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The total number of summer chum salmon returning to Hood Canal in recent years has significantly reduced the risk of extinction. Those in the Strait of Juan de Fuca also are rebounding, as shown in chart below. Graphic: Hood Canal Coordinating Council

Hood Canal summer chum could be first-ever salmon removed from Endangered Species List

This is the second of three blog posts this week about the Hood Canal Coordinating Council and two of its groundbreaking initiatives: recovery of Hood Canal summer chum and a structured mitigation program that is protecting and restoring the ecosystem.

Are species consigned to the Endangered Species List destined for extinction? Some species may be, but certainly not all. We know this from the recovery of the bald eagle, gray wolf, humpback whale and other rebounding species removed from the list. Still, 28 populations of salmon remain at risk, seemingly stuck on this roster of afflicted populations that could one day cease to exist.

Bucking these negative trends among salmon, Hood Canal summer chum are making a remarkable comeback. These fish, listed as threatened, offer a real hope of being removed from the Endangered Species List. More work needs to be done, officials say, but a petition seeking removal is beginning to take shape. If the effort is successful, these Hood Canal summer chum would be the first salmon population in history to make it off the list.

Hood Canal summer chum total returns to streams in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. // Graphic: Hood Canal Coordinating Council

Such a delisting could boost morale in the ongoing salmon-recovery effort throughout the Northwest, according to officials with the Hood Canal Coordinating Council working on the summer chum petition. Success in this one area could be viewed as a milestone in the overall salmon-recovery effort, a multi-billion-dollar endeavor.

Hood Canal, a 61-mile-long fjord, is located between the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas. A major step toward recovery, initiated in the 1990s, was to protect summer chum from harvest by shifting fishing seasons for local Chinook and coho salmon. Extensive restoration of streams and estuaries is another major factor in recovery, experts say, along with the use of temporary hatcheries to boost the number of natural spawners in selected streams.

These changes have made a real difference, and it is about time to move toward delisting Hood Canal summer chum from the Endangered Species List, says Scott Brewer, who is now leading the effort as the new salmon policy and science adviser for the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. As approved by the Legislature, the council is the regional recovery organization for Hood Canal summer chum.

Summer chum populations

The National Marine Fisheries Service (or NOAA Fisheries) defines Hood Canal summer chum as an “evolutionarily significant unit,” or ESU, made up of two identified populations. One population is found within Hood Canal, spawning in streams on both sides of the waterway. The other population spawns in streams that flow into the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula, generally from Port Townsend to Sequim.

Thom Johnson, environmental program manager for the Point No Point Treaty Council (now retired), removes scales from Hood Canal summer chum that had spawned in 2015 in Salmon Creek. The sampling effort helped to determine annual run size and reproductive capacity of the threatened fish. Photo: Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

“Both the Strait and Hood Canal populations are robust and meet the criteria for abundance and productivity,” said Brewer, who stepped down as executive director of the coordinating council to push ahead with the delisting effort. “Everything is looking positive, and we feel we’re very close.”

General “viability criteria” (PDF) used to measure progress toward salmon recovery were established by NMFS in 2000. These general criteria consist of four factors. Two of them mentioned by Brewer — abundance and productivity — relate to the total number of salmon returning to local streams and their success at reproduction. The other two factors for recovery are geographic distribution (called “spacial structure”) and biological diversity, a genetic characteristic. Specific thresholds for Hood Canal summer chum are expected to be reviewed as part of the delisting petition and approval process.

Positive outcomes for summer chum in Hood Canal are the result of years of intense work by many people. The recovery effort began in 1992, after state and tribal biologists observed adult summer chum returns falling to an all-time low — from tens of thousands of fish in the 1970s to less than 1,000 spawners for the entire Hood Canal. Once-abundant runs of summer chum had gone extinct in about half of the 21 streams monitored in the Hood Canal region, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Other streams all had relatively low numbers.

In response, harvest managers first agreed to initiate fishing restrictions designed to protect summer chum in “terminal areas” near the streams. That same year, hatchery programs were started to boost the number of summer chum returning to the Big Quilcene River, Lilliwaup Creek and Salmon Creek. Eggs were taken and fertilized with fish returning to those three streams.

Over the next 12 years, hatchery supplementation programs were used to boost existing summer chum runs on the Hamma Hamma, Union and Tahuya rivers along with Jimmy Come Lately Creek. Considered generally successful, all were halted within 12 years (about three generations) to allow natural spawning to take over.

In addition, an extinct run was restored in Chimacum Creek south of Port Townsend, using broodstock taken from nearby Salmon Creek. Those summer chum are now flourishing. A similar reintroduction was tried on Big Beef Creek near Seabeck, using broodstock from the Big Quilcene River. Sadly, the run died out a second time after the 12-year experiment was over. Some biologists have proposed trying the project again on Big Beef, next time using fish from one or more streams on the Kitsap Peninsula — as opposed to the Big Quilcene, which is on the opposite side of Hood Canal.

Through the years of supplementation and right up to present, strict limitations on fishing were maintained to protect summer chum, which tend to return in August near the end of the Chinook run and the beginning of the coho run.

Dave Herrera, fisheries and wildlife policy representative for the Skokomish Tribe, said delisting would prove that people can be successful in salmon recovery if they work together. He noted that delisting could allow harvest managers to loosen restrictions on fishing for Chinook and coho salmon, which are important to tribal culture.

Summer chum spawning in Salmon Creek. // Photo: Lloyd Moody, courtesy of Hood Canal Coordinating Council

“We have never had a directed summer chum fishery,” said Herrera, Skokomish representative to the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. “But the listing has closed certain areas to fishing altogether. It is important for morale purposes to rebuild the summer chum population and to be able to take the incidental catch that might occur in (Chinook and coho) fisheries.”

Summer chum, which usually show up before the fall rains, typically spawn in the lower portion of streams and enter saltwater at a young age. That makes conditions in the estuaries particularly important to survival of the summer chum, according to salmon expert Larry Lestelle, who advises the Hood Canal Coordinating Council on summer chum issues. He credits summer chum successes in part to ongoing restoration efforts, including major restoration in the estuaries connected to the Big Quilcene and Little Quilcene, Union and Skokomish rivers along with creeks named Salmon, Chimacum and Jimmy Come Lately.

Such restoration efforts go beyond increasing today’s populations of summer chum in the region, Lestelle said. They also help to offset the damaging effects of climate change, including changes in stream flows and water temperatures — conditions that are likely to grow progressively worse in the coming years. Considerations of future climate change are among key factors in determining whether Hood Canal summer chum should be delisted.

Although the number of summer chum returning to Hood Canal vary greatly from year to year and from stream to stream, it appears that the total number of spawners in recent years has reached or exceeded numbers seen in the 1970s — the earliest data available before a steep decline. That’s not to compare today’s populations with historical runs. In fact, several Hood Canal streams still have relatively few or no summer chum, so the work must go on. But officials with the Hood Canal Coordinating Council argue that the risk of extinction has diminished enough to make a strong case for removing these fish from the Endangered Species List.

Getting to delisting

In 2009, a group of experts called the Puget Sound Technical Recovery Team developed a set of criteria designed to bring the risk of extinction for Hood Canal summer chum below 5 percent over the next 100 years. This 5-percent risk is key, because the National Marine Fisheries Service considers salmon populations “viable” if they can meet that standard. NMFS, which declared Hood Canal summer chum threatened in 1999, is responsible for both listing and delisting decisions for all salmon under the Endangered Species Act.

 In addition to the total number of summer chum returning to their natal streams, the general delisting criteria called for adequate numbers to be distributed among smaller geographic regions, which generally align with genetic identity. The technical team reasoned that the risk of extinction would diminish further if more streams had healthy runs of summer chum, particularly where streams are close enough together to allow salmon from one stream to stray into other streams.

 “Such a distribution of subpopulations within each population will enhance diversity, increasing the chances that each population will be resilient to future environmental and anthropogenic changes,” the report says.

Streams that had summer chum at time of listing in 1999: 1. Dungeness River, 2. Jimmycomelately Creek, 3,4. Salmon and Snow Creeks, 10. Dosewallips River, 11. Duckabush River, 12,13. Little and Big Quilcene Rivers, 15. Hamma Hamma River, 16. Lilliwaup Creek, 21. Union River. Streams where summer chum were extinct at time of listing: 5. Chimacum Creek, 6. Thorndyke Creek, 7. Big Beef Creek, 8. Seabeck Creek, 9. Stavis Creek, 14. Anderson Creek, 17. Dewatto River, 18. Skokomish River, 19. Tahuya River, 20. Mission Creek.

Because summer chum are missing from numerous streams where they once existed, the technical team suggested that all the existing summer chum runs would need to be “persistent,” while further efforts are needed to restore summer chum to streams where they had gone extinct.

An updated review of recovery goals prepared for the Hood Canal Coordinating Council in 2018, concluded that both the Hood Canal and Strait of Juan de Fuca populations are now at low risk of extinction based on two of the four criteria that NMFS uses for viability. The Hood Canal population is considered more productive for summer chum than those in the Strait and probably always has been, according to Lestelle, lead author of the 2018 report. That’s largely because Hood Canal has more summer chum streams with typically larger estuaries.

To better improve the geographic distribution of summer chum streams in Hood Canal, the report suggests a new temporary hatchery program to reintroduce summer chum to the Dewatto River on the Kitsap Peninsula and perhaps a renewed program to restore summer chum into Big Beef Creek to the north. Recent restoration work in lower Big Beef Creek likely improved spawning and rearing conditions since the first reintroduction was tried in 1996. Meanwhile, habitat in the Dewatto is considered in relatively good shape.

In southern Hood Canal, much of the estuary and lower stream channels of the Skokomish River have been restored to a more natural condition with the removal of roads, dikes and fill. Tidal channels have been reformed, and a natural marsh has been coming back to life in the Skokomish — the largest river in Hood Canal. State and tribal biologists are in the process of assessing how summer chum are utilizing that improved habitat, which likely supports salmon runs throughout lower Hood Canal.

In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, biologists are considering a hatchery supplementation project on the Dungeness River near Sequim, where major restoration work has restored much of the lower river and floodplain. In recent years, almost no summer chum have been seen in the river, yet the improved habitat holds out hope for a summer chum run larger than any other in the Strait.

Restoring healthy runs of summer chum to streams where the numbers are now low or nonexistent would increase the total number of fish returning to spawn and decrease the risk of extinction, biologists agree. Improved habitat also could help counteract the effects of long-term climate change as well as shorter-term shifts in ocean temperatures, such as El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The PDO, for example, is believed to affect the food supply and survival of summer chum at sea, creating fluctuations in annual returns, an affect that might be mitigated with healthier fish coming out of the streams. These fluctuations in ocean conditions should be taken into account when it comes time to making a decision about delisting, Lestelle says.

“One key to enabling summer chum to cope with adverse climate-change effects will be to improve and protect characteristics of habitat quality within freshwater, river mouth estuarine, and nearshore habitats,” states the 2018 report. “This proactive strategy would embrace a principle of smart investing for the future — start now and don’t wait until the need is too large to address.”

Efforts to improve habitat and thus increase the number of summer chum throughout the system will go on even after delisting, according to Brewer of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, who is working closely with federal, state and tribal biologists. As the total number of summer chum increases and the risk of extinction declines, tribal and state fisheries targeting Chinook and coho — particularly hatchery fish — can be expanded by allowing more summer chum to be taken as incidental catch.

A fish trap on the Union River provides essential information about the number of summer chum and other salmon moving upstream to spawn. Here, volunteer Miche Eslava of Olalla removes a coho salmon from the trap to send it on upstream in September 2021. Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

A major long-term goal, as expressed in the 2005 Hood Canal Summer Chum Recovery Plan, is “to protect, restore and enhance the productivity, production and diversity of Hood Canal summer chum salmon and their ecosystems … to allow future directed and incidental harvests of summer chum salmon.”

“The pathway (to delisting) must be transparent, and we need to tell everyone why we are on this path,” Lestelle said. “The science has to be rock solid.”

“We have to show that we have addressed all the threats and show how this was done,” added Brewer. “The petition to delist will pull together all the information.”

The timing of the delisting petition is still uncertain, he said, adding that such decisions will be made in consultation with federal, state and tribal scientists along with policy direction from the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s board of elected officials. Among the major questions to be answered is whether summer chum should be restored to additional streams where they have gone extinct or are in low numbers.

“We want to know what we are missing,” Brewer noted. “We want to get this right.”

Part 3 of this series will deal with Hood Canal’s in-lieu fee mitigation program. Part 1 was about a change in leadership at the Hood Canal Coordinating Council.

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