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. There is strong evidence that the bridge is acting as a migration barrier and contributing to increased. This level of mortality is alarming, and observations indicate that other salmonids, including Chinook and chum salmon, may also be 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. 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. Preliminary 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.
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. Long Live the Kings is exploring new ways to protect existing spawning habitat and advancing science so that we may uncover even more solutions.
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.
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
Through this spring and early summer, as salmon and steelhead migrate out of their home rivers, we are filled with hope that they will thrive in marine waters and return big and strong to support local fishing communities and Orca whales, and continue to nourish the health of their native watersheds, thus restarting the cycle. This hope is both brightened by recent successes and tempered by the great challenges they, and we, face.
Good news includes two specific successes from Long Live the Kings and our partners that deserve celebration. As part of a recovery effort in partnership with the Skokomish Tribe and Tacoma Power, three-year old spring Chinook reared at our Lilliwaup facility returned this May to the north fork of the Skokomish River for the first time in memory. Also in Hood Canal, the Endangered Species Act listed population of summer chum in Lilliwaup Creek, once in single digits, are now, in 2018, considered “self-sustaining” and no longer require intervention. Our mission is to restore wild salmon populations, so to see this success and be able to step away from the work is truly gratifying.
Continuing challenges include poor marine survival of both salmon and steelhead in the Salish Sea, and problems with barriers to migration that we know are preventing recovery. Long Live the Kings is nearing completion of the two country, 60 partner, and 200 researcher Salish Sea Marine Survival Project and we are already recommending solutions. The solutions come in the form of specific actions such as reducing toxics, treating parasites that can make fish sick, identifying ways to reduce excessive predation on young fish, and improving hatchery practices that can increase survival. Our fun and educational Survive the Sound fish-tracking game reached over 35,000 kids and adults this year, educating them about these challenges and what it really takes for these salmon and steelhead to make it to the ocean.
Long Live the Kings’ leadership and successes in the Marine Survival Project, population recovery in rivers, and our outreach to the community with Survive the Sound speaks to the importance of a large and committed community that supports our work. Thank you for your partnership, you help us advance salmon recovery throughout the state and the Pacific Northwest. If we save salmon, we ultimately save ourselves.
Long Live the Kings
A lot of effort goes into tracking juvenile steelhead.
People often ask us how we’re able to pull off tracking 48 juvenile steelhead, and they’re are always impressed to find out what goes into it. So, we’ve outlined the process in the steps below!
1. Over the course of about 2 months during spring, scientists from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center work together to trap 300-350 wild steelhead migrating from their natal streams to the saltwater.
2. Scientists surgically implant a small acoustic tag inside the body cavity of each juvenile steelhead. The tags are the size of a large pill and cost hundreds of dollars each. Each tiny tag is programmed to transmit, or “ping”, a unique code every few seconds. The fish are anesthetized for surgery and placed in a special recovery tank afterwards. They are back up and swimming strong in a matter of minutes!
3. When scientists release the tagged fish back into the river and they continue migrating towards the Pacific Ocean, acoustic receivers placed underwater all around Puget Sound log every acoustic ping they ‘hear’ from nearby (200m or less) tagged steelhead. The batteries in the tag die soon after the fish reach the Pacific Ocean, therefore we are unable to track their return as adults.
4. In late summer, scientists travel to the location of each receiver and download its data. The data goes through a preliminary stage of processing and then 48 fish, who are representative of the larger group of tagged fish, are selected for Survive the Sound. Scientists interpret the data for all 48 fish to create a smooth migration path over a 12 day period.
5. The tracking data from each of the fish is assigned to a Survive the Sound character and 24 hours of the fish’s movements are shown on the map each day of the migration.
I. Long Live the Kings joins other state, federal and tribal leaders supporting a moratorium on new net pens in Puget Sound. With the recent major escapement of Atlantic Salmon from Cooke Aquaculture’s net pens near Cypress Island, our community must seriously evaluate whether the potential economic benefits of rearing Atlantic Salmon in Puget Sound net pens are outweighed by the risks to our fisheries, our southern resident killer whales, and our legacy of wild salmon.
These risks include amplifying salmon diseases and parasites in native fish populations and polluting surrounding waters. When Atlantic salmon escape, there is potential competition with and displacement of native fish as well as the problem of incidental catch as unwanted non-native salmon are targeted and removed. All of these risks clearly increase with numbers and geographic distribution of open net pen operations in our environment.
II. Long Live the Kings further calls for more robust oversight by state and federal agencies of existing net pen operations. Additional resources will be required to adequately assure the public that risks are being minimized, and these resources should not simply be shifted from other critical salmon management and restoration activities.
State and federal permitting agencies must hold Cooke Aquaculture accountable for damage and potential damage resulting from this incident. The permitting agencies must strengthen permit conditions and more closely monitor net pens to ensure that permit conditions are adhered to by all operators. If not, permits should be terminated.
We encourage state and federal agencies, tribes, and private individuals to actively monitor the impact of this release of Atlantic salmon on marine and freshwater environments in the Salish Sea. Activities to recapture or monitor Atlantic salmon must be conducted within current fishing regulations and only in areas currently open to salt and freshwater fishing. In responding to the release of a non-native species, we must take care not to multiply threats to the same native salmon populations we’re trying to save.
III. Long Live the Kings salutes our many partners and the host of NGO’s and state, tribal and federal agency personnel who, like us, are working to advance salmonid science, improve management, and implement solutions to the major impacts on our salmon populations. The general public has also proven a powerful voice in creating momentum to address the known risks posed by net pens.
The question still remains whether addressing net pens will be enough to save our salmon. Our answer is no, it will not be enough. LLTK and other organizations need the public’s ardent and passionate support to help save this Pacific Northwest icon. The hurdles are significant – many stocks are dangerously depleted – and our work to recover wild salmon clearly is incomplete.
Nevertheless, LLTK’s commitment is unwavering and real progress is being made. By tirelessly working alongside other passionate partners to improve harvest and hatchery management, address habitat loss, overcome migration barriers, avoid and deal with disease and contaminant challenges, and understand the impact of climate change on salt and freshwater environments and food resources our native salmon rely on, we’re moving the needle on recovery of this magical fish.
IV. Our Northwest regional identity cannot be defined without salmon. These fish have nourished, inspired, and captivated us all for eons. It is a hallmark of our community with its remarkable endurance, spiritual influence, and economic impact. We at Long Live the Kings believe that our region can absorb a growing human population, sustain a thriving environment and economy, and uphold strong and vibrant salmon and steelhead runs.
We invite you to join us.