How Are Pierce County Salmon Really Doing in 2017?

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I come from a salmon fishing family. Dating back to my great grandparents on both sides of my family are people that enjoyed going salmon fishing in the northwest. Now that my kids are 8 and 10 it's time to get them out on Puget Sound salmon fishing this summer. While it may seem unsustainable to some, fishing is a strong part of our culture in Puget Sound. People who fish largely care about the well being of fish and tend to understand the need for improved habitat and better water quality. Simply put without Tribes and fishing interests there would be a lot less interest in the health and wellness of salmon in Puget Sound.

But how are salmon doing in Pierce County? I asked 8 local experts from Tribes, local and State governments, and non-profits with expertise in salmon recovery. The answers are alarming but not actually surprising if you have been keeping up with the news. There are a lot of challenges that we face in trying to recover Salmon in Pierce County. Please take a moment to read the words of local experts on how Salmon are doing in Pierce County, and what you can do to help.       

How are salmon doing in Pierce County?

"A scientist’s favorite phrase is “it depends”. In this case, it depends on where in Pierce County and it depends on the species of salmon. In the most general terms, the first word that comes to mind is “fragile”."

"Poorly.  With current trends in development, climate change and politics the hopes to return natural runs to a sustainable population are miniscule. At this point it is an effort to keep salmon from the brink of extinction.  An ER patient on life support."

"This is a challenging question because it does not identify a single measure or specific set of metrics to compare. Some species are doing better than others and this varies from watershed to watershed and stream to stream. Most biologists use total adult run size as a simple metric for trend comparison. Total run size is equal to catch plus escapement. It is also helpful to narrow down the specific local, watershed or sub-watershed to compare. For example, White River wild coho are doing exceptionally well if you compare the average escapement at Buckley for the past 10 years with any previous 10 year period going back to 1941. Carbon River and Puyallup River wild coho escapements contrast markedly with far fewer fish on the spawning grounds over the past 10 years then were counted historically. Steelhead numbers are also down in Pierce County but they are down throughout Puget Sound and throughout much of the region with the exception of the Olympic Coast. Chum are far less abundant now throughout the watershed then they were historically or even 10 years ago. Spring Chinook returns to Buckley in 2016 was the largest ever observed! Pink salmon returns to the watershed are at an all-time high and have been at record levels for the past decade. Fall Chinook numbers watershed wide are poor and have been so for many years."

"Salmon continue to be on life support in Pierce County. Some systems support strong runs of fish (e.g., Fennel Creek, South Prairie Creek), though those lack their historic unique qualities as they’ve hybridized with hatchery-run fish. And these systems have experienced recent low returns as have other systems in Puget Sound."

"There are several watersheds to consider, but my comments will apply to the Nisqually. In general, salmon populations are not doing particularly well in Pierce County. Chinook and steelhead are listed as threatened under the ESA.  Although there have been a few recent years of increased returns for steelhead, the trends are still poor and the tribe has not had a fishery for them in 25 years. Chinook in the Nisqually are a hatchery fish from the Green River that we are attempting a reintroduction with poor results to date. Chum and coho are experiencing recent declines that we are hopeful do not amount to a trend."

"Salmon populations are statistically stable, however the current populations are a fraction of historic numbers. Generally, salmon are in trouble in Pierce County."

"This is also nuanced because we have hatchery fish and wild…so even if we see good numbers, how many are wild?" 

"I am cautiously optimistic."

What are the major causes of salmon decline in Pierce County?

"The increased incidence of flood flow frequency and magnitude are undisputed culprits but many factors contribute to reduced returns including higher water temperatures, pollutants and sediments in spawning reaches, habitat and channel simplification and of course the fact that the estuary that is Puget Sound is a dumping ground for both treated and untreated waste from every community."

"Barriers to fresh water habitat. When we did the original Basin Plan for Gig Harbor, we found that fish weren’t even able to access 80% of the habitat. Other causes include low (or no) summer flows, embeddedness, reductions in remote site incubation programs, loss of riparian cover, loss of juvenile habitat (both marine and freshwater), and the stormwater pollutants."

"Poor water quality, poor in-stream habitat, artificial fish passage barriers, lack of particular habitat types (e.g., estuary)"

"There are many. Poor summer flows in tributaries resulting from a number of causes including exempt well uses, stormwater inputs, fresh and marine shoreline habitat losses, elevated Puget Sound and Ocean temperatures, and marine mammal predation."

"Stormwater pollution. Inadequate fish passage at Mud Mountain and the Buckley Diversion dams. Loss of habitat, particularly in the Puyallup River estuary. Straightened, channelized rivers that don’t allow rivers to interact with floodplains. Regulatory challenges and lack of funding for levee maintenance, culvert replacement, and agricultural drainage maintenance. Inadequate funding to implement on the ground projects. Poor marine survival, particularly in south Puget Sound. Lack of understanding among the general public, and elected officials that salmon are in serious trouble. The increasing population of Puget Sound, and the associated development."

"Lack of political will to make hard decisions that put fish and other natural resources as a high priority.  Decreased sense of place  that includes salmon as part of our story and natural heritage. Shoreline armoring is a major causes of decline. Pierce County has a lot of new armoring compared to other jurisdictions around Puget Sound. We may have had the most or second most additional linear feet. I think that it is important to note that floodplain development is detrimental to fish."

"Unfortunately, there is no one smoking gun. Salmon decline is a cumulative, compounding effect of numerous variables; some seemingly mutually exclusive, some obviously interconnected. It is extremely complicated to tease out just one or a few “major” causes, particularly when you single out Pierce County from a salmon’s overall life history."

What makes you optimistic about salmon recovery in Pierce County? 

"Well minded people and some recent dollars for habitat projects. Many people in PC still see the salmon as an icon and worthy of attention."

"We continue to learn from our mistakes and legislation, although far too slow and indirect, provides for corrections."  

"We have removed a LOT of fish barriers and are continuing to do so."

"There is a strong coalition in support of habitat protection and restoration that is helping to increase the amount of funding to Pierce County salmon recovery efforts (e.g., Floodplains for the Future, Nisqually River Council)."

"We have quality science supporting our needed actions – we know what to do.  The question is whether or not we will do them."

"The role of active, engaged leaders from Pierce County like Tom Kantz and Dan Wrye who are participating in regional salmon recovery efforts. They are strong leaders who are integrating what’s important for salmon recovery in Pierce County into regional recovery efforts."

"While the lower river systems present habitat challenges, there is some relatively good habitat in the upper portions of Pierce County rivers. The White River spring chinook population is one of just three spring chinook populations in Puget Sound."

"The efforts of Forterra and PCC Farmland Trust to implement market driven conservation tools such as the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) to protect farmland and increased urban density.  Diane Marcus Jones with Pierce County Planning deserves a big shout out here as well! The many positive collaborative efforts that are attracting millions of dollars in funding such as-

  • The Russel Family Foundation Puyallup Watershed Initiative
  • Strong Floodplains by Design applications and projects
  • The Clear Creek TAG"

"There is so much enthusiasm and positive momentum around salmon recovery right now. There are entities some people would consider unorthodox or at odds with salmon recovery (the Port, for example) working hard behind the scenes to be a major player in salmon recovery. The Port is a vested stakeholder to ensure current and future generations have the opportunity to experience the vital role that salmon plays in Pierce County. The Port is dedicated to being good stewards to the environment and has constructed, participated in, or contributed to over 200 acres of habitat and open space. The majority of our restoration efforts is dedicated to salmon recovery. This dedication provides me hope that our efforts are making a difference in salmon recovery."

How is Climate Change impacting salmon?

"Dramatically.  Salmon need cold water and future prospects are not good. High winter flows will scour redds and force juveniles to the sea prematurely. Glaciers are shrinking and may no longer support specific runs like bull trout and spring Chinook. We may see a shift in the species composition to salmon less dependent on freshwater rearing. Go Pinks!"

"Higher flows, lower flows, warmer water, and more stressors ,both physical and biological  imposed on fish."

"Two ways: 1) We’re seeing much “flashier” storm events which can wash away redds and (even if they aren’t there at the time) change the spawning gravels so they much less hospitable and 2) higher temps equal higher water temperatures which can be stressful (if not deadly) to salmon.  It’s causing ocean acidification which is currently having a noticeable impact on shellfish but may eventually start effecting salmon."

"Climate change will impact multiple salmonids through changes in food availability in the open ocean (e.g., bait fish migration patterns will change), as well as the availability of water, particularly during summer months. Without the snow packs and glaciers feeding our major rivers during the low-flow months of July through September, river temperatures will rise, dissolved oxygen will drop, and fish die-offs will increase. Investing in refugia (e.g., cold streams in the high mountains, large woody debris in stream) will help mitigate for some of these impacts."

"Very important. It is a fact and providing ecosystem resiliency is our only hope for salmon. Protecting and restoring fresh and marine habitats to combat climate change and recover salmon is critical."

"In multiple ways – reduced snowpack translates into less water for salmon, particularly during summer months when streams move towards base flows. Reduced summer stream flows will present challenges for salmon. Climate change is impacting sediment in rivers. More intense precipitation events, less snow and more rain, and retreating glaciers means there will be more rain on dirt. This is going to increase sedimentation in rivers. This impacts how people manage rivers, and changes how salmon interact with river ecosystems. Increased summer temperatures will lead to increased water temperatures. Less snow and more rain makes for flashier systems and bigger flood events. Bigger floods impacts salmon in different ways."

"Climate change is one of innumerable factors that impact salmon." 

What can people do to support salmon recovery in Pierce County?

"Many small changes can have a huge collective impact if enough people participate. Don’t put anything down storm drains, fix leaky vehicles, landscape thoughtfully, educate your friends and neighbors about practices that impact salmon recovery, reduce your driving time/distances whenever possible, volunteer your time to habitat restoration events (the Port has several of these a year, hint hint). All these can add up to make a difference."

"Elect enlightened political representatives.  Put pressure on PC to enforce regulations and create new ones to limit development in floodplains."

"Care about clean water, clean air and the environment we live in!"

"Keep and plant more trees, reduce impervious surfaces"

"Reduce surface water runoff and illicit dumping to storm drains, support growth patterns to focus new housing and job centers in urban areas, and support funding to invest in habitat acquisition and restoration – which often doubles as publicly-accessible open space (e.g., greenways, parks)."

"Two things – get involved at the local level and be a part of the solution on the ground; and, vote!  Vote for candidates that support science, salmon, and Puget Sound at all levels of government from city councils to federal offices."

"Support policies such as green infrastructure incentives and bonds for replacing aging or obsolete stormwater and wastewater facilities."

"Follow the Puget Sound Starts Here website and act on the recommendations there for helping to ensure clean water. Support programs to protect farmland and encourage increased urban infill and density. Contact elected officials and let them know salmon recovery is important."

"Take people fishing and share your love of fishing and the natural environment with friends and family."

"Plan for climate resiliency."

If you could make one change for salmon in policy or land use what would it be?

"Streamline (pun not intended) the permitting process to make it easier to build habitat projects."

"Reconnect floodplains and remove the infrastructure. This will help more than just salmon."

"Implement tertiary wastewater treatment statewide!"

"Stronger marine shoreline protections (ie. larger setbacks, keep vegetation, reduce armoring, fewer docks)"

"Increased funding for buying development rights where open space areas (e.g., farms) intersect with critical salmon habitat. This is the best path forward politically with farmers and decision-makers to reducing the threat to salmon habitat as well as in making strides toward restoring salmon-bearing rivers and streams once those lands are protected from development. Full funding for culvert and barrier removals."

"Have as a measureable outcome for all land use regulations improved and increased ecosystem services, not no net loss mitigation.  Every action that potentially impacts the habitats that salmon need, from the mountain to the sea and shorelines, needs to be permitted and considered for its ability to improve conditions.  Permitting activities under the no net loss standard is simply inadequate while we have salmon populations on the brink of extinction."

"Designating critical fish and wildlife habitat based on best available science, and implement ordinances to protect it."

"Plan for climate change – bigger buffers, more riparian in certain areas to make sure we have shade on the rivers/streams. Enforce the environmental regulations that already exist. Eliminate variances and exemptions that allow development to impact critical areas – especially those that anadromous fish rely on."