tree planting - estuary restoration - chinook salmon

Trees planted by volunteers in October 2019 at March Point were meant to help protect an estuary that is rearing habitat for juvenile salmon. Advocates say a healthier salmon population will help the endangered Southern Resident orca pods, for which chinook salmon are a primary food. 

Skagit Delta Tidegate Fish Initiative partners agreed in 2010 to help restore estuary habitat that chinook salmon rely on to survive and reproduce, but over a decade later, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community contends the agreement has not been met and it is ready to take the matter to court.

The tribe estimates 660 acres of estuary habitat should have been restored as part of the 2010 agreement, but was not. Meanwhile, the wild chinook salmon population remains threatened and is at a fraction of historical levels.

The Swinomish in September sent the Army Corps of Engineers a 60-day notice of intent to sue.

On Nov. 8, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will take a new look at that 2010 initiative, which was set up as a plan to help restore estuary habitat in exchange for being able to keep tidegates.

Farmers use tidegates to keep saltwater out of their fields. Tidegates allow fresh water to drain into saltwater during low tide, but they block saltwater from entering the freshwater system during high tide. They also can block fish from getting where they need to go.

The corps’ letter states it is requiring Skagit Delta Tidegate Fish Initiative partners — the Western Washington Agricultural Association, National Marine Fisheries Service and state Department of Fish and Wildlife — to revise their implementation agreement with updated information on current chinook salmon and estuary health.

Swinomish Tribal Chairman Steve Edwards said in a statement that the corps’ decision is “an important step in the right direction” in helping Skagit River chinook salmon recovery as required under the federal Endangered Species Act. The 2005 Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan noted the need for significant habitat restoration in the estuary where fresh and saltwater mix.

“There are tribal members that can’t feed their families because our salmon are hurting and chinook can’t recover without more estuary habitat,” Edwards’ statement reads.

The state of the chinook population is of increasing concern for tribes that have treaty rights to harvest the fish, for the endangered Southern Resident orcas that eat the fish at sea and for the state’s overall environmental and economic health.

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