Wild salmon runs have been in steep decline in the Pacific Northwest for decades. Restoring runs to historic levels involves substantial economic costs and navigating a labyrinth of competing societal priorities and entrenched policy stances. The Stillaguamish Tribe and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission say there’s no time to wait. If we don’t act, there won’t be any more salmon.
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On a stream of the Stillaguamish River it’s spawning season for salmon. It’s so cold our breath ripples in the air. For coho sporting spawning colors of red and purple, it’s perfect. “On this particular stream it’s very productive for coho, always has been. The water comes off of White Horse Mountain and stays cold year-round, lot of groundwater steeping into it,” says Pat Stevenson, environment manager with the Stillaguamish Tribe.
Stevenson shows off habitat the tribe has been restoring — channels, tributaries, forks in the river. Logs have been positioned just so for salmon to nest and lay eggs. Already beat up from the long journey home and digging nests in the river bottom with their tails, these coho will die here. “Then they decompose down into the channel and their nutrients feed the macro invertebrates and the algae and get the cycle going again.”
We visit site after site of back channels restored for salmon — coho, chum and the endangered Chinook — to navigate, wooden crib walls built to hold back landslides, new culverts opened to prevent flooding in residential areas but also accommodate salmon. Restoring and preserving habitat is what it’s all about, says Stevenson. “We’re making headway on the restoration piece but the protection piece is pretty hit and miss.”
Loss of groundwater to record development in rural areas, dams, dikes, dwindling tree cover, building in flood plains, climate change: None are in the salmon’s favor. “We can do great projects and we can restore habitat, but if it’s being destroyed faster than we can restore it then we’re losing ground, which is the mode we’re in now.”
The Stillaguamish Tribe has a target of $40 million for restoration over a 10-year period. This year funding from the Salmon Recovery Board, the state agency assigned the job, was $500,000. “We’re backsliding and we’re not going to reach our 10-year targets until the funding goes up to a level where it can support it.”
The EPA delegated its authority over the Clean Water Act to the state Department of Ecology decades ago. But sharp reductions in staff and funding have weakened state agencies ability to do the job. Without adequate resources to restore water quality and protect endangered species, like Chinook, says Stevenson, “They’re not fulfilling their trust responsibility when they delegate their authority to the state.”
Tribes in Western Washington ceded land to the federal government in 1855 in exchange for preserving the right to harvest salmon. After generations of losing ground, the tribes met with the Council on Environmental Quality in 2011 to ask federal partners to step in and take over the job. The tribes met with President Barack Obama and presented a paper, Treaty Rights at Risk. In early December they plan to lobby Congress.
Billy Frank is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “Right now we’re on a danger road you might call it," Frank says. "There’s no habitat. The water is over-allocated in these rivers. So they have to make a change and if they don’t make a change and we don’t see one right now, it’s been a year, there won’t be any more salmon left.”
The waters of the Pacific Coast are poisoned, says Frank, with dead zones from Florence, Oregon, to the Hood Canal. The tribes are working to put the rivers back in order again, he says. But when a river’s life has been taken away, as Frank puts it, it may take 100 years. “It will take all of us, every one of us, all the federal government, the state of Washington, everybody, to start putting that watershed back in order.”
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