaller salmon, the hatchery hopes to rebuild the once-plentiful numbers of Chinook in the system. Involved in the project are the Wuikinuxv First Nation along with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and others.

Ted Walkus, a hereditary chief of the Wuikinuxv and the man featured in the photo on this page, said the largest fish need to remain part of the gene pool for the hatchery and the river. That’s why volunteers go out into the river to take the brood stock. This year, 47 males and 47 females were spawned to produce more than 300,000 fertilized eggs.

“If you catch a 60-pound salmon and you keep it without breeding, that part of the gene pool eventually gets wiped out,” Walkus was quoted as saying in a CBC News report.

For similar reasons, some anglers choose to release their catch alive, if possible, after getting a photo of their big fish. The hope, of course, is that the fish will continue on and spawn naturally. In the hatchery, the genes will be passed on to more salmon when the progeny are released. Unfortunately, I was unable to quickly locate a facility management plan for the Percy Walkus Hatchery to see if anyone has projected the long-term effects of the hatchery.

Chet Gausta, middle, shows off the big fish he caught off Sekiu in 1964. Chet's younger brother Lloyd, left, and his uncle Carl Knutson were with him on the boat.
Photo courtesy of Poulsbo Historical Society/Nesby

Big fish are genetically inclined to stay at sea five, six or seven years rather than returning after four years. They must avoid being caught in fishing nets and on fishing lines during their migration of up to 1,000 miles or more before making it back home to spawn.

Perhaps you’ve seen historical black-and-white photos of giant Chinook salmon taken near the mouth of the Elwha River. Like the giant Chinook of the Wannock River, some of these fish are nearly as long as a grown man is tall. Catching them with rod and reel must be a thrill of a lifetime.

Some of those giants — or at least their genes — may still be around. The largest Chinook caught and officially weighed in Washington state dates back to 1964. The 70-pound monster was caught off Sekiu by Chester “Chet” Gausta of Poulsbo, who I wrote about upon his death in 2012. See Water Ways, Feb. 3, 2012. His photo is the second on this page.

There’s something to be said for releasing salmon over a certain size, and that goes for commercial fishing as well as sport fishing. Gillnets, for example, target larger fish by using mesh of a certain size, say 5 inches. Smaller fish can get through the nets, spawn in streams and produce the next generation — of smaller fish.

The genetic effects of removing the larger fish along with the effects of taking fish during established fishing seasons artificially “selects” (as Darwin would say) for fish that are smaller and sometimes less fit. Some researchers are using the term “unnatural selection” to describe the long-term effects of fishing pressure. I intend to write more about this soon and also discuss some ideas for better managing the harvest to save the best fish for the future.

Rains bring chum salmon back to their home streams

Salmon appear to be on the move in several local streams, thanks to the recent rains and increased streamflows. Wetter conditions no doubt triggered some of the migratory fish to head back to their spawning grounds.

A pair of chum salmon make it up Dickerson Creek, a tributary of Chico Creek. // Video: Jack Stanfill

It is still a little early in the season for coho and chum salmon to be fully involved in spawning activity, and there is plenty of time for people to get out and observe their amazing migration.

Salmon-watching is often a hit-or-miss situation, although Chico Creek is usually the best bet. After hearing several reports of chum moving upstream, I went out this afternoon to look in several local streams. Unfortunately, I did not get there before the rains stopped. What I saw in Chico Creek and other streams was fish milling about in deep pools, seemingly in no hurry to move upstream. Additional rains and streamflows are likely to get the fish fired up to move in and upstream more quickly.

Jack Stanfill, who lives on Dickerson Creek, a tributary of Chico Creek, said at least two adult chum reached his property today. Several restoration projects along Dickerson Creek probably helped the fish get upstream earlier than we have seen in previous years.

Jon Oleyar, who monitors the salmon migration for the Suquamish Tribe, told me that chum don’t normally get into Dickerson Creek until two weeks after they get into the upper reaches of Chico Creek. “This might be one of the earliest times ever,” Jon said.

As for other streams, the tribal biologist said he has seen early chum in Curley and Blackjack creeks in South Kitsap.

Viewing suggestions for this weekend:

  • Chico Creek: Chico Salmon Park (Facebook) along with a location just above the culvert under Golf Club Hill Road off Chico Way. Also check out the bridge near the 19th Hole Tavern on Erland Point Road and the access at the end of Kittyhawk Drive.
  • Dickerson Creek: Salmon Haven overlook on Taylor Road, off Northlake Way.
  • Curley Creek: Bridge on Southworth Drive near the intersection with Banner Road.
  • Blackjack Creek: A new bridge at Etta Turner Park between Port Orchard Ford and Westbay Center on Bay Street.
  • Gorst Creek: Otto Jarstad Park on Belfair Valley Road, where a new beaver dam has created a sizable pool of water, The dam may be limiting the migration of coho and perhaps blocking most of the chum.

Note for salmon-watchers: This year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours will be held in two weeks, on Saturday, Nov. 4. This year, the popular event has been expanded to seven locations. For details, go to the Kitsap WSU Extension website.

It appears that the chum coming into streams on the Kitsap Peninsula this year are noticeably larger in size than normal, perhaps in the 10- to 10.5-pound range, Jon Oleyar told me. That exceeds the normal 8- to 10-pound size for chum, he said.

Orca Network reported today that some of our Southern Resident killer whales have been foraging this week off the Kitsap Peninsula as well as in other areas not easily identified because of the dark, stormy weather we have had. Let’s hope the orcas can find enough food to stick around awhile.

On Sunday, a small group of whales from L pod showed up in the San Juan Islands for the first time this year. Normally, these whales — L-54 and her offspring along with males L-84 and L-88 — would be seen numerous times during the summer, but this was a highly unusually year. They were seen this week with J pod, which hasn’t been around much either.

On Monday, reports of orcas near Kingston and Edmonds suggested that the whales had moved south. They were later spotted near Seattle and then again near Kingston on Tuesday, when they headed out of Puget Sound by evening.

It is often said that the orcas will go where the salmon are. They are known to prefer chinook when their favorite fish are available, but they will switch to chum after the chinook run is over. It will be interesting to how much time the whales spend in Central and South Puget Sound, where chum are more plentiful.

The total number of chum salmon predicted this year — including those harvested along the way — is expected to be lower than last year. Still, there is hope that the preseason forecast will be exceeded by the actual return. The total predicted for Central and South Puget Sound is 433,000 chum, with 85 percent returning to streams and 15 percent coming back to hatcheries.

Last year, the total predicted run was 526,000 chum, about 21 percent higher than this year. Typically, the number of chum returning in odd-numbered years is lower than in even-numbered years, other things being equal. That’s because odd-numbered years is when the vast majority of pink salmon spawn, resulting in increased competition and lower survival for the young chum. Smaller numbers of juveniles mean fewer adult chum that return four years later during another odd-numbered year, continuing the cycle.

Most of the difference between last year’s and this year’s chum run can be accounted for in the odd- versus even-numbered years, said Aaron Default of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It is too early in the season to update the preseason forecast based on commercial and tribal fishing that has taken place so far, Aaron said. As usual, fishing seasons are likely to be adjusted up or down when more information becomes available. The main goal is to make sure that enough fish make it back to sustain and potentially increase the salmon population.