Chinook salmon populations may have dropped to as little as 10 percent of their historic numbers.
Salmon and the Pacific Northwest used to go hand in hand, right? Not anymore. Back in the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of naturally spawning salmon and steelhead could be found in Puget Sound each year. Today there are only tens of thousands. This is an alarming change, for our environment and local economy.
“I started at Pacific Fish in August, 1977,” says Bob Simon, general manager of Pacific Seafood. “In those days my job was to drive the waterfront, picking up fish. The Seattle waterfront was much different then.”
Simon remembers a string of seafood companies on the waterfront. “New England Fish Company around Pier 58. Salmon Run Seafood around Pier 54. Booth Fisheries around Pier 45. Olympic No. 2 under the viaduct. Olympic No. 3 under the viaduct. Seattle Seafoods around Pier 45.”
“These are all gone,” Simon says.
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Puget Sound Partnership numbers indicate that chinook salmon populations have dropped to as little as 10 percent of their historic numbers.
This year, scientists also noted a record-low number of juvenile salmon in the Columbia River. For the first time in 20 years, some nets came up empty, showing no wild chinook salmon.
The salmon problem is a complex one being studied by local groups. According to the Marine Survival Project, a group of more than 60 organizations working to find out why salmon are disappearing from Puget Sound north to Canadian waters, the initial decline in that area can be traced to the overfishing and the loss of freshwater and shallow marine habitat.
And, according to Duke Moscrip, founder of Duke’s Seafood & Chowder with a deep interest in salmon restoration and sustainability, this salmon decline is widespread. “This is a desperate problem for all the ocean waters from California, Oregon, Washington and Canada,” Moscrip says.
“Columbia Basin wild salmon are endangered and headed for extinction at this rate. Wild salmon are additionally and particularly important as a food source in our region, and therefore an important economic resource,” Moscrip says.
And here in Washington, fishing is big business, though it’s seen a steep decline. Commercial fisheries in Washington generate an average of $1.6 billion annually, according to a 2010 Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife report. Commercial and recreational fisheries directly and indirectly supported an estimated 16,374 jobs in 2006, according to a major study conducted that year by the WDFW.
A report by the Institute for Fisheries Resources, a research affiliate of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, shows a post-development loss of more than $13 billion in commercial salmon harvest in the Columbia basin.
The report indicates that the estimated 10-16 million fish in the Columbia River fish runs of the late 1800s could have made about 127 million to 237 million pounds available for harvest. In today’s prices, at a 50 percent harvest rate, that would mean a value of $136 million to $273 million. This could have supported as many as 25,000 jobs annually.
Jeremy Brown, a salmon troller based in Bellingham, says that back in 1989, when he was on a commercial fishing license reduction committee, there was a goal to get the fleet to 400 permits, down from 1200. In 1993, there was to be a reduction to 250 licenses. And now, it’s at 150.
These reductions mean not only fewer fishing and processing jobs, but also fewer boat-building jobs.
Salmon fishing in Puget Sound alone has an average economic impact of $100 million per year, thanks to the 481,000 or so recreational-angler trips folks make to Puget Sound every year. The steep decline in salmon numbers has hurt this industry and will continue to have a serious impact on this sector of the economy.
The salmon supply is critical to commercial fishing and sport fishing, and if they keep declining another major industry in our area will suffer: whale-watching.
“Southern resident killer whales rely almost entirely on chinook salmon for nutrition, much of it from the Columbia River and the Salish Sea,” says Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings, one of the organizations involved in the Marine Survival Project. “Nearly 1 million visitors participate in paid whale-watching tours in Washington and B.C. each year.”
Killer whales (or orcas) in our region add a minimum of $65 million to Washington’s economy each year, according to the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative. In San Juan County alone, there are 17 whale-watching and kayak-touring businesses — a $127 million industry.
How communities can help save salmon
As our area continues to grow, the impact on our natural environment will as well, says David Burger, executive director of Stewardship Partners, a nonprofit organization that helps landowners conserve local watersheds. “There are easy ways for communities to get involved and take action for salmon in their neighborhoods,” Burger says. “People can join companies like Duke’s planting trees along the vast network of streams and rivers that act as the life blood for the salmon populations of Puget Sound, or build rain gardens at their homes to help clean polluted runoff, the main culprit for the decline of urban salmon populations.”
White encourages people who care about the salmon numbers to encourage the state legislature to pass the capital budget. “Millions of dollars for salmon habitat-restoration projects statewide that have been technically reviewed and ranked by informed regional salmon-recovery groups are queued up and waiting for funding. The legislature needs to act now so another field season does not pass by without action.”
And Moscrip adds, those who want a hand in saving the salmon and the industries that depend on them should be lobbying the federal government, too. “We need to encourage the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, to work together to submit a real plan to restore wild salmon runs in the Columbia River, which they are required to do according to the Endangered Species Act. They have submitted four plans to date and all have been rejected because they were terribly flawed. These agencies are playing games with citizen tax dollars; we need to encourage them to get on with a credible plan.”
To get involved and stay up-to-date on salmon conservation legislation and news, visit Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservationists, fishermen and clean-energy and orca advocates pressing elected officials to restore the health of the Columbia-Snake River Basin.