OLYMPIA, Wash. — Salmon recovery in Washington isn’t happening fast enough. In fact, a new biannual State of the Salmon report reads more like the Titanic’s famed warning, “Iceberg right ahead!” It’s not a potential iceberg we’re heading toward, though. Rather, it’s a viable threat of salmon extinction.
“Overall, the news is not good,” said Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Recreation and Conservation Office, as she kicked off a media briefing of the latest findings. “Salmon are in crisis.”
Cottingham explained there are success stories, but they’re being outpaced by a slew of issues that have created a crisis scenario for several salmon species in Washington state.
If you’re looking for good news, it’s possible to find. It’s just that the scale at which solutions are implemented need to be expanded, which costs a lot of money.
Back in 2011, a study showed the cost to restore habitat throughout the state by 2020. That report pegged the cost at around $5 billion — roughly 22% of that amount has been allocated at that time.
What’s going right
The state has a lengthy list of habitat restoration projects that show promise.
The latest report highlights how the Confederate Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation restored habitat along the Entiat River.
It also looks at work by the North Olympic Salmon Coalition and the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe to connect Oak Harbor and Killisut Harbor — a connection that was blocked decades ago when state Route 116 was built.
“Unfortunately, we can’t restore the habitat fast enough,” said Erik Neatherlin, executive coordinator of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office. “Currently, the ability to fix the problem is being outpaced by the loss of habitat.”
In addition to restoration work, Washington also underwent a “dam diet” in 2020 with dams on the Nooksak and Pilchuck removed.
Culverts that are either too small or blocked are being steadily removed around the state to improve the chances of salmon navigating streams where roads have been built. Though, roughly 20,000 known blockages remain.
What’s going wrong
As Neatherlin noted: The pace of habitat loss looms large.
Washington is growing. Since 1990, the state has grown by 55% — an additional 9 million people are expected to be added to our population in the next two decades.
That growth exacerbates the problems we already face: climate change, warming rivers and diminishing habitat.
It’s not an unwinnable fight, but there’s no shortage of ominous concerns.
Salmon rely on cool, clean water to survive — that’s difficult to offer when people build close to shorelines.
Homes and businesses built on shorelines for decades have created hundreds of miles of sea walls and bulkheads. This, in turn, eliminates beaches, which salmon rely on for food and spawning. That process, referred to as shorelines armoring, is often done to protect what’s built near the shore.
Building close to the water can also eliminate natural barriers to rivers, streams and estuaries too. It increases the likelihood of oil, pesticides, manure, garbage and more making their way into streams — not to mention it eliminates woody debris that typically falls into rivers, creating natural habitats that salmon rely on.
The State of the Salmon report lays out strategies for what can be done, noting that saving salmon also means ensuring a food source for our resident orca whales while improving our own quality of life.
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