Attention to restoring the Puget Sound chinook salmon population, of which Skagit River fish are a major component, continues to grow.
Despite billions of dollars invested in research and habitat restoration since Puget Sound chinook were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1999, the population remains at concerning numbers.
The state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board this week announced another $21 million in grant funding for various projects primarily targeting chinook, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced an effort to expand upon chinook conservation and restoration plans.
The status of Puget Sound chinook was also discussed in recent days by NOAA Fisheries staff at a National Estuaries Week event, by the Puget Sound Partnership’s Salmon Recovery Council, and by members of the Skagit Watershed Council at the organization’s annual meeting.
Skagit River projects including at the Barnaby Reach were celebrated by some as accomplishments for salmon, while others cautioned that limited habitat in the estuary where the river mixes with Skagit Bay remains a major concern for young chinook.
Skagit Watershed Council Executive Director Richard Brocksmith said that’s an area where work should continue.
“We have a high level of certainty that this rearing habitat is limited, and a high level of certainty that wetland restoration projects and estuary restoration projects are working. ... It reinforces that there are certain dials we can turn in the Skagit watershed,” he said.
Of the state’s latest grant funding, $1.3 million was awarded to five projects in the Skagit River watershed. Each of the project descriptions suggests a benefit to chinook.
The local projects range from purchasing habitat for conservation south of Sedro-Woolley to monitoring changes at the Britt Slough restoration site southwest of Mount Vernon.
The funding will also support designing a major estuary restoration project planned for the Island Unit in the south fork of the Skagit River and considering options for restoration at the south end of the Swinomish Channel.
Saving salmon is important for cultural, economic and environmental reasons.
“These grants are one of our best tools for reversing the decline of salmon populations,” Salmon Recovery Funding Board Chair Jeff Breckel said in the release. “Without this funding, we simply wouldn’t be able to save salmon, which are such a critical part of our Northwest culture, economy and quality of life.”
Fish and Wildlife, meanwhile, is reviewing efforts to protect and grow the Puget Sound chinook population. The state agency on Wednesday released a draft report and began taking public comment.
A web page where comments will be accepted through Oct. 22 asks: Are we missing important information? Are there errors in the information that we have summarized? Are there new approaches to the management of recreational and nontreaty commercial fisheries that should be considered?
According to the document, federal and state agencies have long recognized the importance of Skagit River chinook in restoring the regional population.
The Skagit is the largest river in Puget Sound, produces the greatest number of chinook, and has been the focus of many salmon habitat projects. Still, even the number of chinook that return to the Skagit River remains a fraction of historical levels.
“Production is hampered by habitat degradation that includes barriers to passage, armoring of nearshore habitat, channel confinement that results in scouring out of salmon eggs during high flow, loss of estuarine habitat critical to rearing ... and the presence of hydroelectric dams that block access,” Fish and Wildlife’s draft document states.