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To Save WA Salmon, Choose Science, Not Silver Bullets

by Todd Myers and Joe Ryan
Seattle Times, September 26, 2023

Adult Runs to Idaho of Salmon and Steelhead (1962-2022) counted at highest dam of their migratory route. After decades of work, salmon continue to struggle in Puget Sound and across the state, with populations hovering near unsustainable levels.

As Washington's State of Salmon in Watersheds report notes, "No salmon species have been removed from the federal Endangered Species Act list in Washington and most of the species on the list are in crisis or not keeping pace with recovery goals."

Chinook have been particularly hard hit.

In Puget Sound, between 2004 and through 2019, there were declines in the number of spawners in 16 of the 22 Chinook populations. The state badly missed the 2020 goal to improve wild Chinook populations in each of the five biogeographic regions.

This slow pace of recovery is creating frustration, which leads some to look for silver bullet solutions that encourage politicians to override science-based salmon recovery.

For example, after some groups expressed concern about high stream temperatures -- a significant problem -- the Legislature added $50 million to fund efforts to cool those waters.

But legislators cut money for the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, which provides science-based grants where they are most needed. Restoring streams can be useful, but the dollars allocated specifically to riparian zones could have been put to better use by the board's addressing projects in all habitat areas.

Meanwhile, the Health Environment for All Act, a new law based on environmental justice, requires state government to replace scientific metrics with social and political priorities, again siphoning money away from locations where funding is needed to accelerate salmon recovery.

If salmon populations were recovering, these examples of politics overriding science would still be frustrating. When salmon are not recovering -- or declining as many runs are in Puget Sound -- they are indefensible.

Washington's salmon recovery has generally been guided by science and local salmon experts. Local plans have funded the most important habitat projects, monitored results and reassessed. Although underfunded, this was the right strategy. Frustration and politics are leading us away from this approach.

It is not too late to get back on track, but we must start now. Salmon recovery advocates and the Legislature need to refocus on three key points.

First, we need to increase the science available to guide recovery. A 2022 assessment from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration highlights the need for better scientific monitoring, stating, "the program is still not fully functional, neither for providing an assessment of watershed habitat restoration/recovery programs, nor for fully integrating the essentially discrete habitat, harvest and hatchery programs." Funding good science helps make habitat funding more effective.

Second, rather than making decisions in Olympia -- either in the Legislature or at state agencies -- more funding should be provided directly to local watersheds.

Directly funding local watersheds allows those on the ground to make use of local knowledge and experience. For tribes, this can be traditional knowledge. It could also be understanding that comes with experience.

Local control also creates accountability. When legislators or staff in Olympia make mistakes, accountability is rare. Local control creates incentives to choose effective projects. The natural resource director from one tribe explained that when he screwed up, tribal members were at his door. Direct accountability is important to ensuring recovery work is successful.

Finally, the reality is we need to increase funding for science-based grants like the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund. Without it, we simply won't meet our goals. Some of that funding should come from money that has been diverted to political approaches.

Despite the rhetoric, salmon recovery has been consistently underfunded even as state budgets have rapidly expanded. That must change.

A commitment to salmon recovery is vital because salmon are an important species for the Northwest, and because increased populations will help southern resident orca, honor tribal treaty rights and provide economic benefits for the state. Achieving these goals will take time, but unless we increase our commitment by providing the resources and focusing them where the science guides us, we will continue to stagnate and the frustration that is distracting us will only grow worse.

Related Pages:
Snake River Dams Vital to Renewable Energy Future by Terry Flores, Spokesman-Review, 5/28/16

Todd Myers is the Washington Policy Center's environment director and a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Center.
Joe Ryan was the first director of salmon recovery for the Puget Sound Partnership.
To Save WA Salmon, Choose Science, Not Silver Bullets
Seattle Times, September 26, 2023

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