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Salmon: The uphill run for survival

A Chinook spawns in a Washington state river. Credit: Photo: Dan Hershman

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.

Click on the player above or here to listen to the audio version of this story.

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.”

Hatcheries have been critical to restoring salmon runs for the tribes since the 1950s. Most often they serve as wild salmon nurseries that improve the survival of juvenile fish and increase returns of salmon that spawn naturally. Last year the 20 tribes that make up the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission released about 14 million chinook, 6 million coho and 20 million chum.

Stillaguamish Tribe Hatchery Manager Kevin Gladsjo says, if it weren’t for the hatchery program, there wouldn’t be any runs. “They’re so few fish out there they just can’t procreate enough to get enough of ‘em to build back up again. So we have to do it here to keep ‘em safe until they’re big enough to avoid predators and then we release 'em.” Critics such as the Wild Fish Conservancy say the species has been weakened by hatchery fish breeding with wild fish. But Frank says hatcheries must remain a central part of salmon management for as long as degraded habitat prevents watersheds from naturally producing self-sustaining runs.

Hatcheries aren’t an excuse to walk away from protecting and restoring habitat, says Frank. You can’t have hatcheries without habitat. “A hatchery salmon goes out into the ocean and travels up into the cold water in the Aleutian Islands and stays out there for six or seven years. It’s a hatchery salmon and it’s strong and powerful. And then it comes back home and the rivers got to be a home for the salmon to come home to. That’s the habitat. It’s got to be there.”

Back on the Stillaguamish Tribe restoration tour, Pat Stevenson shows off a site on a channel near the tiny town of Hazel. For 15 years the tribe has built a series of log jams to create pool habitat and braid the channel, separating flow and gravel into the size salmon like. “And we have fish spawning downstream now, Chinook that haven’t spawned in 20, 30 years. So the sediment has almost stopped.” Stevenson points to a massive 1,500-foot long wooden wall, built to separate the river from a steep hillside. Sediment, or the silt clay deposited when the glaciers receded, smothers salmon eggs. “If you walk on the ridge top, where those giant trees are, there’s cracks in the ground that are two feet wide that it’s just a matter of time something is going to come off. But at least now there’s a bunch of trees in front of us that are going to slow down the sediment before it gets to the river.”

The tribe is slowing things down for the salmon and for the houses that surround the river. They have their hands full, whether they succeed in getting more help from the feds, only time will tell.

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