"Salmon return, but future is clouded"
June 25, 2008 · Updated 12:45 PM
"Salmon watching is a popular pastime since an Island County work crew finished building new, open culverts in Glendale Creek. The culverts allow salmon to move upstream to spawn.Matt Johnson / staff photoThe salmon are back in Glendale Creek. And in Maxwelton Creek. At least for one more year.As a few dozen spawning coho and chum worked their way up South Whidbey's two best-known and most heavily restored streams, people here who love salmon could not help but wonder if this could be one of the last years the fish return to the island. Salmon spawning runs are down on a number of Northwest rivers, down from numbers that were already low last year. And the wild chinook salmon is about to go on the endangered species list after years of overfishing and habitat destruction.At a meeting in Freeland Hall last Tuesday, several local salmon experts gave an interested crowd of about 30 salmon lovers the good news and the bad news about the future of salmon in the Northwest. In fact, that is exactly the phrase Rep. Dave Anderson used to describe a decade-long salmon population cycle that seems to be hitting its low point this year. For him, the good news is that it can't get much worse.To me, this is good news, not bad news, Anderson said. Anderson, who is a commercial fisherman in addition to his legislative duties, said a decadal cycle of the local salmon population driven by fluctuating water temperatures and plankton populations -- along with overfishing, river damming, and habitat destruction -- has driven the return rate of many species of salmon down to record lows. For example, Anderson said, only 1.2 percent of Oregon hatchery coho are returning to their spawning rivers and streams this year. That number compares badly with 6.8 percent two decades ago.If there is any time to help the salmon population recover with better fishing practices and better land and water management, Anderson said now is it.We need to give salmon every break we can, Anderson said.Dr. Jacques White, another member of the expert panel, said anything we do now to help salmon probably will not boost the numbers back to levels enjoyed by old-time fishermen. He said the Puget Sound region is nearly completely built up, and even with regulations that push new development away from shorelines, streams and wetlands, the fish will continue to suffer because of the cities and industries we have already built. Any new development, no matter how carefully it is placed, can only contribute to continuing environmental destruction.Any development we allow is going to degrade the watershed, White said. Salmon are a non-negotiable client.Landowners need incentivesStill, existing or former salmon habitat can be improved, said Rich Denges, director of Skagit County's Farm Legacy Program. But to do it, the private landowners who own much of this habitat need to be given a good reason to help in the effort. Denges said counties like Island and Skagit can institute stream and wetland buffers and make other salmon-protective policies, but without giving incentives to landowners and farmers especially, habitat improvement will go nowhere. You need to involve the landowners from the beginning, Denges said.That statement made Rene Neff, director of the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure, feel that the two-hour meeting was worth the effort. A co-sponsor of the event along with People for Puget Sound, the Salmon Adventure has been working with farmers in the Maxwelton Valley for years to assure that the Maxwelton Creek remains a good habitat for fish. She said that habitat's survival depends on those farmers and a good relationship between the farmers, the Salmon Adventure, and the environmental community.We're walking on eggshells, she said after the meeting.With good reason, said Rep. Anderson. He said that farmers bear the brunt of wetland and stream protective regulations, while urban landowners are still not held responsible for the pollution and habitat destruction they have and are causing.We don't do enough for the farmers, Anderson said. Seattleites have to give something up, too.Neff said the salmon meeting was intended to be informational and to promote a better relationship between farmers and environmentalists. It could not have come at a better time, since coho and chum started swimming up Maxwelton and Glendale creeks two weeks ago. Neff said she does not hold out hopes for a big return this year, but believes continued cooperation with South Whidbey landowners will eventually give the fish a better chance in at least one place. "