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.
This year’s rollout of the Survive the Sound campaign, presented in partnership with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., shed new light on salmon and steelhead recovery. The campaign invited community members to sponsor juvenile steelhead as they competed for survival during a race to the Pacific Ocean. Gorgeous graphic design by Vulcan Inc. and Matterhorn Creative contributed to the campaign’s success, but the whimsical and creative steelhead avatar illustrations took center stage.
Visual/UI designer and illustrator Jocelyn Li Langrand brought the steelhead avatar concepts developed by LLTK staff to life as beautiful pieces of art. Jocelyn devoted over 100 hours to creating all 48 fish and many people now want to know more about this talented illustrator. LLTK took the time to speak with Jocelyn about her life, her experience with Survive the Sound, and her relationship with the natural environment.
Jocelyn was born and raised in Shenzhen, Southern China. In middle school, she was always the one designing & drawing on the black chalkboard in the back of the classroom, but no one realized she was training for her future career. “It was more like a small hobby… Graphic design wasn’t well appreciated in China back then and it was hard to take it seriously,” said Jocelyn.
When Jocelyn moved to the US to study as an undergrad, she was faced with one of the most daunting tasks of college – picking a major. With the diversity of pathways for a young artist at an American college, there were many options. A practical student, she thought she might become an interior designer or even an accountant. Needless to say, life had other plans for Jocelyn. Her artistic aptitude blossomed, and she completed a degree in visual communication design at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.
After graduating, Jocelyn began a career as a visual and user interface (UI) designer employed by various Fortune 500 companies in the Seattle area. You may have seen her creations previously without realizing it! Building on her design expertise, Jocelyn followed her passion and launched a career as a freelance illustrator. Jocelyn told us, “I wasn’t able to create and express myself and wanted to make the jump into illustrations before I had children.”
During this time Jocelyn drew inspiration from a Taiwanese illustrator, Jimmy Liao, whose art gained popularity in numerous newspapers and children’s books. Liao defined himself by going beyond traditional children’s art and captured more adult themes, sometimes depicting lonely, sad, or even dark images. Jocelyn finds motivation in Liao’s perspective on illustration, and she takes an important part of his philosophy to heart – just keep drawing every day. For one of Jocelyn’s most ambitious projects, she set out to produce 100 8×8 watercolor illustrations depicting a character called Mr. Diggle. The illustrations were inspired by experiences in Jocelyn’s life, dreams, and day-to-day happenings. To Jocelyn’s surprise, she spent 2 years completing all 100 drawings. You can see “100 days of Mr. Diggle” on her Instagram account.
When asked about her experience with Survive the Sound, Jocelyn said, “I am very happy to be involved with [Survive the Sound].” When she was first given a list of 48 fish names with a loose description of each fish, she began by trying to understand our wacky puns. Once Jocelyn caught onto our sometimes obscure references, she explored her options in her favorite medium, watercolor and ink. Folks at LLTK and Vulcan Inc. were blown away by her initial designs, so she went to work creating all 48 unique fish digitally. Each week, LLTK staff waited with much excitement to see her latest batch of fish.
When LLTK asked Jocelyn about her relationship with salmon and the natural environment, she giggled saying, “No relation [to salmon] other than eating it.” She went on to describe how she made hooks and went fishing with her grandpa during her childhood and noted that as salmon populations decline in North America, she has observed prices for salmon in Asia increasing.
During her 11-year residence in Seattle, Jocelyn was impressed by the city’s connection to nature. She feels that, “[people] take Seattle for granted, but when you fly into Seattle it’s like being comforted in a big green blanket.” She further explained, “[it is] such a blessing to be around nature and having water in the city.”
Jocelyn believes that, “Art connects people. For me, every time I experience art it opens up my mind. It’s the story behind the art that gets people. Just a little background story gets that image stuck in your head and makes it so powerful and connects it to your life. [It makes you] care about things you might not have cared about before. It makes you a better person, because you think more of yourself.” We hope that Jocelyn’s Survive the Sound illustrations make people think twice about steelhead and their relationship to our lives, and realize the vulnerability of Puget Sound steelhead; without a concerted effort, they will slip into extinction. As Jocelyn puts it, “[they] might not be there for your children or your children’s children.”
Jocelyn recently moved to San Francisco and is currently working on her first children’s book and a separate coffee table book, which features her 100 days of Mr. Diggle project. She enjoys spending time with her husband and one-year-old son and continues to draw every day. LLTK hopes she will join us in making Survive the Sound even better in 2018.
You can contact Jocelyn through Instagram (@jocelynlilangrand). For more information on Survive the Sound, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase a poster of Jocelyn’s Survive the Sound fish, visit the LLTK online store.
Fishers disagree about a lot of things, but they all find common ground around the fact that salmon and steelhead populations have faced a disastrous decline. In 1986, a group of salmon enthusiasts came together around this commonality and asked a question they intended to answer: could hatcheries be used to recover salmon and steelhead populations facing extinction? Current perspectives on the efficacy of hatcheries aside, at that time, this was a bold, genuine, and passionate attempt to save a priceless species and pastime for generations to come. This act marked the beginning of a more than 30-year quest to restore wild salmon and steelhead populations through an innovative nonprofit, Long Live the Kings.
In 1978, Jim Youngren, a real estate entrepreneur born with a rod and reel in his hands, started raising Chinook salmon in natural ponds on his Orcas Island property, isolated from wild salmon populations which only spawn on the mainland. When asked about Jim’s success building a hatchery, his wife, Kathy Youngren, said “He dreamed it and here it is… he never ever for a second thought that this whole thing wouldn’t turn out just exactly how it has.” Jim’s think-big and make-it-work attitude has helped supplement sport and commercial fisheries from Washington to Alaska in a sustainable manner. Shortly after LLTK took over operations of the hatchery in 1986, the organization began operating two additional hatcheries: one on Wishkah River near Grays Harbor and another on Lilliwaup Creek along Hood Canal. These facilities embodied Jim’s vision by developing innovative techniques that mitigate the negative impacts of hatchery rearing on wild fish populations, and using those techniques to bring wild populations back from the brink of extinction. In Lilliwaup Creek and the Hamma Hamma River, LLTK has worked with other partners to rebuild the annual returning summer chum population from the hundreds to thousands, and have doubled the abundance of some steelhead populations.
In 1999, Congress created the Puget Sound and Coastal Washington Hatchery Reform Project, a groundbreaking effort to rethink how hatcheries can be managed to both conserve naturally spawning populations and support sustainable fisheries. With LLTK’s on-the-ground experience, Congress designated the organization as the project’s independent, third-party facilitator. The result was a comprehensive review of 200 hatchery programs, providing over 1,000 recommendations to improve their operations. This project created a paradigm shift in how hatcheries are managed in the Pacific Northwest. One of the most recognizable outcomes in Washington State has been the mass marking of nearly all hatchery fish—the removal of adipose fins–in order to easily distinguish them from wild fish. A majority of hatcheries in Washington have also instituted a series of changes to reduce the genetic impact that hatchery fish may have on wild populations.
As LLTK matured and grew as an organization, Jim’s example of bold thinking continued to influence decision-making. In 2014, LLTK and our Canadian partners, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, established the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, a massive international endeavor to investigate the decline of salmon and steelhead populations in the combined waters of the Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia, and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Together, LLTK and PSF coordinate the efforts of over 60 organizations, producing research findings that are critical to saving salmon and steelhead populations threatened by extinction. Martha Kongsgaard, former chair of the Puget Sound Partnership, explains the importance of the work, “unraveling this mystery could provide answers for how to save the entire Sound.” The project, now in its third year, has mobilized over 150 scientists, established more than 80 research sites, and raised $17.5 million.
Building on the Salish Sea Marine Survival work, LLTK took on another huge challenge at the Hood Canal Bridge, the third largest floating bridge in the world. Research revealed that juvenile steelhead are dying at the bridge and that the bridge may also be effecting the canal’s water quality. LLTK has gained significant community support to address the problem by working with a team of experts to pin point how exactly the bridge may be impacting the ecosystem in order to implement solutions. It’s uncommon for a small nonprofit to attempt to address a problem involving such an enormous piece of vital infrastructure, but Jim wouldn’t back down from important challenges and neither will LLTK.
Most recently, LLTK has taken on a new challenge, launching a bold, new digital communications campaign in partnership with Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan, Inc. to bring awareness and investment to salmon and steelhead recovery. The Survive the Sound campaign allows people to connect with the wild steelhead, a species vitally important to our ecosystem and Northwest culture. By presenting the campaign as a web app, LLTK is looking to educate the next generation about the plight of salmon and steelhead by giving everyone an opportunity to sponsor and track a fish as it races to the Pacific Ocean. In its first year, the campaign is already generating important conversations in the community and catalyzing dormant salmon enthusiasts.
Thirty years of work, 1 million fish returned, over 250 partners, and more than 125 project sites: who knows if any of it would have happened without the organization’s bold, can-do thinking that Jim inspired.
LLTK will honor Jim at an annual benefit dinner, Salish Stories, on April 20th. If you would like to participate, please register here by April 15th.
Understanding the decline of Puget Sound steelhead is no easy task. Try explaining the unexpected death of one of your children’s cherished goldfish in a scientifically defensible way and you’ll only begin to understand this daunting challenge. LLTK and our partners investigating marine survival devote countless hours developing strategies that allow us to understand one key piece to the puzzle – where steelhead die.
To identify where steelhead die, scientists need to characterize typical steelhead migration routes. They can do this by tagging a sample of steelhead and extrapolating the data gathered to the larger population. Steelhead maintain a relatively consistent speed and trajectory as they race to the Pacific Ocean. When tracking data show that they’ve deviated from that path or speed, it means they’ve likely encountered some sort of obstacle during their migration. The obstacle could be a physical barrier, an encounter with a predator, a decline in health related to disease, and/or a variety of other things. When scientists observe these changes in behavior, we know to investigate further in order to pinpoint the problem.
Acoustic telemetry is a relatively new and precise way to understand steelhead behavior. The system utilizes a tiny, pill-sized transmitter, or “tag”, inserted into a juvenile steelhead’s belly that communicates with an array of receivers, placed on the seafloor in strategic locations along the migration path. The transmitters are about the size of a pill capsule and the receivers no larger than a Gatorade cooler. There are over 125 receivers deployed in the Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca today. This includes a tight network of receivers around the Hood Canal Bridge. High steelhead mortality is occurring at the bridge, and we are now using the receivers to triangulate exactly where the steelhead are dying.
Acoustic receivers can detect tagged fish from 200 meters away! The properties of water make acoustic systems especially effective. Molecules in a liquid are more densely packed than those of a gas. This higher molecule density means less sound energy is lost over the same distance in water relative to air. If you’ve ever swum in a lake and heard a distant motorboat while underwater, you’ve experienced this property of water. Whales take advantage of the same principle, communicating great distances using echolocation.
When receivers “hear” a tag, they catalog the precise movement of the fish. When multiple acoustic receivers hear a tag at the same point in time, researchers are able to triangulate the location of the fish based on the relative intensity of the fish’s signal at each receiver. Some types of acoustic tags contain a pressure sensor which records information about the fish’s depth in the water column.
Acoustic tags can also tell scientists about predator-prey interactions. In Puget Sound and Hood Canal, scientists attach a “backpack” containing an acoustic receiver to the backs of harbor seals. While the seals swim around the Sound, they collect data on every tagged fish they encounter. When the seals molt (shed its fur) in the fall, the backpack falls off and scientists can retrieve the data. Scientists are currently using this technique, combined with analyzing seal diets, in attempt to determine how big of an impact seals have on steelhead survival.
Now, an astute reader may be thinking, “Doesn’t tagging a fish increase its chances of mortality and bias the results?” Many studies have been done to test this question. In these experiments, fish are tagged and held in large tanks for several months or more. Throughout the experiment, scientists monitor fish health to see whether the tags have any effects on growth or survival. Thankfully, all the studies have concluded that the tags don’t adversely affect the fish.
Scientists working on the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project have also tested whether tags act as a dinner bell, calling seals to the tagged juvenile steelhead. This study is performed by pausing the “ping” a tag emits when the fish pass through the areas seals frequent, and the tags resume “pinging” before the fish reach the Pacific Ocean. We compare the fish whose tags were paused, to fish with tags that “pinged” continuously. The survival of these two groups is not different, and therefore, showing no evidence of a dinner bell effect in Puget Sound.