Puget Sound’s Vanishing Salmon

Haley Harguth is an intern at the National Wildlife Federation Pacific Regional Center in Seattle. She joined the team in 2010 and assists regional environmental policy projects. A native of the Pacific Northwest, she tries to get her regular fix of outdoor adventures in, while pursuing her MPA at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.

A Natural Legacy

In the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with the kinds of surroundings that most people just read about in the glossy pages of magazines. Accordingly, we want to build homes and businesses as close to that natural beauty as we can get – often, in floodplains. Unfortunately, in doing so, we destroy the natural systems that sustain this essential ecosystem.

Floodplains are Critical Salmon Habitat

Salmon have forever been our pride in the Puget Sound Region. It’s for good reason, they are a keystone species that keeps this ecosystem living and breathing. Unfortunately, their unique fresh and saltwater lifestyle makes them very susceptible to the alterations that we have made to the vulnerable riparian areas on which they depend.

Comparison of fish at the same age, reared in the main river channel (left) and reared in the floodplain (right). Source: Jeffres et al., 2008
Floodplains are critical salmon rearing habitat. Due to our rush to develop these areas, the majority of floodplains in the Puget Sound region are now covered in asphalt and our rivers are walled with levees. The photo to the right from a 2008 study shows that salmon reared in shallow, slow-moving areas of rivers associated with floodplains have a much better chance of survival than those in the deep, fast-moving channels created by levees.

Development adds impervious surfaces which carry storm water runoff full of pollutants straight into nearby rivers. All of these factors have resulted in the dramatic decline of Puget Sound salmon populations.

These impacts also have a negative impact on other marine life. According to one study, orcas, who feed on the fish and contain 400-550 times higher concentration of toxic PCBs than humans, are leaving the Sound for cleaner waters up north, where food is more abundant.

The State of Washington’s Floodplains

The National Marine Fisheries Services cited these sobering facts in a recent evaluation of floodplain habitat impacts on Puget Sound salmon populations:

  1. 71 percent of the State’s floodplains are in poor condition.
  2. More than 90 percent of the wetlands and floodplains once associated with lowland alluvial rivers of the Puget Sound basin have been lost.
  3. Ditching, diking, and dredging activities in floodplains, primarily found in urban and agricultural regions, were associated with a 73 percent loss of coho salmon rearing habitat in the Skagit River system.



The Impact of the National Flood Insurance Program on Salmon

Since the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) began, it has served to make building in floodplains more affordable; with the assurance that those properties will be repaired if they flood. Our decisions about where to build homes and businesses typically come down to economics, not concern over fish. We don’t intend to harm salmon. We just want to be close to nature, and don’t want our homes to flood. But instead of factoring in the risk and costs of flooding, and the value of nature (and the fish), the NFIP alters our decisions based on false assurances, not accurate economics.

Flooding takes a significant toll on impacted areas - photo by WSDOT
Today, a judge will decide on putting a temporary stop to FEMA’s issuing of flood insurance while the court case regarding the NFIP’s violation of the Endangered Species Act is heard. The judge will decide on behalf of salmon, but impacts on salmon are just one outcome of this policy. In this case, the salmon act as a proxy for you and me. The recommended alternatives for the NFIP are good for fish and good for our communities. We must protect both by staying out of floodplains. It saves us money, lives, and protects the nature that we love. This is an opportunity to improve a broken policy for all of our benefit.

Support NWF’s efforts to defend Puget Sound floodplains, and learn more about similar efforts around the United States.