Tag Archives: Union River estuary

Why are salmon dying when they reach saltwater?

A new research program, announced yesterday, will work to untangle the mystery of what is killing young salmon after they leave their natal streams. The program is being coordinated in both Washington state and British Columbia — by Long Live the Kings on the U.S. side and by Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada. See today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required).

At high tide, water now covers what had been a farmer’s field after an old farm dike was breached in two places on Monday. Two bridges allow continued access along a trail across the dike. Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt
At high tide, water now covers what had been a farmer’s field for decades on the Union River estuary near Belfair. On Monday, an old farm dike was breached in two places. Estuaries are considered important for salmon survival. / Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

I have conducted hundreds of interviews about salmon through the years. Biologists can usually explain what makes a good salmon stream: clean water, sufficient gravel, vegetation to provide food, woody debris to provide protection and so on.

What they cannot explain very well is what young salmon need to survive in saltwater. Is it clean water, as in freshwater environments? Is it a particular kind of plankton for food, or maybe natural shorelines to provide protection during migration? Is the increased marine mortality of salmon the result of disease or predators? All may be factors, but which ones really count?

When asked to explain why salmon runs are coming in larger or smaller than predicted, salmon managers typically fall back to two words: “ocean conditions.” Conditions may be good or bad in a given year, but what makes good or bad conditions cannot be answered very well.

Biologists who predict salmon runs talk about the “black box” that salmon swim into when they leave the streams and swim back out of when they return. It’s a way of saying that the computer models used to predict salmon runs have a blind spot when it comes to the deep, dark ocean — which we now believe includes the estuary at the edge of the stream, where the salmon change from being a freshwater fish to being a saltwater fish.

“What is currently recognized as a black box appears to be a black hole for salmon recovery,” Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings, told me yesterday in an interview. “If we don’t know what is going on, we can’t make decisions for salmon recovery. It makes it difficult to manage the stocks coming back.”

That’s where the cross-border research program comes in, and it’s no wonder that salmon biologists are excited about the prospect of breaking into the black box. It won’t be easy to track the tiny fish after they leave the streams or to figure out where things are going wrong, but new technology will help. The project is proposed for $10 million in the U.S., with an equal amount in Canada.

Review the Long Live the Kings website for other information about the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. To go deeper into the ideas behind the project, download the proceedings, notes and other information from November’s Salish Sea Workshop Series.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve estuarine and shoreline conditions will continue, using natural conditions as a guide. On Monday, I covered the final step in the Union River estuary restoration, which involved breaching an old farm dike in two places. I watched as the waters of Hood Canal, held back for a century, began to reclaim 32 acres of saltwater march. Check out the story and video in the Kitsap Sun (subscription required).

Shoreline projects gradually restore Puget Sound

We’ve been writing a lot lately about shoreline restoration projects. As with road construction, it seems that the heaviest lifting on restoration projects gets going as summer draws to a close.

About 1,500 feet of bulkhead on Port Madison is being removed by the Powel family with help from Puget Sound Partnership and Bainbridge Island Land Trust. / Photo by Tad Sooter

Notable projects on the Kitsap Peninsula:

Judging from the comments on the stories, some people don’t believe the government should be spending money on environmental restoration when the state and nation are in an economic slump.

Two years ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire made it clear that she believed that the economic troubles did not outweigh the ongoing risks to Puget Sound. I quoted her in the Kitsap Sun Oct. 15, 2010:

Removing an aging bulkhead on Dyes Inlet is expected to improve nearshore habitat at Anna Smith Children’s Park.
Photo by Christina Kereki, Kitsap County

“We are in the hardest economic problem since the deep depression, but we cannot take a recess; we cannot take time out (from the Puget Sound cleanup).”

Investing in cleanup efforts to repair past problems is one thing, the governor said, but the solution is not just costly restoration projects:

“It comes down to individuals like us. We are all part of the problem and we can all be part of the solution.”

She was talking about reducing stormwater pollution by being careful with household and lawn chemicals, car washing, oil and oil leaks, pet waste and other things.

When it comes to restoration projects, it turns out that the recession was actually a good time to begin many of these costly projects. As I reported in “Water Ways” on Oct. 21, 2010, the economic stimulus package approved by Congress helped pay for more than 600 projects directed to Puget Sound problems. The projects carried a price tag of about $460 million and created nearly 16,000 jobs.

The economic downturn also turned out to be good timing in another way. Construction companies hungry for work offered much lower bids than they would have during economic boom times. In many cases, including the Union River estuary project, bids are still coming in at the low end of cost projections.

Property owners who wish to restore their streams and shorelines are getting help from the government and nonprofit groups. In most cases, these projects would not get done by the property owners alone.

The $460,000 Powel bulkhead removal, for example, became a partnership between the Powel family, the Bainbridge Island Land Trust and the Puget Sound Partnership. The partnership’s new executive director, Anthony Wright, stated in a news release:

“It’s exciting to see everyone coming together to do some good for Puget Sound. Puget Sound is going to be healthy again because of people like the Powel family, the land trust and regulatory entities all working together.”

Some people doubt that the restoration projects are doing much good. Some say they simply are not worth the cost. But experts who have studied nearshore ecosystems argue that the ecological connections along the shoreline have been so severely disrupted that restoration is the best hope of saving the Puget Sound ecosystem.

I’ve heard people say that science does not support these kinds of restoration efforts. That’s an opinion not held by most experts, but if you are willing to do some reading, you can come to your own conclusions.

Some of the leading experts in our region have been taking part in the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project, which includes a website of technical reports and plans. If you’re a fan of science, like me, you may feel like a kid in a candy shop as you peruse the many reports.

I would recommend the following as a beginning:

The pair of explanatory drawings below is taken from a chapter of the “State of the Science” report mentioned above. See Fish and Invertebrate Response to Shoreline Armoring and Restoration in Puget Sound (PDF 440 KB) by Jason D. Toft, Jeffery R. Cordell, Sarah M. Heerhartz, Elizabeth A. Armbrust, and Charles A. Simenstad.