Salmon and steelhead face many obstacles on the road to recovery – sometimes quite literally. In order to better understand how physical obstacles impact the survival of salmonids, it’s important to remember that salmonids depend on intact habitat spanning thousands of miles. When human-made structures block, delay, or reduce even a relatively small part of their habitat, it can significantly impact their whole migration.
Two of the most well-known obstacles are dams and road culverts, which can both restrict access to habitat. Other human-made obstacles can also have big impacts on fish. The Hood Canal Bridge is one local example of an obstacle to salmonid migration.
Steelhead traveling through Hood Canal towards the Pacific Ocean encounter the Hood Canal Bridge which carries State Route 104 across the Canal’s northern outlet, connecting the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas. The bridge floats on pontoons that span 83% of the width of Hood Canal and extend 15 feet underwater. The same fish tracking data used to create Survive the Sound show that over half the juvenile steelhead that reach the bridge do not survive to reach the Pacific Ocean. The bridge is acting as a migration barrier, delaying fish as the try to find a way around it. Up to half of the juvenile steelhead that make it to the bridge won’t survive past it. This level of mortality is alarming, and observations indicate that other salmonids, including Chinook and chum salmon, are also affected by the bridge.
Compared to dams and culverts, it’s less obvious how a floating bridge could affect the survival of migrating fish. Most ask: why don’t they just swim under it? To answer this question, LLTK and our partners are conducting an assessment to pinpoint how steelhead are dying at the bridge and implement solutions to address the problem. By gathering data on noise and light levels, predator densities, and water currents and comparing those data with the tracking data seen in Survive the Sound, we are able to isolate variables contributing to mortality. Findings indicate that the bridge creates conditions and habitat that gives a substantial advantage to predators – steelhead that reach the bridge are at high risk of being eaten before they can navigate around or underneath the physical structure. Phase 1 of the assessment is complete and you can read the full report here or the illustrated summary here.
We have long understood that human-made structures can have unintended consequences on the environment. The trouble is, we keep discovering new ways this is happening. Realizing that this cycle will continue, it’s important for us to constantly research and test innovative solutions.
Luckily, many people are stepping up to the challenge of balancing human and fish habitat. The new Seattle seawall aims to improve salmon survival by mimicking the shallow mudflats that used to exist in that area. By creating an artificial sea floor, glass sidewalk panels, and habitat for plankton (salmon food), the new construction may improve juvenile salmon survival. Projects like these may help decrease the number of obstacles salmon face during their lives while still allowing humans to enjoy the same area.
Photo: Hood Canal Bridge, Hans Daubenberger – Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe
Sand lance, herring, and surf smelt are called ‘forage fish’ because many larger animals forage (feed) on them, including marine mammals, birds, salmon, and humans. Forage fish are generally small, silvery fish and can be found in large schools throughout Puget Sound. Research monitoring the health of forage fish populations is limited, but the information that is available shows a tragic downward trend for some important populations.
For instance, Cherry Point, an area north of Bellingham, once hosted the largest number of spawning herring in Puget Sound. Cherry Point herring abundance has plummeted 93% since 1973; there are very few Cherry Point herring left. This is bad news for the health of Puget Sound and the prospect of salmon recovery because these small fish hold an important place in our ecosystem.
Recent research from the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project indicates that forage fish are especially important to the success of Chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Not only are they a source of food for Chinook, but they also provide food for birds and marine mammals that might otherwise feed on juvenile salmon. This information suggests that to recover salmon, we have to look at problems more broadly across our ecosystem, especially forage fish health.
Herring need kelp, eelgrass, and other substrates lower in the tidal zone to lay their eggs on and cumulative human development activity is decreasing the prevalence of this habitat. Overwater structures, such as docks, prevent aquatic vegetation from growing by not allowing in enough sunlight. Some structures are also coated in toxic chemicals that kill herring eggs. Pollutants that aren’t associated with docks can also affect forage fish. For instance, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) generated primarily during the incomplete combustion of organic materials (e.g. coal, oil, petrol, and wood) can enter marine water directly or through stormwater inputs. Research shows that these pollutants can lead to reduced growth and cardiac defects in larval herring.
Sand lance and surf smelt depend on healthy, natural beaches to provide a place to spawn and protect their eggs until they hatch, but residential and commercial shoreline development has reduced the availability of spawning grounds. For instance, shoreline armoring or bulkheads, designed to protect property from erosion and flooding, can eliminate habitat by restricting access to spawning areas on the beach. They can also prevent natural sediment processes from occurring where erosion from the land replenishes the beach gravel needed for spawning habitat. Despite efforts by many organizations and landowners, we are still struggling to remove or replace bulkheads with engineered ‘natural shorelines.’
Sea level rise and ocean acidification are likely to reduce spawning habitat even further. As sea levels rise around our developed community, tidal habitat and marine vegetation available for spawning will decrease.
Forage fish spawning habitat is currently protected through regulatory documents, which take a “no net loss” approach. This means that shoreline development should not change the ecological function of the shoreline. It’s unclear whether this standard will be enough to protect forage fish habitat given the pressures of rapid development and our changing climate. This standard must be strictly enforced and complemented by restoration activities to be effective.
To improve the health of Puget Sound and salmon runs, an abundance of forage fish is critical and there are a number of complicated issues that threaten the health of these populations. Addressing these problems requires intensive monitoring efforts, stewardship from shoreline owners, strict regulations, and a willingness to try creative ideas. In December 2020, Long Live the Kings and the Nisqually Indian Tribe started a project testing how christmas trees could be used as herring spawning substrate in the estuary. If successful, the technique could be used more widely across Puget Sound to increase the amount of spawning herring.
Photo: Pacific Herring, Steve – Flickr
Zooplankton are tiny animals that float freely in the water column. They can move very short distances on their own, but are so small that they are mostly carried around by ocean currents. There are many types of zooplankton in Puget Sound, including copepods, amphipods, crab larvae, and euphausiids (krill) (Zooplankton in Puget Sound ID sheet). These animals are important food for juvenile salmon and forage fish like herring and anchovies.
Because zooplankton comprise the base of the marine food web and support healthy juvenile salmon populations, scientists need to understand what kinds of zooplankton and how many zooplankton are in Puget Sound. To meet this need, Long Live the Kings created a Puget Sound-wide zooplankton monitoring program through the collaboration of local governments, state agencies, and tribes. Researchers sample the zooplankton community twice a month during the juvenile salmon outmigration period (March through October).
Zooplankton are very sensitive to environmental change, so they are excellent indicators of ecosystem health. The metrics developed from data collected by the monitoring program are used to understand changes in the Puget Sound food web that might impact juvenile salmon and to provide guidance towards improved salmon harvest management and Puget Sound stewardship.
The zooplankton monitoring program has been extremely successful, collecting crucial data on environmental health and salmon survival indicators. For example, an environmental index developed from copepod abundance data has been closely linked to salmon survival. This new index is being used to improve forecasting models, which predict how many adult salmon will return to Puget Sound each year.
We need to continue collecting information on the Puget Sound zooplankton community over the long-term. Datasets that span many years allow researchers to understand environmental patterns and track ecosystem responses to changes in many factors like temperature, water chemistry, and pollution. Zooplankton data also show us how much food is available for juvenile salmon and whether that food is healthy for the fish. Continuing to collect Puget Sound zooplankton data is one crucial piece of successful salmon recovery.
Photo: Zooplankton, NOAA
It’s no secret that healthy habitat is critical to healthy salmon and steelhead runs, but restoring habitat is a daunting challenge and expense, often conflicting with human development ambitions. Despite the incredible resilience of salmon, habitat destruction is one of the most significant causes of their population decline. Humans have negatively impacted virtually every part of their vast habitat and we’ve been trying to correct past wrongs for decades.
Since 2005, there have been almost 6,000 salmon and steelhead restoration projects in Washington State. Those projects have worked on over 4,000 acres of estuary habitat, corrected 3,100 passage barriers, and improved over 10,000 acres of riparian land.
We’ve invested almost $982 million in habitat restoration projects since 1999. These efforts have created thousands of construction jobs, poured millions into local economies, and improved the safety and health of many communities. Yet, fewer than half of Washington’s 15 populations of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act are showing signs of improvement. That may not come as a surprise considering that our population has grown 30 percent since 1998 and salmon restoration efforts have only received 16 percent of the estimated funds needed to restore their habitat.
Acknowledging the large task of habitat restoration and restricted funding availability, Long Live the Kings (LLTK) conducts research to understand where best to focus our efforts to maximize effectiveness. The Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, an international research effort led by Long Live the Kings (U.S.) and the Pacific Salmon Foundation (Canada) to investigate poor survival of juvenile salmon and steelhead in the marine environment, has shed light on the importance of estuaries and nearshore habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon.
Estuaries, including the wetlands that surround them, are areas where freshwater meets saltwater. These areas are considered one of the most productive types of ecosystems in the world, providing critical habitat for many species. Nearshore habitat in the saltwater environment refers to the shallow waters near the shoreline, including the beach, intertidal, and subtidal zones. Estuaries and nearshore areas are important for juvenile salmon to rear, feed, migrate, and find shelter from predators.
Salish Sea Marine Survival Project researchers studied Chinook salmon populations in several Puget Sound watersheds. They looked at the scales of juvenile and adult fish to measure their growth and survival in Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. These data showed that in watersheds without intact estuaries, smaller fish disappeared from the population. This suggests that healthy estuaries protect small fish and allow them to survive better, which may improve overall adult returns to a watershed.
Estuary and nearshore habitats often fall victim to human development activities such as shoreline armoring, overwater structures (dock, piers, etc.), diking, dredging, and other activities which significantly reduce ecosystem functionality. Human infrastructure is necessary and valuable but we have prioritized easy development over environmental preservation for too long. It is important to remember that humans can improve the efficiency of our infrastructure, while the needs of our ecosystem are relatively unwavering. Adapting to our environment is a challenge that will pay off for generations.
Photo: Nisqually Estuary and Olympics, Eric Hall
LLTK’s Deputy Director, Michael Schmidt, made comments during a science update to the Washington State Departement of Fish and Wildlife Commission regarding the impact of pinnipeds in Puget Sound. This forum was considered a learning opportunity for the Commission and it was not making policy decisions or choosing a course of action. The session was officially described as: “Department staff will brief the Commission on recent analyses examining pinniped consumption of salmonids in Puget Sound and the Outer Coast. In addition, Department staff will brief the Commission regarding management options within the Marine Mammal Protection Act and associated pros and cons.”
Schmidt made the following comments:
Mr. Chairman and the rest of the Commission,
My name is Michael Schmidt. I’m the Deputy Director of Long Live the Kings, a nonprofit devoted to salmon recovery and sustainable fisheries. Since 2014, Long Live the Kings and the Pacific Salmon Foundation of Vancouver, BC have been coordinating the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. This international effort is to determine why juvenile Chinook, coho and steelhead are dying as they traverse the Salish Sea marine environment. This is a collaborative effort, with 60 state, tribal, federal, private, academic and NGO’s involved, including the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who plays a major role. We reported to the Commission on the steelhead portion of this effort a couple of years ago. To date, over $20M has been invested in 90 ecosystem studies occurring throughout the Salish Sea. This includes some of the seal research you will hear about today.
The science is suggesting harbor seals are playing a substantial role in Chinook mortality in Puget Sound, and we agree it’s an important issue to contend with; however, we ask that you keep in mind the following as you listen today:
We are learning there are likely several factors affecting Chinook survival, and their impacts are likely cumulative. Limited estuary habitat, contaminants, variation in prey, low abundance of herring and pacific sand lance, competition with pink salmon, and hatchery rearing and release strategies all may be playing a role.
When considering how to address the impacts of harbor seals, we ask that you maintain an ecosystem perspective. Past and new research have brought additional hypotheses to the forefront, suggesting that the low abundance of forage fish, migration barriers like the Hood Canal Bridge or Ballard Locks, artificial haulouts, and the consolidation of hatchery release timing across the Salish Sea could be exacerbating seal predation.
We agree we must not wait too long to act, but we ask that you support the Department and their partners in their process to collect and refine the data that will help define a path forward. Ongoing and proposed studies will help clarify the level of impact seals are having, where we should be most concerned, and what options, from an ecosystem perspective, we may have for addressing the issue.
Finally, we ask that, with any action you pursue to increase the number of Chinook returning to Puget Sound, you continue the science, you monitor the effectiveness, and you adjust accordingly based on results. In ecosystem management, all actions are experiments.
The full session can be viewed on TVW.
Featured image from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
Long Live the Kings is proud to have forged a partnership with Ray’s Boathouse and Café. Now stronger together, we will work to move our mission forward to recover wild salmon and steelhead, and support sustainable fishing.
To help achieve that mission, and serve the community with the finest local seafood, Ray’s will do what they always have, source and harvest salmon sustainably. But with this partnership their commitment deepens beyond the fish they serve, they are joining in hands-on recovery work in the field. They are learning about the issues facing salmon to become educated ambassadors, able to impart the ways we can all be better stewards of these icons. And they are providing essential funding that allow us to continue our research and recovery efforts in Puget Sound, and beyond.
With a rapidly growing human population and economy, we believe it is critical that the business community, especially those tied so closely to the fate of our salmon and steelhead, actively protect the resource to help ensure that this continues to be a special place where salmon thrive.
We extend a deep thanks Ray’s Boathouse and Café for their desire to do good, and dig into the collaborative work necessary to restore our salmon and steelhead.
SEATTLE (November 14, 2018) –The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) today announced $742,000 in grants to help stabilize and recover the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population through projects on the Skagit and Snohomish rivers, around the San Juan Islands, and throughout the Salish Sea. The grants will generate just over $1 million in matching contributions for a total conservation impact of more than $1.78 million.
The grants were awarded through the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program (KWRCP), a partnership between NFWF, SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., Shell Oil Company, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and NOAA Fisheries. These investments directly support recommendations in a September draft report from Southern Resident Orca Task Force appointed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
“While I have not yet received the official recommendations from the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, I have no doubt that the grants announced today are a positive development,” said Governor Jay Inslee of Washington. “One of the clear challenges facing orcas is smaller salmon runs leading to less available prey, and these projects seek to reverse this decline and provide a healthier future for Southern Residents.”
The 74 Southern Resident killer whales prey on salmon and other fish, but especially prefer Chinook salmon. The six grants announced today support projects to increase the production, survival, and size of Chinook salmon from runs that NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have identified as critical to the Southern Resident killer whales.
“Saving this apex species is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, as the Governor’s task force has made clear,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “It is only through partnerships supporting a comprehensive approach to conservation that we will be able to reverse the decline of this iconic species of the Pacific Northwest.”
These projects include extensive monitoring to learn how fish hatcheries can best produce the largest salmon when and where the whales most need it, while also protecting wild populations from genetic risks. Projects also include habitat restoration to increase rearing habitat for juvenile fish and carrying capacity for the prioritized Chinook runs, some of which are also imperiled by habitat loss and other factors.
“We are extremely grateful for the support of NFWF and our other partners in funding these critical efforts to improve the health of Southern Resident killer whales over the short and long term,” said Scott Rumsey, Deputy Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “The status of the Southern Resident population is critical, and we all must double down on our efforts to recover these whales and repair the ecosystem they depend on. These grants will advance critical monitoring to better understand how we can improve prey availability in the near term, while also investing in habitat restoration and protection needed for the sustainable recovery of the Southern Residents and the greater Salish Sea ecosystem.”
The KWRCP also supports cutting-edge science, including genetic research, acoustic monitoring and vessel surveys. This research will provide managers with the information and tools they need to help killer whales overcome the threats of pollutants and contaminants in the water, noise, vessel traffic, and lack of prey.
“Focusing on both population and habitat protection is crucial in the recovery of these killer whales. Through these partnerships, and the programs they support through the KWRCP, we are able to address the most critical issues facing this population,” said Dr. Christopher Dold, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld. “Conserving oceans and protecting the animals that live there has been at the core of SeaWorld’s mission for more than 50 years, and we’re honored to continue to support these vital conservation efforts.”
Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005, and NOAA Fisheries has highlighted the population as one of eight national “Species in the Spotlight ,” at greatest risk of extinction. While the population of Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia, which also prey on salmon, is healthy and growing, the 74 Southern Residents have fallen to their lowest number in more than 30 years. The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program works to understand why the population has failed to recover and takes steps identified in the recovery plan to bring this population back from the brink.
“We are proud to be part of this collaborative effort through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support regional research and conservation efforts aimed to support the recovery of a species that is iconic to the Salish Sea and the cultural heritage of the Pacific Northwest,” said Shirley Yap, Puget Sound Refinery General Manager, Shell Oil Company.
A complete list of the 2018 grants made through the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program is available here.
For more information about the Governor’s Task Force, please see this link.
About the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
Chartered by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) protects and restores the nation’s fish, wildlife, plants and habitats. Working with federal, corporate and individual partners, NFWF has funded more than 4,500 organizations and generated a conservation impact of more than $4.8 billion. Learn more at www.nfwf.org.
About NOAA Fisheries
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources and their habitat. We provide vital services for the nation: productive and sustainable fisheries, safe sources of seafood, the recovery and conservation of protected resources, and healthy ecosystems—all backed by sound science and an ecosystem-based approach to management. Find out more at www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov.
About SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.
SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., supports two initiatives at the Foundation that focus on coastal and marine resources, the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program and the Ocean Health Initiative. The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program funds efforts to advance the knowledge and conservation of killer whales with a primary focus on activities that aid in the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and the Northern Pacific Resident population. The Ocean Health Initiative works through other Foundation programs to support a portfolio of projects that bolster the health of threatened marine and coastal species and habitats while engaging communities in these conservation efforts. For more information, visit SeaWorldCares.com.
About Shell Oil Company
Shell Oil Company is an affiliate of the Royal Dutch Shell plc, a global group of energy and petrochemical companies with operations in more than 70 countries. In the U.S., Shell operates in 50 states and employs more than 20,000 people working to help tackle the challenges of the new energy future.
Environmental stewardship is one way Shell has continued to share benefits with communities over the past 100 years. Since 1999, Shell has focused our partnerships with many organizations in the U.S. to protect more than 13 million acres of wetlands, clean and remove 600,000 pounds of debris from shoreline, and conserve more than 1.8 million acres of critical habitat.
Finding solutions to save the resident orcas and the salmon they depend on.
By Emily Crawford, published originally in Harbor’s Magazine.
On a crisp fall afternoon, the big leaf maples are splashes of gold on the high bluffs of San Juan Island. Hiking the rugged coastline between the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park and the crescent beach of Deadman Bay, we keep an eye out for the island’s most charismatic members, the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Despite their frequent appearances in Haro Strait and along the island’s famed west side, the whales face steep odds. Last July, one grieving orca, J35, demonstrated this to the world when she carried her deceased calf through her home waters for more than two weeks, during what should have been a season of abundance for her newborn.
The plight of J35, also known as Tahlequah, and her relatives in the J, K, and L pods, increased the spotlight and pressure on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force designated by an executive order from Governor Inslee last spring. The Task Force is charged with preparing a comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering the Southern Residents, with a full draft due by October 1, 2018.
The population of the Southern Residents is at an all-time low of 74 members, according to the Center for Whale Research located in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. The organization has studied the population since 1976. The loss of J35’s calf – the first born in three years to the resident orcas – places the survival of the Southern Residents on a precipice.
A severe lack of the preferred diet of the Southern Residents, mostly Chinook salmon, along with increased vessel noise and traffic, and rising levels of toxins in their home waters, have created a triple threat in a battle the orcas are losing, said Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings (LLTK), a science-based organization working to recover endangered salmon and steelhead. More concerning is the Southern Residents are currently heavily dependent upon the success of our hatchery production. “About 70-80% of the Chinook returning to Washington waters were born in hatcheries,” White said.
As a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, White and LLTK scientists provide technical expertise to the larger group and to a working group focused on how best to increase prey availability for the Southern Residents.
For the last several decades, LLTK has worked to recover wild salmon and reform hatchery practices to prevent negative impacts on wild fish. Their work has brought several salmon populations back from the brink of extinction, while establishing sustainable fishing opportunities to meet harvest obligations. Along the way, LLTK has contributed to the food supply for the Southern Residents.
Now, LLTK is focused on providing hard-won data collected as part of a major effort to decipher one of the greatest mysteries of the Salish Sea – why juvenile Chinook, coho and steelhead are dying at radically increased numbers in marine waters – to resource managers and the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.
In 2014, LLTK and their Canadian partners, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, brought together U.S. and Canadian scientists and more than 60 federal, state, tribal, academic, private and nonprofit organizations to launch a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, and highly coordinated research program. The ambitious Salish Sea Marine Survival Project seeks to discover the causes of up to tenfold decline in salmon and steelhead survival in the Salish Sea—defined as the combined marine waters of Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Their collective discoveries have direct implications for the survival of the Southern Residents. The Marine Survival Project “has crystalized our focus,” over the past five years, White said. “If we don’t answer that question, we are not going to recover the salmon or the Southern Resident killer whales.”
Research from the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project suggests several factors may be contributing to the decline in survival rates of juvenile wild and hatchery salmon. While the science is ongoing, some factors are beginning to rise to the top, including limited food supply for salmon and their predators, increased predation, contaminants, a lack of estuary habitat and the interplay between changing ecosystem conditions and today’s hatchery practices.
Hatchery Chinook salmon stocks are less diverse than wild Chinook and they are generally released in a short window, rather than over a broad time period more like natural migrations. With many Chinook juveniles entering the system at once, predators may key in on the fish, or there may not be sufficient food available to support so many fish in the system at one time. LLTK recommends state, federal and tribal hatchery managers test whether diversifying their Chinook stocks – by releasing fish during different and broader time frames and releasing different types of Chinook – will increase survival of adult Chinook and change the time when these fish return to our waters, Michael Schmidt, LLTK deputy director said. Viewing the hatchery practices in light of orca recovery, “the whales need more Chinook salmon, they need them returning more often throughout the year, and they need bigger fish.”
The increased abundance of seals and sea lions throughout the Salish Sea is also a concern. Recent studies suggest these pinnipeds are competing with the Southern Residents for food, and the impact may be “several times that of all fishing,” White said. “We may be doing a really good job of supporting species that are not in decline to the detriment of the endangered ones.”
To give juvenile salmon, steelhead, and forage fish a better chance at survival, LLTK recommends further research and a comprehensive management approach. Predation hots spots must be identified and site-specific strategies developed that may include removing artificial haul outs, addressing infrastructure that restricts salmon passage, changing hatchery strategies that may attract predators, and increasing the abundance of forage fish or other fish that are staple food for pinnipeds.
Habitat and food are critical to the survival of Chinook salmon. Estuary habitat, currently limited in Puget Sound, is crucial for providing juvenile Chinook a place to grow before entering the open marine environment. Once the Chinook are in the marine environment, they need high quality food like forage fish and certain species of zooplankton to grow rapidly. LLTK recommends more emphasis on estuary restoration, recovering populations of Pacific herring and sand lance that will provide the most benefit to juvenile Chinook, and tracking our zooplankton, the cornerstone of our food web.
LLTK’s expertise on the Task Force has ensured the members working on prey recovery take into account the many threats facing salmon, and consider recovery methods backed by research findings.
In mid-September, one week before the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force was to release its draft report for public comment, a three-year-old sick and malnourished female orca, “Scarlet” (J50), was declared missing and presumed dead by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lynne Barre, director of Southern Resident recovery for NOAA, acknowledged that the death of J50 was a “low point” at a standing room only public meeting held in Friday Harbor. She stated a positive outcome from the public outpouring of anger and grief would be “broad public support for the more difficult steps needed to make things better for the whales.”
The steps the Task Force is considering are hotly debated and complex in scope, bringing to light the ways the Salish Sea and its various inhabitants are connected together and to the greater Pacific Northwest. In addition to the recommendations provided by LLTK, proposed actions include increasing flows through or breaching the four Lower Snake River dams to help salmon, requiring permits for recreational whale watching, “no go zones” or extension of safety zones around whales from 200 yards to 400 yards, increased funding for hatchery production and fish habitat restoration and protection, and reducing pollution, among many others. The Task Force must submit its final report to the governor by November 1.
Meanwhile, autumn unfolds in warm days, cool nights and the first squalls of the season. The number of whale watching vessels in Haro Strait slowly dwindles as vacationers return to the mainland and busy schedules. And the J, K and L pods continue to search the length and breadth of the Salish Sea and beyond for their increasingly elusive prey.
How Long Live the Kings is working to save our Southern Resident Killer Whales
You have undoubtedly heard recently about the deepening plight of our southern resident killer whales (SRKW). It is heart breaking to see these magnificent symbols of the Pacific Northwest and the Salish Sea struggling to thrive and find enough salmon to sustain them.
These creatures need our help, and we are working hard to meet their needs.
LLTK and our partners are engaged on a daily basis in work to recover Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary food source. As you might have seen in our most recent eNews, we are serving on Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force and are intimately involved in developing comprehensive solutions for the whales, for our salmon, and for our collective future.
While we are all committed to wild fish recovery, a major fact of our current situation is a reliance on hatchery salmon in the Pacific Northwest; 70-80% of the salmon that return to Washington waters-feeding the whales, sustaining commercial and recreational fisheries, and supporting tribal treaty obligations-were spawned in hatcheries. One of the quickest ways to increase the numbers of fish available to whales currently under discussion is to ramp up hatchery production, but this is not without risk. Since the 1990s, when several northwest Chinook populations were listed under the Endangered Species Act, science has shown how hatchery salmon spawning in rivers can have negative effects on the genetic fitness and productivity of our wild fish. The diversity provided by these wild fish is the insurance policy for all salmon in the face of a changing environment and climate.
LLTK is well equipped to help address and reconcile the dual challenge of producing more hatchery fish while protecting wild stocks. From 2000-2010, we helped facilitate a technical review of all Puget Sound, Coastal Washington, and US Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries in the northwest that led to the development of state and federal hatchery reform policies. We bring this experience and expertise to current discussions of how to increase hatchery production safely and with the lowest risk to our recovery investments and wild fish populations.
There are many other actions that should be considered to bring more prey to the whales’ table. Both wild and hatchery salmon are facing significant and shared challenges. Our recent low abundance of salmon has largely been driven by impacts in the marine environment. LLTK, along with 60 partner organizations, has been working in the US and Canada to solve the biggest mystery affecting salmon populations and recovery in the Salish Sea-poor marine survival of juveniles. As the US organizer of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, LLTK helped identify critical uncertainties and developed a comprehensive approach to find answers. Problems that have been identified and we are working to address for juvenile Chinook include predation, contaminants, and lack of the right type of food during their early life in the Salish Sea.
Finally, habitat loss in our rivers and estuaries remains a critical limiting factor, and we absolutely need a bolder, faster, and larger commitment to habitat restoration in order to recover our wild salmon and our resident killer whales, support sustainable fisheries, and meet treaty obligations. LLTK is helping advance habitat restoration by identifying the most important projects and going to Olympia and Washington DC to fight for our salmon and whales in the legislature and Congress.
Thank you to everyone we’ve heard from; we know you are deeply concerned about our whales and the fish that sustain them. As a supporter of LLTK, your involvement is critically important to our success, the success of our partners, and the persistence of our ultimate clients: the salmon, the whales, and the people they support, now and in the future.
Long Live the Kings
A milestone for salmon recovery in Hood Canal
By Mark Glyde, originally published in Harbors Magazine
In the estuary flats of Lilliwaup Creek, a long leg of the journey to bring salmon back from the brink of extinction has come to a happy end. Last February, a generation of hatchery-born Hood Canal Summer Chum was released into the creek for what scientists hope is the last time.
The success of Long Live the Kings’ conservation hatchery program to boost summer chum runs on Lilliwaup Creek and the Hamma Hamma River is a bright spot in the story of salmon recovery. On the West Coast, 28 stocks have been added to the federal threatened and endangered species list in Washington, Oregon and California since the early 1990s. None have yet been declared fully recovered. “When I started there were hardly any fish, and it was very difficult to find even five pairs. I was out every day for a month in a drysuit looking for fish, looking behind every rock in the river,” said Rick Endicott, Facility Manager for the Lilliwaup Field Station run by Long Live the Kings, a conservation and research organization.
Only 70 chum made it back to Lilliwaup Creek in 1993, when Endicott and state fisheries managers first started capturing returning fish, harvesting their eggs, and releasing salmon at the fry stage, when they would naturally emerge from gravel beds and head for the saltwater of Hood Canal.
Today, the 1/4 mile stretch of brackish water between Hood Canal and Lilliwaup Falls boasts spawning clusters that rival similar-sized streams in Alaska, the world’s bread basket of wild salmon. LLTK has released about 150,000 chum salmon fry each year into Lilliwaup Creek since 1993. Today, between 1,500 and 3,000 chum return to spawn. Over half are born in the wild, a sign that hatchery rearing is no longer needed. LLTK stopped aiding the Hamma Hamma River population when it reached a similar milestone in 2009. Now, nearly 5,000 summer chum spawn each year.
Those runs are part of the larger Hood Canal Summer Chum population, which joins Snake River Fall Chinook and Oregon Coastal Coho as one of the only three populations of salmon on a path to recovery, and, one day, delisting and removal from America’s Endangered Species Act list.
For Tribal fishermen and anglers, the rebound of chum means more opportunity in the future to catch not just chum, but also prized for their flavor chinook and coho salmon. Because the three species mix in the waters of Hood Canal and its feeder rivers and streams, managers have curtailed fishing on all three species to minimize incidental catch of chum by fishermen targeting chinook and coho.
The recovery of chum and other salmon species depends on a combination of actions including innovative science, careful harvest management, and habitat restoration. On more than a dozen salmon streams that flow into Hood Canal, local leaders and volunteers have been building healthy habitat one tree and one log at a time. Bankside forests regulate flows, tempering flood and drought damage. Woody debris builds in-river structures where fish can rest, avoid predators and find food.
“For the people who live there it’s been a huge community effort doing different kinds of restoration. And there have been limits on fishing,” said Scott Brewer, Executive Director of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. “Unlike many (places) in Puget Sound, recovery activities seem to be working, but you have to keep at it. We need to support remaining actions necessary to get them across the finish line.”
“It’s been very uplifting being part of something that’s working and for lasting change, said Joy Lee Waltermire, a biologist and hatchery manager with LLTK. “When I started I thought my goal was to put myself out of a job. Now I want to do this for more than summer chum.”
Summer chum also returned to Union Creek in record numbers, rewarding countless hours of sweat equity invested by hundreds of restoration volunteers led by groups like the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group. In other watersheds on the Kitsap Peninsula side of Hood Canal, however, salmon recovery has a long road ahead. No summer chum are showing up yet in the Dewatto River or Big Beef Creek.
The optimism of science, policy and community leaders is tempered by caution that it’s too early to declare the job done. “As much as everyone here would love to see summer chum fully recovered, we want to wait for a few years before anyone talks about delisting so we make sure (the run) is healthy and ready to roll,” said Paul McCollum, Director of Natural Resources for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.
Beyond the reach of local salmon recovery heroes, the intensifying impacts of climate change present new and formidable challenges. Scientists warn a warming ocean will likely mean more frequent and extreme high-temperature cycles, like the recurring El Nino weather pattern responsible for atmospheric rivers that drive windstorms and flooding. And that means lean times for salmon as the productivity of their prey, like herring and krill, falls due to warmer water in the Pacific Ocean.
Scientists and fisheries’ managers know a lot about what salmon need to survive and thrive in freshwater environments: the rivers, estuaries and streams where they spawn, feed and grow. We have much to learn about what affects salmon survival in the marine environment of Puget Sound and the open ocean.
LLTK is leading research in collaboration with tribal, federal, state, and independent researchers to find out why salmon are suffering high-mortality in Puget Sound. Study results, and proposed actions to improve marine survival, are expected in 2019. The study is likely to recommend modifications to Hood Canal Bridge, a known chokepoint where predators wait for salmon.
As 4 to 6 inch juveniles, chum salmon migrate out of Hood Canal, under the bridge, and through the Strait of Juan de Fuca before heading north to the Gulf of Alaska. In the ocean, they will feed and grow for 2-3 years, reaching about two feet in length and weighing 8-10 pounds before returning to their birth waters to spawn the next generation of fish.
The legendary life-cycle of salmon, which demands extreme endurance and a sharp homing instinct that scientists still don’t fully understand, has fascinated humans for millennia. Salmon have a remarkable ability to survive and adapt. Over the eons, these resilient fish have bounced back from calamities like earthquake-driven landslides choking off access to rivers and spawning grounds.
For people doing the hard work of salmon recovery, patience and persistence do pay off. About 15,000 fry, hatched from eggs collected from only five adults, were released into Lilliwaup Creek in 1993. Eight salmon generations later, thousands return. “It’s remarkable how quickly they’ve recovered,” said Endicott.