Hood Canal nearing a potential ‘first’ for salmon recovery

VIDEO: Hood Canal nearing a potential ‘first’ for salmon recovery

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to recover salmon runs that were once commonplace in Washington, but as successes are counted – new troubles are commonly found.

When Washington released the 2018 State of the Salmon report, it was a difficult read for many who’ve spent two decades trying to revive the state’s salmon population. Despite countless efforts, salmon are still struggling to survive.

The story isn’t the same across the board, though.

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In the Hood Canal Region there is an ongoing effort to de-list summer chum, a move that would be a “first” nationwide. A number of people who spoke with KIRO 7 believe that could happen within the next two years.

Only a handful of fish have ever been removed from the endangered species list – a salmon never has, but years of work is proving beneficial with hundreds of summer chum returning this year. Talks are ongoing between those in charge or numerous projects and NOAA Fisheries to determine whether they’ve reached a stage where such a move would be safe.

“Maybe we’re there,” said Alicia Olivas, the Lead Entity Program Coordinator with the Hood Canal Coordinating Council (HCCC). "Those are questions we’re asking now, and reviewing now.

In the Hood Canal region there has been more than 100 partners including nonprofits, government, tribal leaders and individuals doing targeted actions to facilitate salmon recovery by the HCCC

The plans vary place-to-place, but the goal is the same: to return a livable habitat for salmon and set them up for success.

WHAT WE ARE SEEING THIS YEAR

This year’s numbers for salmon recovery in the Hood Canal region are still being calculated, but there are signs of success.

When KIRO 7 visited a number of recovery sites in late September, we spotted summer chum in various creeks and rivers as salmon were returning to spawn, early indications show that a good season is unfolding.

That’s an encouraging sign that shows resilience is developing naturally.

A good example is the Jimmycomelately Creek in Sequim.

Back in 1999 only seven summer chum returned to spawn in “The Jimmy.” It was almost too late to bring the species back from the brink of extinction in that specific area. After a number of projects, including the use of a hatchery program using native fish, in recent years the runs have been 100% natural.

There was a dip in numbers during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, something researchers attributed to warmer temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that made it more difficult for salmon to survive -- yet last year’s run was back in the thousands, and this year’s early returns are looking strong.

“Oh, it’s magical,” said Hilton Turnbull, a habitat ecologist with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. “I feel lucky because so many people have worked on this project, over the span of a few years we’re seeing the changes, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”

THE PROJECTS THAT HAVE WORKED

The Jimmycomelately Creek’s outlook didn’t change overnight.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, the Clallam Conservation District, Clallam County and others spent years addressing declining fish populations. Beginning in 2002 a larger project launched to recreate the original flow of the creek which had been rerouted decades earlier to build roads, a log yard and other projects.

It cost more than $6 million dollars, but within weeks of completion summer chum were spotted returning to the creek, and in recent years the habitat has naturally returned.

“I know I’m a restoration ecologist so I drink that Kool-Aid, but you can see it,” said Turnbull. “If you re-establish those connections recovery can happen in real-time.”

That’s just a portion of the summer chum spawning habitat. About 40 minutes away near Discovery Bay we caught up with Sarah Doyle of the North Olympic Salmon Coalition.

Doyle showed KIRO 7 an area where her group removed a number of abandoned creosote railroad trestles that were no longer in use, but had created problems.

“A lot of it is a collaborative effort to make sure this project, and that project, can happen,” said Doyle. “There’s all these little pieces you have to resolve before the dirty work of restoring the habitat.”

Some of that dirty work included working with a private citizen to get a septic system out of the watershed, and removing decades old wood that was creating toxicity in the same place where salmon could spawn -- NOSC ended up restoring more than 1500 feet of shoreline in Discovery Bay, one of the many places they’re slowly chipping away at issues.

One of the biggest changes that is noticeable this year is the bridge that just opened up on WA State Highway 116. Back in the 1940s an ill-advised land bridge was built to connect two islands, it cut off a route for salmon to swim and cut-off suitable habitat for all sorts of marine species by separating Oak Bay from Kilisut Harbor.

The bridge, a project spear-headed by the North Olympic Salmon Coalition, has long-term implications on how fish migrate. It also reduces the risk of water overheating inside Oak Bay, which had become a problem without the cooling Puget Sound water that had historically flowed into to the area.

“It’s improving the water quality in the southern portion of this embayment where during extreme events -- high temperatures during warm summer weeks -- we’d have fish kills,” explained Hans Daubenberger, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s habitat ecologist who took the lead on technical expertise on the bridge project.

Within days of the water connection being restored there was a noticeable change in water temperatures, a reminder -- much like the Jimmycomelately Creek project proved -- that given just enough space, nature can return on it’s own.

“It’s a little emotional frankly,” said Daubenberger. “We came out here and took a look and it’s unbelievable. We were here in 2013 taking flow measurements through the culverts -- it’s hard to believe that we’re standing here and looking at this today.”

WHY IT MATTERS

Summer chum are just one species of salmon. The bulk of headlines have, and will continue, focused on Chinook and Coho salmon due to their role in maintaining ecological health, and their importance among local tribes and the areas southern resident orcas.

That doesn’t mean that summer chum are an afterthought -- they too play an important role.

Tribes not only have treaty rights to harvest chum – though they’ve not harvested summer chum in recent years, or any salmon during their run – but chum are right behind Chinook in terms of preference when it comes to the diet of orcas.

The story of summer chum may also create a roadmap for other groups trying to recover salmon runs -- the efforts to bring back summer chum has had positive impact on shellfish, water quality and reduced flood risk. Ultimately, different species require different things to survive -- but there were countless lessons learned about partnerships that made projects come to fruition too.