Tag Archives: NOAA Fisheries

‘Worst Ever Return’ Of Puget Sound Steelhead

Welcome to the weird world that is Pugetropolis steelheading circa 2020.

Even as angling reopens on sections of most of them today, state managers are dealing with a significant eggtake shortfall on three of four east Puget Sound river systems due to “the worst ever return” of the popular fish.

According to WDFW’s Edward Eleazer, Kendall Creek on the North Fork Nooksack saw a shortfall of 182,000 fertilized eggs, Whitehorse on the North Fork Stillaguamish 146,000 and Wallace/Reiter on the Skykomish 103,000 — all totaled 431,000 eggs.

THE SKYKOMISH NEAR GOLD BAR IS AMONG THE WATERS REOPENING FOR HATCHERY STEELHEAD RETENTION, THOUGH THE RIVERS WILL BE RISING AS YET ANOTHER RAINSTORM ARRIVES. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Now for a brief mea culpa: The initial headline on the emergency rule change notice I posted yesterday afternoon announcing the reopening of retention of adipose-clipped steelhead on select stretches of three Snohomish and King County river systems mistakenly suggested that broodstock needs had been met because I misread WDFW’s reasoning.

My apologies, as in fact spawning goals were met on only one.

You would think that the rivers should stay shut to try and meet eggtake goals, or to stretch out the run by collecting late-arriving fish to spawn, but under the NOAA-Fisheries permit to operate the Chambers Creek early winter steelhead programs, WDFW can’t use adults that return after Jan. 31 for broodstock purposes, meaning that the fish still in the rivers afterwards are superfluous to spawning needs and thus available for harvest/removal.

The collection cutoff is done to segregate returns of wild and hatchery stocks as much as possible, according to Eleazer.

“We don’t want hatchery broodstock to creep later and later. We have a hard deadline of Jan. 31 as a safety precaution,” he said.

Where other sections of Puget Sound rivers close after the end of January for steelhead, terminal zones on the above rivers and the few others with Chambers fish are typically open through Feb. 15 to allow anglers to try and catch as many clipped ones as possible to prevent them from possibly interbreeding with natives.

As for the 11-day fishing window that began today to try to remove any last returning hatcheries, given the atmospheric hose pointed straight at Pugetropolis, it likely won’t be until very late this weekend if not early next week that anglers will be able to chase the few fish that are still around, though they won’t have seen many lures all season.

Indeed, too much water will bookend a season that began with too little water, as well as very low initial returns that saw WDFW shut down retention in December to try and get as many steelhead back to the hatcheries as possible.

“This is the worst ever return to Puget Sound,” Eleazer said. “It plays into the same thing as the Skagit — poor freshwater and saltwater rearing conditions.”

The Skagit and Sauk’s catch-and-release season for wild winters in February, March and April was cancelled last month after the forecast came in below 4,000, too few steelhead to cast for due to impacts on the stock from other fisheries.

Pointing to The Blob, WDFW said those low returns were “likely the result of severe drought and low river flows in 2015 and 2016, as well as an unprecedented marine heatwave in the Pacific Ocean that negatively affected survival rates.”

Eleazer did note that while Puget Sound programs were seeing anemic runs, those on the Olympic Peninsula had met their broodstock goals and a bit more.

“There’s a Puget Sound element that’s applying extra pressure that we don’t understand,” he stated.

Predation by harbor seals has been eyed as a serious problem for young steelhead migrating out of Deep South Sound and Hood Canal.

If there’s a glimmer of good news, it’s that at least Tokul on the Snoqualmie met its broodstock goal.

Yet still, according to WDFW’s latest hatchery escapement report, as of Jan. 27, a paltry 237 adults had returned to Tokul, Kendall, Whitehorse, Wallace and Reiter, with just 255,027 eggs taken, a far cry from the relatively high abundance of the winter of 2017-18, which saw an overall return of 1,229 adults that produced 801,407 eggs.

With Puget Sound wild steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act and as a result of the federally approved hatchery genetic management plan for the Chambers program, WDFW can only release up to 521,600 winter smolts annually into the Nooksack, Stilly, Sky/Wallace and Snoqualmie.

Meaning the agency and the fishery are now in a very tight spot coming out of this winter.

“We’re working with our comanagers and NOAA to figure out solutions moving forward,” Eleazer said.

ALSO OF NOTE

Yesterday’s WDFW e-reg opening the North Fork Stillaguamish from French Creek up to the Swede Heaven Bridge conflicted with the fishing pamphlet. The printed regs state that those waters closed as of Jan. 31 for steelhead, though game fish remain open through Feb. 15.

Eleazer believes that is an error and was looking into sending out an updated notice that would reopen that water through the 15th for retention of fin-clipped steelhead.

Watch this space for that change.

(Editor’s note Feb. 6, 2020, 3:30 p.m.: WDFW has tweaked its e-reg to clarify the daily limit, two hatchery steelhead, and dates of the above fishery, Feb. 5-15. Also, the online PDF of the fishing pamphlet has been updated on page 1 with corrected regulations for the North Fork Stillaguamish between French Creek and Swede Heaven Bridge, i.e., hatchery steelhead retention is open in that stretch through Feb. 15, not Jan. 31 as originally printed.

Study Shows 74 Percent Loss Of Columbia Tidal Wetlands, 85 Percent Up And Down West Coast

THE FOLLOWING IS A NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION STORY

An unprecedented survey has revealed the loss of about 85 percent of historical tidal wetlands in California, Oregon, and Washington. The report, published in PLOS ONE, also highlights forgotten estuary acreage that might now be targeted for restoration.

Where West Coast rivers reach the sea, estuaries serve as critical nurseries for juvenile salmon and steelhead as they make the transition from freshwater to the ocean. They are among the most dynamic and productive habitats known, also supporting migratory birds and a variety of other fish, shellfish, and terrestrial wildlife.

A FEDERAL GRAPHIC SHOWS THE AMOUNT OF TIDAL WETLANDS UP AND DOWN THE WEST COAST, INCLUDING IN SOME OF THE REGION’S MOST IMPORTANT SALMON SYSTEMS. (NOAA)

A team of scientists applied new technologies and data to identify and estimate the historic reach of nearly 450 West Coast estuaries. Their results show that the estuaries historically extended far beyond where they exist now. More than a century of development has erased roughly 85 percent of original vegetated estuarine wetlands, especially around major river deltas.

San Francisco Bay has lost about 85 percent of its original vegetated tidal wetlands, the study found. The Columbia River estuary has lost about 74 percent. While other scientists have estimated losses for these and other well-studied estuaries, this is the first time researchers have applied consistent methods across all 450 estuaries of the contiguous U.S. West Coast.

Mapping Reveals Restoration Opportunities

“Given how valuable estuaries are to so many different species, it’s important to understand how much they have changed and what that means for fish and wildlife that depend on them,” said Correigh Greene, research biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and coauthor of the new study.

The lost estuary habitat includes areas that were long ago diked and drained for agriculture, and forested wetlands that had not been widely recognized as estuary acreage, said Laura Brophy, lead author of the study and director of the Estuary Technical Group at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Oregon. Identifying such areas may open new opportunities for restoration of estuary habitat that otherwise might go overlooked.

BEFORE AND AFTER IMAGES FROM THE TILLAMOOK ESTUARY PARTNERSHIP SHOW THE EFFECT OF REMOVING LEVEES AND TIDE GATES NEAR THE MOUTH OF THE TRASK RIVER. (TILLAMOOK ESTUARY PARTNERSIHP VIA NMFS)

“By folding in these areas that may not have been recognized as part of estuaries, we have a better idea of just how important and extensive these estuaries were,” Brophy said. “Now we can see new restoration opportunities that people didn’t realize existed.”

The study’s high-resolution mapping also highlights low-elevation areas at greatest risk of flooding as the sea level rises with climate change. Tidal wetland restoration in these vulnerable areas can re-establish natural processes like sediment delivery. This will help these wetlands remain productive into the future.

Estuaries Once Covered 2 Million Acres

The scientists combined precise elevation mapping known as LIDAR with NOAA water level modeling to establish the extent of tides that define estuary habitat. Based on these maps, they estimated that all West Coast estuaries once covered nearly 2 million acres. This is an area nearly three times the size of the state of Rhode Island.

Scientists have data on the historic and current wetlands in 55 of the larger estuaries. Those estuaries have lost about 85 percent of their original vegetated wetlands. These 55 estuaries represent about 97 percent of historical estuary area on the West Coast, so their losses reflect almost all of the estuary losses.

Since Brophy has studied estuaries for years, she found the losses “dismaying but not surprising.” She said the good news is that fish and wildlife that live in estuaries must be adaptable because of the ever-changing tidal environment. She says “if you give them the chance to move back in, they will literally jump at the opportunity.”

The authors of the study include researchers from NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the Institute for Applied Ecology, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, The Nature Conservancy, Moss Landing Marine Labs, and Pacific Spatial Solutions. The project was coordinated by the Pacific Marine and Estuarine Fish Habitat Partnership.

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