Habitat Restoration: The Key to Saving Our Salmon

White River
Photo credit: William Drumm

Entering Mount Rainier National Park I am automatically drawn to the White River; its braided, meandering channels flowing down from Emmons Glacier, sweeping through old growth forest, and Mount Rainier towering above, is a sight of true beauty. As I sat and admired the river, I couldn’t help but ponder its pristine state and the natural habitat it must provide for spawning salmon. This is what a healthy river looks like, I thought to myself, there must be salmon here. In truth, the answer is not as straightforward as I thought.

First the good news: In a recent report, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) concluded that over a 10-year period the White River showed a trend of increasing abundance among Puget Sound Chinook salmon populations. Furthermore, White River salmon populations have some of the highest escapement trends observed; meaning a high portion of salmon escape the commercial and recreational fisheries and reach the White River freshwater spawning grounds. Great, right?

Now the bad news: though abundance trends are increasing, the average historical abundance of Upper White River Chinook was 6,700, today they are estimated at only 500. The White River is a tributary of the Puyallup River, which is heavily diked, leveed, and dammed. White River salmon need to swim up (or as in most cases, be caught and then trucked up) the Puyallup before they start their journey to spawn upstream in the White River. So, how are Puyallup River salmon doing? The answer: Not so good. Moreover, Puget Sound salmon are not doing well either. The overall trend shows that Puget Sound Chinook populations are no better than they were 10 years ago when they were first listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The driving force behind this lack of improvement: habitat loss. In Puget Sound natural habitat is being developed and altered more often than it is restored. Not only can fish not access upper river reaches because of dams and other barriers, but if they get there they find a river no longer in its natural state due to levees and dikes.

Recently, Federal Judge James Redden rejected (for the third time) the federal government’s recovery plan for the Columbia-Snake River salmon, stating it as “arbitrary and capricious” because it failed to identify adequate habitat improvement.  A similar plan in Puget Sound is being implemented to limit floodplain development and reform the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP’s) minimum criteria for eligibility in 122 communities by September 2011. But is all this going to be enough?

Probably not. Though these plans all take into account future development, they do very little to fix past mistakes. In “Is Salmon Extinction the Option” Tom Bancroft comments, “we need the federal government to recognize that their plans for salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest are lacking.” As Billy Frank puts it, “If we are going to recover salmon, we must have stronger and better-coordinated federal leadership to align the policies and actions of all federal agencies and departments that impact salmon.”

What can you do? We all need to work to protect the future of our iconic salmon species. Limiting the impact of development is critical in any highly-urbanized watershed.  Incorporate green development ideas into your next home improvement project and if possible leave previously undeveloped areas undisturbed.

Take action: speak up for endangered salmon by telling your local representative or urging the Obama administration that healthy native habitats and endangered salmon recovery is important to you.

Learn more about NWF campaigns for Puget Sound NFIP reform and salmon restoration and Columbia-Snake River salmon.

Inspiration for post comes from “Is Salmon Extinction the Option” by Tom Bancroft of People for Puget Sound.