Why are salmon and steelhead dying in the Salish Sea?
The Salish Sea Marine Survival Project unites U.S. and Canadian researchers to determine why juvenile Chinook, coho, and steelhead are dying in our combined waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, collectively known as the Salish Sea. Long Live the Kings, in partnership with the Pacific Salmon Foundation of Canada, coordinates more than 60 organizations in conducting a holistic study of the physical, chemical, and biological factors impacting salmon and steelhead survival. This project serves as a model for ecosystem-scale collaborative science; its results will facilitate smarter management and stronger returns.
The marine survival of Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead populations in the Salish Sea have declined by up to 90%, and their abundance remains well below what it was 30 years ago. This is despite considerable investments in hatchery and harvest reform and in habitat protection and restoration. Salmon populations in coastal rivers have not shown the same declines, suggesting that the problem lies with factors within the Salish Sea—the combined waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The loss of salmon threatens the heart of Pacific Northwest culture, the health of our local sea, a multi-billion-dollar fishing industry, and deeply rooted Native American traditions.
The Salish Sea ecosystem has changed significantly over the past 30 years, and the problems facing our salmon there are likely due to the interaction of many overlapping factors. These include changing water temperatures, reductions in food supply such as plankton and forage fish, marine mammal increases, contaminants, and disease, to name a few. These impacts must be assessed and prioritized through comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, and trans-boundary ecosystem research.
Established in 2014 by Long Live the Kings and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project brings together an international team of scientists and managers from dozens of federal, state, tribal, academic, private, and nonprofit organizations to determine why juvenile salmon and steelhead are dying in the Salish Sea. Researchers are assessing young salmon and steelhead growth, health, and diet; tracking fish and marine mammal movements; monitoring marine conditions; and developing innovative technologies to answer critical questions facing salmon recovery and sustainable fisheries.
Study results and new tools will be used to implement real-world actions that improve hatchery, harvest, and ecosystem management and inform habitat protection and restoration. Along the way, we are ensuring that the findings of this comprehensive ecological effort broadly inform Salish Sea ecosystem recovery—from forage fish to birds to our threatened orca whales.
Already, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project has made a significant contribution to our understanding of salmon and is informing management actions focused on increasing their productivity and abundance. For example, in Washington, over 20% of the recent recommendations of the Washington State Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force were influenced by the Project, including novel hatchery management approaches, a focus on estuary habitat restoration, an ecosystem approach to predation management, forage fish recovery, zooplankton monitoring and revised NPDES permitting for wastewater treatment to include flame retardants. Further, a significant portion of NOAA’s Puget Sound Steelhead Recovery Plan focuses on actions to improve early marine survival in Puget Sound.
The Salish Sea Marine Survival Project has also stimulated greater interest in cross-regional communication among salmon ocean ecology researchers. Long Live the Kings responded to this need by creating a communications tool for researchers and collaborators throughout the coastal Pacific Ocean, from California to Alaska. As of July 2016, 185 participants are using this tool to discuss topics ranging from newly published research on ocean conditions and salmon to real-time survey reports from research cruises in the Pacific Ocean.
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