the film
Commentaries and editorials

Washington's 'State of Salmon' Report
Finds Much Work Is Still Needed

by K.C. Mehaffey
NW Fishletter, February 4, 2019

Water pours through the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River east of 
Pasco. It is one of four lower Snake River dams covered in an environmental review that will look at whether removing the dams is the best option to improve salmon runs. A new report on the status of Endangered Species Act-listed salmon throughout Washington state finds that Snake River fall Chinook and Hood Canal summer chum are approaching recovery goals, while populations of upper Columbia River spring Chinook and Puget Sound Chinook have lost ground.

Meanwhile, five other stocks are making progress towards recovery and six are not.

The State of Salmon in Watersheds 2018 report offers a look at the condition of these 15 threatened or endangered populations--11 of them from the Columbia Basin--the health of the rivers and streams they depend on, and how far plans to recover them have come.

It's been 20 years since Washington passed the Salmon Recovery Act, which created the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. The six citizen groups that followed have developed plans and sought funding for specific projects to aid in salmon and steelhead recovery.

Four of the eight regions examined are in the Columbia Basin, including the upper, middle and lower Columbia River and the Snake River. The others are Hood Canal, Puget Sound, the Washington coast and northeast Washington.

"Reflecting on the past 20 years, we see thousands of people across the state doing good work to right mistakes and improve the plight of salmon," the report's executive summary says. "These efforts have saved some salmon populations from disappearing altogether and reversed or slowed the downward decline of others... . But far too many are still not improving. To stop investing in salmon is not an option."

While a tally of the stocks finds eight of the 15 runs are either not making progress or declining, Recreation and Conservation Office spokeswoman Susan Zemek said that overall, this report is more positive than previous reports. "This is a very large, complex and multi-year effort that is underway," she said. "It's not just a simple thing, and it's not going to be done in a couple of years. It's going to take that sustained effort over time to reverse all of the declining stocks."

The report suggests that substantially more funds are needed to fully implement recovery plans to save salmon and steelhead. It points to a study finding that the statewide need for habitat-related capital projects from 2010 through 2019 was $4.7 billion, based on funding requests from six salmon recovery regions.

Zemek said that state funds--intended to make up the bulk of the funding for the regional recovery plans--only provided about 16 percent of that need, or $770 million. However, she added, grants and funds from other sources, including the Bonneville Power Administration, are not included in the amount spent. In December, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board awarded nearly $18 million in grants to projects across the state--75 percent of them aimed at benefiting Chinook salmon which could also help southern resident orcas.

The report points to shoreline development and population growth as a major reason why more progress hasn't been made. The state's population has grown by 1.6 million people in the last 20 years, leading to significant habitat losses. Other reasons given for the lack of progress include climate change, predators and invasive species, and fish passage barriers.

"Progress in some sectors, such as hatcheries, harvest, and near-shore restoration, are being offset with challenges in other sectors such as general habitat loss, disease, predation and invasive species. In addition, warming oceans, changing stream environments, shifting food webs and other issues associated with climate change are playing a greater role," the executive summary said.

According to the report, the status of only one Columbia Basin population is getting worse--the upper Columbia River spring Chinook. It's also the only run listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered in Washington, although Idaho's Snake River sockeye are also endangered. According to the report, the upper Columbia has seen major declines in salmon runs "due to poor ocean conditions and poor habitat conditions caused by drought and fire."

Despite the challenge of a 500-mile journey that includes six to eight dams, the upper Columbia region also claimed some successes. So far, 441 habitat and protection projects are complete, more than 100 miles of stream habitat are restored, 225 miles have been opened to fish passage and nearly 5,000 acres of habitat are protected, the report said.

"The runs are nearly double what they were 10 years ago, but endangered spring Chinook are in desperate need of continued recovery efforts to survive," it says.

Last February, the Independent Scientific Advisory Board reviewed recovery efforts for this population, meeting with the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board, tribes, state and federal managers, PUDs and local groups to look at habitat, research and monitoring, and prioritization of recovery actions for spring Chinook in the upper Columbia.

"The recovery program in the Upper Columbia Basin is one of the better examples of an explicit strategy to guide local recovery actions, monitoring, and adaptive management," the ISAB report said. It found that scientific principals and methods for identifying the factors limiting recovery are generally sound, but also offered recommendations to improve results.

On the other side of the coin, one Columbia Basin stock is listed as approaching its recovery goal but not yet ready to be delisted--the Snake River fall Chinook, which was listed as threatened in 1992. According to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission's website, wild adult returns at Lower Granite Dam went from a total of 78 in 1990 to 16,212 wild and 42,151 hatchery Chinook in 2015.

In 2015, the Chinook Futures Coalition petitioned to delist Snake River fall Chinook. NOAA Fisheries found that, while the average 10-year abundance of 6,418 wild fish returns exceeded the proposed recovery criteria, further review is needed and the species remains threatened.

The determination was based on uncertainties about the recent strong returns, including whether those returns can be sustained, whether improvements in natural productivity will continue, and resolving the influence of hatchery production on the wild population.

Three Columbia Basin runs were found to be showing signs of progress: mid-Columbia River steelhead, lower Columbia River steelhead, and Snake River steelhead.

Meanwhile, all six stocks characterized as "Not Making Progress" are from the Columbia Basin, and include upper Columbia River steelhead, Snake River spring/summer Chinook, and lower Columbia River fall Chinook, spring Chinook, chum and coho.

However, the report says, some stocks are in this category due to a recent drop in population, or a lack of information. "Since 2016, Snake River spring and summer Chinook appear to be declining, so these species shifted to the lower 'Not Making Progress' categorization.

For lower Columbia River coho, limited data before 2010 and marine survival rate decreases in recent years make progress difficult to assess and led to assigning coho to the 'Not Making Progress' category."

The report also includes 24 salmon recovery stories which offer a glimpse of the many ongoing efforts to improve salmon habitat throughout the state.

One recovery story highlights the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's research into providing fish passage over Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams for both adults and juveniles while the Colville and Spokane tribes assess the availability of stream habitat.

The two dams block about 40 percent of the habitat once available to upper Columbia salmon and steelhead. Access to the upper Columbia and its tributaries would provide salmon with a "climate refuge," and fishing opportunities for tribes that have been absent for the last 76 years, the report says.

K.C. Mehaffey
Washington's 'State of Salmon' Report Finds Much Work Is Still Needed
NW Fishletter, February 4, 2019

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation