THE DECLINES OF SALMON runs, as highlighted in Peter Segall’s Sept. 2 front-page article, are a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who share a love for these fish. Salmon are declining across their range, primarily due to habitat degradation which has been made worse by changing precipitation patterns.
We are fortunate that Washington coast salmon and steelhead have declined less than elsewhere in the state; they face fewer threats than those passing through Puget Sound or over the Columbia River dams.
As executive director of the Coast Salmon Partnership, I support the ongoing work to restore salmon habitat. Restoring salmon populations is challenging, complex work. We have no silver bullet solution.
Some impacts on salmon can be managed: fisheries, hatcheries, predators, and habitat. Other threats cannot be managed; dynamic ocean environments, droughts, and floods can cause large fluctuations in annual fish numbers. Thankfully, tribal nations across the Olympic Peninsula, and beyond, are leaders in salmon restoration. The Quinault, Quileute, Hoh, Makah, Lower Elwha and Jamestown S’Klallam tribal nations all oversee river restoration plans that include large wood placement.
The Olympic Peninsula is home to many beautiful rivers, but they have suffered from 150 years of damage that keeps them from producing the abundant salmon runs of the past. Road networks fragment river systems, disrupting fish migration and suffocating salmon eggs with fine sediment.
Forests that stabilize the river banks are recovering, but their health is threatened by invasive plants such as knotweed and Scotch broom. Rivers such as the Calawah and Clearwater were once cleared to the river bank and today are starved of large wood. Restoration involving large wood placement creates deep pools, which are important cover for juvenile salmon and resting spots for migrating adult salmon.
Effective restoration takes substantial action. It took the removal of two large dams to see the re-emergence of summer steelhead and sea-run bull trout in the Elwha River. It took extensive restoration combined with supplementation to see summer chum increase from double digits to thousands of fish in Jimmycomelately Creek. In these places, restoration has been a spectacular success.
On the outer coast, however, habitat restoration is only beginning. In a typical year, the $1.7 million in state and federal funds allocated to restoration work between Neah Bay and Willapa Bay support 10-12 small projects or just a single county culvert project for the entire coast. Last year, thanks to congressional and state leadership and initiative of the restoration community, the Washington coast received $65 million.
Research indicates that we need to restore 20 percent of a watershed before we will see a detectable increase in smolt production. On the outer coast, we are nowhere near that.
Investments in salmon restoration directly benefit our coastal communities. They bring jobs to local contractors and training for youth. Workers buy gas locally, supplies at family-owned hardware stores and food at local markets. Restoration projects protect roads to popular rain forests and beaches of Olympic National Park and help preserve culturally important sites, such as the Quileute Tribe’s Thunder Field.
The benefits for salmon, however, will take big, bold action. I am proud to support the tribes, conservation districts, fish enhancement groups and nonprofits who stand ready to perform this important work.
Mara Zimmerman is the Executive Director of the Coast Salmon Partnership and Foundation in Aberdeen.