By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute
Native American tribes in the Puget Sound region are calling for “bold actions” to reverse the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Such actions would include:
— Protecting all remaining salmon habitat in and around Puget Sound with more consistent and enforceable land-use regulations;
— Preventing water uses that would limit salmon recovery;
— Improving management of predators, including the seals and sea lions that eat Chinook; and
— Increasing dramatically the current spending on salmon recovery — some 50- to 100-fold — with perhaps additional new funding sources to be added.
The ideas were presented to the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council on Thursday by tribal representative Dave Herrera, speaking for the Puget Sound Tribal Management Conference.
“The way we are managing lands is not working,” Herrera said. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.”
Herrera, a fish and wildlife policy analyst for the Skokomish Tribe, said none of the ideas he presented are new, but they need to be implemented in a more powerful way to increase the numbers of Chinook returning to Puget Sound streams. Scientists now have a good understanding of what the salmon need, he said, but the scientific efforts need to be refined.
Millions of dollars have been spent to restore salmon habitat, he noted, and that is all for the good of the salmon. But some of the harder choices have yet to be made, considering that ongoing development continues to degrade salmon habitat.
“We have put our energies into things that we thought we could accomplish because they were easy,” he said. “Now it is time to move on to some hard things.”
The Salmon Recovery Council — a large group whose members represent geographic areas, various governments, and economic and environmental interests — was scheduled to hear the “bold actions” Thursday and then decide whether to incorporate them into a new “Chinook Implementation Strategy.”
Implementation Strategies are designed to accelerate Puget Sound restoration, as measured by a set of ecosystem indicators. For Chinook, the primary goal is to stop the overall decline among 22 Chinook populations. Despite significant efforts, the overall population continues to go down.
Council members generally agreed on Thursday that it was time for bold actions to save the salmon before it is too late. Many said they could support the approach outlined in a three-page memo from the tribes. But some said the wording could alienate various interests whose support is vitally needed to succeed in salmon restoration.
Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center said farmers in the Puget Sound region feel beset by environmental regulations and legal challenges, particularly when it comes to water-supply issues. As presented, agricultural landowners are likely to see these proposed actions as just another attack, he noted.
Ron Schultz of the Washington Conservation Commission said farmers want to be part of the salmon-restoration effort and many have made significant changes, but they are worried about staying in business.
“We think we can get there by engaging with landowners,” Schultz added. “There are ways of improving these conversations.”
“We are not interested in beating up on ag,” Herrera said at one point. “We are interested in getting them in the game. They were successful in getting the state Legislature to exempt them from many regulations. The fact of the matter is they are having an impact.”
Several council members said the wording of the tribes’ memo could be improved to encourage inclusion. Others, particularly representatives of local government, said they wanted to share these ideas with their elected officials before moving forward.
Guiding the Action Agenda
A committee of the Salmon Recovery Council was appointed to work on a proposal for bold ideas, specifically developing a set of priorities that can be incorporated into the 2018 Puget Sound Action Agenda — the blueprint for Puget Sound recovery.
Priorities identified in the Action Agenda will guide various efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound, mainly by directing funds toward projects that best meet those priorities.
Following public review, the Action Agenda is scheduled for approval in mid-2018 by the Puget Sound Leadership Council — the governing board of the Puget Sound Partnership, which coordinates Puget Sound recovery.
Work on the Chinook Implementation Strategy will move forward on a less specific schedule, according to Laura Blackmore, the Partnership’s deputy director and facilitator for the Salmon Recovery Council. In some way, the “bold actions” are likely to be incorporated into that document, which will guide long-term planning for Chinook recovery, she said.
The implementation strategy, in turn, will form the basis for an updated regional chapter of the 2005 Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan, which helps guide recovery of salmon species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The full proposal by the Puget Sound Tribal Management Conference can be found on the Puget Sound Partnership’s website.
– Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.