Fish Recovery needs State Nurture
by Jeffrey Koenings
More than a million adult coho salmon returned to the Columbia River in 2001 for the largest run in 15 years. In 2002, chinook salmon made an exceptionally strong showing in the Columbia and off the Washington coast, prompting more than one headline writer to proclaim the long-awaited "return of the kings."
This year's projections look equally promising, with banner returns of chinook and coho salmon not seen since the 1950s.
All of this is welcome news for everyone concerned about the future of salmon -- and salmon fishing -- in our state. After a decade of declining returns, when more than a dozen salmon and steelhead populations were listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, many stocks from the Columbia River to Puget Sound appear to be on the rebound.
With this kind of encouragement, some may ask if we've turned the corner on salmon recovery and whether we can scale back the scientific, financial and other resources we've committed to that effort in recent years.
The simple answer is no -- at least not if we're serious about the long-term health of Washington's salmon and steelhead stocks. Scaling back would close a critical window of opportunity we now have to make real progress toward the goal.
Why? In the first place, most scientists agree that the sudden increase in salmon returns is due primarily to a cyclical change in ocean conditions known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Similar to El Niņo, this natural phenomenon has been recorded off the Pacific coast since the early 1900s, causing ocean temperatures to oscillate between warmer and colder every 20 to 30 years.
Scientists have since determined that the colder pattern increases survival rates for most species of salmon during their years at sea.
Based on climatological data, the last ocean warming cycle began in the late 1970s and extended until the mid-to-late 1990s, when reduced numbers of returning salmon were especially apparent. Since then, ocean conditions on the Pacific coast have literally undergone a sea change, causing upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water that have boosted ocean survival rates for salmon from Washington to California.
The most obvious sign of the recent turnaround has been the large return of hatchery fish and healthy wild stocks to the Columbia River. Less obvious, but critically important, is that more than half of the ESA-listed salmon stocks surveyed over the past five years also have had higher numbers of spawners -- a direct result of improved ocean survival rates and harvest reforms made in recent years.
If the ocean cycle behaves as it has in the past, most species of Pacific salmon could continue to enjoy favorable ocean conditions for up to two decades before the next downturn.
That's encouraging, but it doesn't necessarily mean Washington's depressed salmon and steelhead populations are on the road to recovery, according to a panel of scientists who recently examined that issue for federal fisheries officials.
Indeed, after reassessing all 27 Pacific salmon and steelhead populations listed for ESA protection, the panel concluded that all of them still show "significant continuing risk" of extinction.
Why? As the panel stated in a recent draft report, higher run sizes in recent years "may be due primarily to unusually favorable conditions in the marine environment rather than more permanent alleviations in the factors that led to widespread declines in abundance over the past century."
The bottom line, as the science panel sees it, is that favorable ocean conditions may come and go but wild salmon populations will never truly rebound unless action is taken to effectively address all the factors threatening their survival. Those factors, often called the "four H's" of salmon recovery, include harvest pressure, hatchery operations, hydro facilities and habitat conditions.
As the director of a state agency directly involved in salmon recovery in this state, I agree that we cannot rely on current ocean conditions to restore depressed salmon and steelhead runs.
I would point out, however, that our state has taken major steps to address all four H's over the past decade, setting a course for recovery of wild stocks. The road map for achieving that goal includes:
Harvest management: Since the mid-1990s, fishing restrictions and harvest reforms imposed by state and tribal fisheries managers, along with a new treaty signed with Canada, have greatly reduced impacts on depressed stocks and boosted the number of salmon surviving to spawn. In addition, the state has moved aggressively into a new era of "selective" fisheries, requiring anglers to release any wild salmon or steelhead they catch while allowing them to retain hatchery fish marked with a clipped adipose fin.
Hatchery operations: In 2000, an intensive review of hatchery operations led by a panel of independent scientists was initiated to ensure that state, tribal and federal hatchery operations are consistent with wild salmon recovery. Modifications recommended by the panel, including closure of a hatchery, are now under way. Hatcheries, meanwhile, have continued their historic role of raising fish that would have been produced naturally if habitat had not been destroyed or altered.
Hydro facilities: Dams and other power-producing facilities have long been required to replace or provide mitigation for fish lost because of their operations. In recent years, mitigation activities have been directed toward restoring wild runs as well as supporting hatchery production. On the Skagit River, for example, wild chinook stocks remained relatively stable throughout the difficult decade of the 1990s largely because of an agreement with Seattle City Light to improve stream flows as a condition of relicensing dam operations.
Habitat restoration: Since 1999, more than 600 habitat-restoration projects -- mostly carried out by volunteers -- have been initiated with state and federal funding to improve critical spawning and rearing habitat for wild salmon and steelhead populations. Impassable culverts have been replaced and other barriers cleared to open 400 river miles of spawning habitat on public and private lands. Comprehensive, science-based recovery plans are currently being developed by local watersheds and entire regions of the state.
Many of these initiatives are already showing results. New harvest management policies, for example, were helping increase the number of wild salmon and steelhead to reach the spawning grounds even before the recent turnaround in ocean conditions.
But getting fish to the spawning grounds is only the first step. Once there, salmon need adequate spawning habitat and rearing areas where juvenile fish can mature before heading to the sea.
While stream-restoration projects initiated since the 1990s have opened hundreds of miles of freshwater habitat, thousands more remain blocked to spawning salmon or cannot consistently provide homes for young fish because of poor water quality or other factors. Meanwhile, our state's human population is growing at a rate of a million new residents every decade, putting additional pressure on already fragile freshwater habitat.
Can we save wild salmon and steelhead stocks in Washington state?
Yes, I believe we can. But only if we maintain our commitment to do so. Thousands of people throughout the state are now working to rebuild weak stocks and restore habitat areas critical for their survival. Sound policies, based on the best available science, are providing a road map for this far-ranging effort.
With Mother Nature now on our side, we have a real opportunity to jump-start these efforts and reverse the historic decline of our native salmon and steelhead stocks. This may well be our last chance, since many stocks already threatened with extinction may not otherwise survive the next major downturn in ocean conditions.
To turn our backs on this critical window of opportunity would be to leave the future of these precious resources to the vagaries of ocean currents.
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