Are we making progress on salmon recovery?

Dean Toba, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, operates the agency’s screw trap on the Skagit River. The trap helps biologists estimate the number of juvenile salmon leaving the river each year. Photo: Christopher Dunagan, PSI

Dean Toba, a scientific technician with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, operates the agency’s screw trap on the Skagit River. The trap helps biologists estimate the number of juvenile salmon leaving the river each year. Photo: Christopher Dunagan, PSI

In recent decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to restore habitat for Puget Sound salmon. This month, PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan looks at how scientists are gauging their progress. Are environmental conditions improving or getting worse? The answer may depend on where you look and who you ask.

Read the article in Salish Sea Currents. 

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Salmon council debates new priorities proposed by tribes

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Chinook salmon. Image courtesy of NOAA.

The Puget Sound Partnership’s Salmon Recovery Council last Thursday gave preliminary approval to six of the seven proposed recovery priorities known as “bold actions” to improve Chinook salmon numbers in Puget Sound. One of the actions calling for “a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity” for salmon was tabled for ongoing discussions in August and September.

The actions were proposed last May by regional tribes dissatisfied with a state-proposed salmon plan known as the Chinook Implementation Strategy. Tribes felt that the strategy didn’t go far enough and called for a series of seven specific actions designed to stem the ongoing decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Two of the action items, one responding to high amounts of predation of juvenile Chinook by seals and sea lions and another on climate change appeared to pass through the council unchanged, but several of the proposed priorities are undergoing a series of amendments that were debated at the council meeting. The Puget Sound Partnership is now sharing an edited version of the actions among members of the council for refinement in “mid to late August,” according to the Partnership’s deputy director Laura Blackmore. Versions of the proposed actions can also be found in a new solicitation of funding by the Puget Sound Partnership (starting on page 19).

In all, the seven proposed actions include protection of habitat, improvements in water quantity and water quality, predation and mortality of young salmon, funding, communication, climate change and oil spill preparedness.

Council member Dave Herrera of the Skokomish Tribe expressed frustration over the delay in approving all of the items, but said he remained optimistic about the efforts. “I feel like we know what the issues are,” he said. “If we can act on these, we have a fighting chance.”

The proposed action concerning habitat protection remains up for debate and may be the most controversial item among those discussed on Thursday. The item would protect “all remaining salmon habitat by implementing land use policy changes that optimize a net gain in ecosystem function and habitat productivity.” It would also “build a region-wide accountability system,” according to a briefing document presented to the council.  Representatives of the agricultural community have called the language in the provision too broad and say it puts too many burdens on farmers that are already dealing with legal challenges and environmental regulations. Tribal representatives say the provision is central to salmon recovery.

“We are still losing ground faster than we are restoring it,” Herrera said. “We have been putting all of our eggs in the restoration basket, but we’re not going to restore our way out of this. We can’t keep up with what we’re losing.”

The council also tabled for later discussion water quantity issues in one of the actions potentially impacted by last year’s Washington Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. The Salmon Recovery Council is scheduled to meet to continue its discussion of the proposed priorities on September 28th in Edmonds. 

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Update: Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply

In this high-resolution image taken from a remotely operated hexacopter, a Southern Resident killer whale named Slick (J16) is about to surface with her youngest calf, Scarlet (J50). Scarlet, born in December 2014, was the first calf in the so-called “baby boom” — nine orcas born between December 2014 and January 2016. These images are used to measure the length and width of orcas within an inch or two, allowing for ongoing observations of their physical changes. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

In this high-resolution image taken from a remotely operated hexacopter, a Southern Resident killer whale named Slick (J16) is about to surface with her youngest calf, Scarlet (J50). Scarlet, born in December 2014, was the first calf in the so-called “baby boom” — nine orcas born between December 2014 and January 2016. These images are used to measure the length and width of orcas within an inch or two, allowing for ongoing observations of their physical changes. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS research permit and FAA flight authorization.

Our 2016 article “Killer whale miscarriages linked to low food supply” provided an early look at a study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan wrote the article based on research that was presented at the 2016 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, and it remains a helpful summary of the newly published findings.

Scientists have found that Puget Sound’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales are experiencing a high rate of miscarriages in large part because they are not getting enough food. The whales depend primarily on diminished populations of Chinook salmon and this scarcity magnifies other existing threats ranging from toxic PCBs to noise pollution.

The PLOS ONE study was co-authored by Samuel K. Wasser , Jessica I. Lundin, Katherine Ayres, Elizabeth Seely, Deborah Giles, Kenneth Balcomb, Jennifer Hempelmann, Kim Parsons, and Rebecca Booth. Dunagan’s article summarizing their findings is available on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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‘Bold actions’ to save Puget Sound salmon gain qualified support

The Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council wants the opportunity to clarify the meaning of a new tribal proposal.

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

Chart courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

Chart of Chinook harvests courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

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.” Continue reading

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Finding a strategy to accelerate Chinook recovery

Fir Island Farms habitat restoration monitoring in Skagit County. Project provides rearing habitat for young threatened Chinook salmon along with other wildlife. Copyright: Bob Friel

Fir Island Farms habitat restoration monitoring in Skagit County. Project provides rearing habitat for young threatened Chinook salmon along with other wildlife. Copyright: Bob Friel

New in Salish Sea Currents: We continue our series on Puget Sound’s EPA-funded Implementation Strategies. This week we take on Chinook recovery.

As threatened Chinook populations continue to lose ground, the state is looking to new strategies to reverse the trend. In the Skagit watershed, the scientists — and the fish — are among those leading the way.

Puget Sound-area writer Bob Friel reports from the newly-established Fir Island Farms Reserve where he witnessed the discovery of the very first Chinook to be found at that restoration project.

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‘Bold actions’ to be discussed in a revised Chinook Implementation Strategy

Chinook salmon. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Chinook salmon. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

By Christopher Dunagan, Puget Sound Institute

A desire to come up with “bold actions” for rebuilding Chinook salmon runs in Puget Sound has slowed approval of the first Chinook Implementation Strategy designed to accelerate recovery efforts for the threatened species.

The Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, which oversees salmon-related planning, was scheduled to adopt the Chinook Implementation Strategy at its March meeting. The strategy underwent 14 months of study, discussion and review, and council staffers said it was ready for approval.

Before the meeting, however, representatives of Puget-Sound-area Indian tribes disagreed with that assessment, saying the proposed strategy was not specific enough about actions needed to save salmon. The document, they said, failed to provide enough direction to agencies and nonprofit groups working on salmon-restoration projects. Continue reading

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Study of seals and sea lions gains interest

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

Seal vs Salmon. West End, Vancouver, BC. Photo: cesareb (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cesareb/8620647452

Our story last week about the impacts of predators on Chinook salmon populations in Puget Sound continues to gather strong interest from our readers. Several thousand viewed it after it came out last Thursday, and it was reprinted in the Kitsap Sun on Monday.

The story was written by PSI senior writer Christopher Dunagan and reports on a new study showing that area seals and sea lions are eating a much higher amount of threatened Chinook than previously known. Many questions still remain, but it is the first time that a peer-reviewed study has attempted to quantify these predator impacts to such a degree and in such detail.

Here are a few highlights: As many as one in five young Chinook are eaten before they can make it out of Puget Sound into the open ocean. Area seals and sea lions eat twice the amount of Chinook as do Puget Sound’s endangered orcas, and six times the annual commercial and recreational catches from local fishermen combined. Scientists attribute the large numbers to an increase in seals and sea lions since the 1970s after the animals were protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Not surprisingly, scientists and policymakers will have to look more closely at these numbers to determine what to do. Seals and sea lions are rightly protected, and old (and undesirable) policies of hunting the animals to protect salmon are not an option. Scientists say that even if such policies were possible, there is no saying that they would actually protect the salmon population.

The fact is that the seals and sea lions are just doing what they do naturally, and while their populations are healthy, there aren’t necessarily more of them than there should be. Some would argue that this study is a reminder that we need to continue to recover habitat and create better conditions for the salmon to withstand what are essentially normal pressures from the environment. Historically, Puget Sound’s Chinook and predators co-existed just fine, but that was before millions of humans started destroying the local streams and floodplains, degrading beaches and polluting the water. See a harbor seal with a salmon in its mouth? That can also be seen as a sign of Puget Sound’s health.

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Study says predators may play major role in Chinook salmon declines

Sea lion sunbathing between meals in Seattle's Eliott Bay. Photo: Johnny Mumbles (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mumbles/3283168713

Sea lion sunbathing between meals in Seattle’s Eliott Bay. Photo: Johnny Mumbles (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mumbles/3283168713

A new study shows that increased populations of seals and sea lions are eating far more of Puget Sound’s threatened Chinook than previously known, potentially hampering recovery efforts for both salmon and endangered killer whales.

Read the story in Salish Sea Currents.

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