Many salmon recovery efforts are taking place in Skagit County and around the region, from the large-scale levee setback at Fisher Slough on the Skagit River delta to small-scale culvert replacements on the upper Skagit River. Yet state and national data still do not have a clear picture of the wild population’s progress.

Are more wild salmon returning to rivers like the Skagit? Or is habitat still being destroyed more quickly than restoration projects can replace it?

What the numbers say

While the number of restoration efforts in Skagit and the greater Puget Sound area has grown in the name of saving wild salmon, it is unclear whether the fish population itself is also growing.

A 2012 report from the state’s Salmon Recovery Office states restoration work is drawing more salmon back to state waters, but whether wild salmon populations are increasing or decreasing depends on the watershed.

Skagit falls into the Puget Sound watershed, which was listed on the “decreasing” side of the 2012 data.

“The trend appears to be downward for Puget Sound chinook,” said Brian Abbott, executive coordinator for the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.

But state Department of Fish and Wildlife data that tallies upper and lower Skagit River chinook returns more closely shows an increase in both groups from 2011 to 2012.

According to the data, the upper Skagit group reached 9,808 fish in 2012, entering the recovery goal range of 5,380 to 26,000. The lower Skagit group did not quite reach its recovery range, falling 605 fish short.

Both populations have a history of rising and falling over the last 40 years.

While the reason the overall Puget Sound population still appears to be decreasing is uncertain, one scenario is a natural lag time between restoration work and visible results.

“We’ve had some habitat improvements, we’re doing the work, but we’re not seeing the bump (in population) we’re expecting,” Abbott said. “A lot of folks are working hard trying to get these critters back to where they should be.”

Another reason is that Puget Sound may still be losing habitat more quickly than it can be restored. In general, that’s the stance of area tribes, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Information and Education Services Manager Tony Meyer said.

Since chinook were listed as endangered 15 years ago, the Skagit Watershed Council has secured state funding for 119 projects. Those projects have restored 858 acres of estuary habitat and planted 365 acres of riparian vegetation, council Executive Director Richard Brocksmith told the Sedro-Woolley City Council on April 9.

“There’s a lot of good work that’s gone on, and most of it is measurable,” he said.

The council is the local agency that prioritizes voluntary restoration projects and applies for grants from the Recreation and Conservation Office and Salmon Recovery Funding Board. It is a partnership between 25 local, tribal and nongovernment agencies.

“It takes a lot of groups, a lot of landowners, a lot of community to make projects work well,” Brocksmith told the Skagit Valley Herald.

The council also serves as the lead agency for the Skagit River Chinook Recovery Plan under the state’s Salmon Recovery Act.

The plan was crafted in 2005 in coordination with the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Fish and Wildlife. It calls for the restoration of 1.35 million young chinook salmon in the Skagit over the next 30 years by reopening key salmon habitat.

Next year, the council will evaluate progress toward the plan’s goals and produce a 2015 report addressing road blocks and redirecting efforts as needed, Brocksmith said.

In the meantime, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, the Washington Democrat who helped secure $65 million to support the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund this year, announced April 4 that he will lobby for the same amount next year.

The money from that program is vital to improving salmon habitats in the Pacific Northwest, where the species is critical for the economy, Larsen’s office said in a news release.

“A true partnership between the federal government, states, localities and private citizens has helped to catalyze thousands of restoration and conservation projects in the region,” Larsen’s news release states. “… NOAA Fisheries Service, states, tribes and local project managers have developed an integrated approach to track progress, measure performance and ensure accountability.

“This program directly supports jobs and provides economic benefits to the communities throughout the region. Continued commitment, collaboration and resources are required to achieve the overarching goal of full recovery and sustainability.”

Brocksmith said the money Larsen is aiming to secure is one of the state and federal resources the Skagit Watershed Council competes for to fund local projects.

The council’s 2014-16 plan calls for another $21 million to fund its projects.

Why it matters

The same part of the Skagit Valley that supports a strong agriculture industry where the Skagit River melds with Puget Sound once fostered abundant returns of juvenile salmon, which hatched upstream and convened in estuarine habitat in the river delta to gain size and strength before braving the Sound and Pacific Ocean.

Over the last 125 years, however, Puget Sound has lost 70 percent of those valuable estuarine wetlands to human development, according to the state Department of Ecology.

With that loss of fish habitat, as well as other factors like water quality, overharvest and competition with hatchery fish, salmon populations native to the Northwest have dwindled.

Between 1994 and 2010, the number of chinook fell 60 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. During that same time period, the Salish Sea icon — a staple of the Puget Sound ecosystem, tribal culture and the region’s economy — was put on the Endangered Species List.

Salmon are an integral part of the regionwide food chain in freshwater and saltwater. Eagles, killer whales and grizzly bears feed on the fish, and their post-spawning carcasses supply rivers like the Skagit with a new cycle of nutrients each year.

Almost a decade after the species was listed, the Puget Sound Partnership was designated as the regional organization responsible for implementing a salmon recovery plan the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration adopted a year earlier.

The Partnership works with local communities, tribes, businesses, state and federal agencies to protect and restore habitat, raise public awareness, reform hatchery management and monitor the species’ recovery under the plan.

According to the agency, chinook are one-third as abundant as they were just over 100 years ago. And 15 of 37 historic populations are gone.

Of the 22 historic chinook populations left, the Skagit River is home to six, Brocksmith said.

To bring higher numbers back to the region requires watershed-level projects. The Skagit River is the main artery of one of 14 watersheds in the Sound. It produces half of the Sound’s wild chinook.

“Fifty percent of the chinook in Puget Sound come from right here in your backyard, in the Skagit River,” Brocksmith said.

And the Skagit is the only river in the state that still supports five native species of salmon, as well as trout and steelhead.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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