Local Action Leads to Salmon Comeback in Washington’s Hood Canal
Facing the deterioration of the rivers where they breed, salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest have been declining for decades. But in Washington State’s Hood Canal, one species of salmon, summer chum (Oncorhynchus keta), is recovering to levels that could result in its removal from the endangered species list.
Summer chum salmon populations in Hood Canal, a fjord about 50 miles west of Seattle that opens into Puget Sound, have always relied on the ecosystems of glacier-fed rivers and coastal estuaries to reproduce. Overfishing, destruction of estuary habitats, and a warming climate caused the region’s populations to crash, and the species was listed as threatened in 1999. But now, after years of efforts by local projects, the salmon runs are reaching de-listing levels, which indicates that their population levels are robust enough to ensure their prolonged survival.
Summer chum spend their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean until they swim, or “run,” upstream to reproduce during the summer. After the adults lay their eggs in the freshwater rivers and streams, they die and the next generation of salmon makes its way out to the Pacific. Without unimpeded cold rivers and estuaries, salmon are unable to spawn in numbers large enough to sustain their populations.
Scott Brewer is the executive director of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council (HCCC), a council of tribal and governmental representatives that initiates and implements watershed protection projects. Brewer participated in discussions to take summer chum off of the endangered species list. He told GlacierHub, “I think we’re there. The numbers are there. We have the habitats.”
Despite the significance of reaching this milestone, Alicia Olivas of the HCCC and others are aware that stewardship must continue after de-listing. “I think we have to have a good plan, and we’re talking about doing a ‘recovered’ plan so that we can make sure that they stay in recovery,” said Olivas.
The Skokomish and S’Klallam tribes, as well as other Native tribes in the Hood Canal area, value salmon culturally and economically and consider them an important food source. In 1855, as Europeans were encroaching on the land and resources of the tribes, the United States government signed a treaty with the Skokomish tribe that established their right to harvest the same amount of fish as non-tribal fishers. The provisions of this treaty were often violated. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s, after long protests from tribal fishers, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tribal and non-tribal fishers must share fish equally and that the U.S. government must protect salmon populations and their habitat.
Brewer, who works with members of the Skokomish and S’Klallam tribes in the HCCC, outlined the status of overfishing before treaty rights were respected. “Before tribes went to court and were able to get equal fishing rights established, non-tribal fishing fleets were taking all the fish before they even ended up in Hood Canal.”
— Northwest Treaty Tribes (@nwtreatytribes) October 13, 2020
For Brewer, the listing of summer chum as threatened and the recovery plan that followed was a catalyst for the cooperation of communities in the region and a way to further respect established treaty rights. “This was a great opportunity to pull us all together because salmon don’t live by the boundaries of counties,” he said.
The effort to bring back salmon habitats and summer chum populations has necessitated the cooperation of over 100 organizations, including NGOs, non-profit governmental organizations, and community groups. These different organizations focus on a number of actions, including restoring habitats, establishing salmon hatcheries, and enforcing fishing regulations.
“We firmly believe that we are stronger when we have multiple partners,” said Mendy Harlow, the executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group (HCSEG), a non-profit organization created by the Washington State legislature to implement projects that restore salmon. “Multiple brains working together definitely helps us answer questions with more confidence. Having more partners involved in a project helps build a lot of community support within the body of work that we’re doing and also brings a lot more folks to the table who can help support funding.”
Projects implemented by the HCSEG have in recent years been focused on protecting and restoring the vegetation, sediments, and relative health of local estuary habitats, where the rivers meet the oceans. “Summer chum leave the freshwater fairly quickly after they come out of their eggs,” said Clayton David, a salmon biologist at HCSEG. “Estuaries being intact is a really important key to having them survive, become adults, and come back to spawn again.” Estuaries, however, have become significant sites of agricultural development.
Educating and building relationships with people who live near the estuaries and rivers that salmon frequent has been a vital component of Hood Canal salmon restoration. What has made these projects so successful has been long-term relationships and compromises made between counties, tribes, fisheries, community members, and even tourists who visit the area to see the salmon run.
While many people in the Hood Canal area are excited about the potential of de-listing these salmon, some are more hesitant to declare total success. Changes in ocean temperatures, specifically the intensification of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation off the coast of Washington, are becoming more extreme as global temperatures continue to rise. “Salmon have evolved over 30,000 years to be what they are,” said Harlow. “The climate around us is changing so rapidly that I worry about their ability to adapt to this rapid change.”
Despite the threats of climate change, the recovery of summer chum is an example of the positive impact that governmental, tribal, and local community engagement can have on local ecosystems. As Scott Brewer told GlacierHub, “I hope that people who are thinking about salmon recovery, and maybe just any kind of natural resource recovery, can look at our example and hopefully learn.”