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Drastic Changes Needed to Restore Peninsula Salmon and Steelhead Runs

Op/Ed by Darryl Sanford
Sequim, Washington

Posted 4/8/2016

I’m sure those dreaming of further federal dollars flowing into the area are celebrating the latest announcement of “Major Cutbacks for Salmon Fisheries” (March 16 Sequim Gazette and “Many Eye Middle Road on Fishing” in PDN).  Further Endangered Species Act (ESA) listings of weak runs of Coho Salmon could be a financial boon to the area. I’ve attended meetings in Sequim and Forks over the past couple weeks addressing the Steelhead and Salmon outlook on the Peninsula and if projections are accurate, the future of our fishing opportunities does indeed look bleak.  My fear is that few fish and continued Federal funding is exactly what those in charge of ‘saving’ our fish actually want.  

I grew up in this area, fishing salmon and steelhead in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on Peninsula Rivers.  In the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and even the 1980’s, fish were abundant, predators were managed to keep numbers low, and Fish Hatcheries were pumping out fish to supplement the runs.  What has changed since then?  Predators have experienced population explosions.  Nylon nets have greatly reduced and/or wiped out entire runs of fish.  Fish Hatcheries have been closed or vastly restricted in the number of fish they are allowed to produce.

We now have an estimated 1200 Seals living in the Protection Island/Dungeness Spit area alone (each eating 8-13 pounds of seafood every single day) and their “preferred” food seems to be Salmon and Steelhead.  There are an estimated 30,000 seals in the greater Puget Sound region compared to 4,000 before the Feds protected them with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. You can’t spend more than a few minutes on our rivers now without seeing Mergansers, who live there year round, devouring any Salmon and Steelhead smolt present.  River otters and Dolly Varden/Bull Trout are abundant.  With Bird Sanctuaries inside the Dungeness Spit and on Protection Island, any smolt or baitfish in our area have little chance of survival.  It seems all predators are protected with no thought or plans as to how to control the resulting over-populations and bring things back into balance.

Cormorants, Gulls, Terns, Grebes, Bull Trout, Sea Lions, Herons, Eagles, Ospreys, Killer Whales, Dolphins, etc, all not only compete for the same food as our fish, but love to eat the Salmon and Steelhead.  Nearly every ball of bait (Herring/Candlefish) nowadays has Seals along with fish eating ducks and gulls gobbling them up.  Last year near Ediz Hook, we observed 30-40 seals on a single ball of bait at the same time.  Many, many times each summer, hooked salmon are ‘stolen’ by seals and sea lions.  They follow the fishermen around hoping someone will hook a fish so they can have an easy meal. Seals are swimming far up the larger rivers to catch the salmon and steelhead where they’re more concentrated.  Along our rivers, the side streams and side channels that used to be full of salmon and steelhead smolt are now virtually devoid of any fish.

‘Loss of Habitat’ is a favorite buzz-word and common excuse as to why the fish runs are disappearing.  This is a lie, perpetrated (I’m guessing) to reel in a windfall of $ for restoration efforts, etc.  Did you read the recent heartwarming newspaper article about the Tribe teaming with local students to plant vegetation along the Dungeness River?  What happens to all those efforts when the next flood comes and those plants are gone or under 3’ of gravel?  98% of our rivers, streams, and salt water are virtually unchanged from the time I grew up when we had robust fish runs.  We still have some of the most pristine and clean waters in the world.  Thanks mostly to the Boldt Decision, all the small rivers on our north coast, which used to be plugged with fish, are now virtually dead. What has changed about the Sekiu River, Clallam River, Physt River, East Twin River, West Twin River, Hoko River, Lyre River, Morse Creek, Salt Creek, McDonald Creek, or Deep Creek?  How could they have taken our Pacific NW Steelhead and Salmon to the much less pristine waters of the Great Lakes Region and produced a World Class Fishery if the problem here is “Habitat”?

Local Dairy Farmers used to “flush” their barns into the nearby streams and ditches but those very streams contained some of the healthiest trout and even steelhead and salmon year after year after year.  Due to the Spotted Owl fiasco, Logging is a fraction of what it was in the 60’s and 70’s. Any logging in recent years leaves a buffer of timber along the river banks.  Many of our dead and dying rivers have miles of habitat within the Olympic National Park where clearly nothing has changed over the decades.  Please explain to me how we can blame the lack of fish on the loss of Habitat!

The effort to shut down our Fish Hatcheries is crazy.  What most people don’t realize is that the Dungeness Hatchery was built in 1908 and hatcheries in the Pacific NW were supplementing fish runs heavily though the mid-1900’s.  To think that we now need to restore the “pure” native strain of wild fish unique to each individual river is ludicrous. The Spring Chinook run on the Solduc River was started with brood stock from the Dungeness River (and others). Hoh River Chinook were brought in to enhance runs in the Lake Washington area. The clipped fin Chinook often found in the Hoh river are said to be ‘lost’ Solduc River fish. The Dungeness Chinook are ESA listed and yet the fish we’re trying to ‘save’ are mostly returning in late summer. These aren’t even TRUE Dungeness fish because the original Chinook run began in April, and they were all up the river by the end of June! Those original fish are gone; wiped out by nylon nets. Transplant some Spring Chinook from the Solduc River into the Dungeness if you want something closer to what was originally here.

Twenty-two years of a 350 square mile summer fishing closure around the Dungeness River mouth (from Port Angeles east to Port Townsend) has done nothing to save the river, but it’s kept the species on the ESA list and maybe that’s the goal.

The idea of identifying fish by DNA in individual rivers and only restoring those genetics needs to be abandoned.  The ‘genes’ were all mixed up in the mid-1900’s and we should be simply trying to restore fish runs on rivers regardless of where the parent fish are from. Did not the Mount Saint Helens’ eruption show us how fish voluntarily move back and forth between rivers?  A Chinook salmon is a Chinook salmon, whether it is from the Skagit River or the Hoh River.  Oh wait…That might mean ESA Listings could go away and the Federal dollars would disappear. It is like saying we can’t transplant Bighorn Sheep from Montana to a struggling herd in Washington because there might me some genetic marker that is slightly different. Better to let the herd in Washington become extinct? I don’t think so. Truth be told, a little mixing of genetics normally produces a stronger and more resilient fish or animal.

Don’t you wish that we had millions of salmon/steelhead smolt safe in hatcheries somewhere when droughts and devastating floods happen, as we’ve seen in recent years?  Maybe the folks who built those early hatcheries had figured something out that we need to relearn. If hatchery fish are so ‘inferior”, as claimed, I suggest we try using wild brood stock and retaining smolt in the hatcheries a shorter time.  Even an inferior fish is preferable to no fish.

We are so “afraid” of Hatcheries, that even local lakes are no longer stocked with trout. The only planting I’ve seen in recent years was when the hatcheries weren’t allowed to release Steelhead in local rivers, so they dumped them in land locked lakes. The Olympic National Park Service has apparently requested that fishermen in their high mountain lakes throw the fish out on the bank to die if they aren’t going to eat them because they don’t want any fish in those lakes (the fish “aren’t native” to those lakes so a dead lake is preferred). One of my fondest childhood memories is of hiking to Three Horse Lake above Olympic Hot Springs with my dad and brother to fish.  Today it is almost impossible to find a place near here with enough fish to take a kid fishing and keep him interested.  I guess if you don’t have anyplace to teach the younger generation to fish, no one will care when this older generation along with all our fishing opportunities are gone.  Could this be the goal of our leaders?

I was recently complimenting a member of the Quinault Nation on their terrific Steelhead Hatchery program.  They have abundant and robust returning steelhead. Many fish weighing in the ‘teens’, commonly 20# and occasionally even 30#. To say these are elite fish is an understatement. But, I’m told, our State Fisheries folks have requested that they “rethink” this program.  The explanation is that these healthy hatchery fish are eating so much food in the ocean, that it is causing the Native Steelhead to die out.  Are you kidding me?  Someone figures out a hugely successful hatchery program and our “leaders” dream up this unbelievable excuse to get them to shut it down.  We should be duplicating that program throughout the state but “no” that might result in rivers again flush with fish and the end of Federal Dollars.

I have to believe that what’s going on here is all about money from ESA listings, with considerable help from dreamers who only want to see pure wild fish with no human intervention. Unless things change quickly, this latter group will soon learn that they have been instrumental in helping along the demise of all our fishing in the Pacific NW.  But I don’t believe it needs to end that way.  With a plan to manage predator populations (seals, sea lions, mergansers and cormorants in particular), innovative and robust hatchery programs, and Tribes willing to limit their fishing to Subsistence use only (no commercial marketing of wild fish – especially Steelhead), I’m confident we could again have abundant fish.  Think about the boon that could be to our local economy.  Does anyone remember the excitement and people drawn to Port Angeles when the Salmon Derby offered a new boat or 4×4 truck for a higher placing fish?  You can’t imagine how many people just want to catch a fish and the dollars they’ll spend to do that.  What grandfather wouldn’t love to see enough fish that he could interest his grandkids in fishing and instill in them a wholesome and lifelong passion?

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