The first comprehensive regional conservation plan for a federally protected salmon population in western Washington has been completed by Point No Point Treaty Indian tribes and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), marking an important step in state salmon-recovery efforts.
State and tribal co-managers today released the "Summer Chum Salmon Conservation Initiative" with the expectation that it will serve as the blueprint for bringing summer chum salmon on Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca back from the brink of extinction. Copies of the plan were also sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for adopting recovery plans for salmon species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Summer chum stocks were listed as "threatened" under the ESA in March 1999, although their numbers have been increasing in recent years due to joint efforts by the state, the tribes, local citizen enhancement groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The listing does not cover fall chum stocks, which spawn from November through January and are abundant in both Hood Canal and the strait.
"This plan comes at a critical time in our efforts to recover summer chum stocks," said WDFW director Jeff Koenings. "The Department and the tribes have been working with other agencies and local groups to restore summer chum since the early 1990s, but we still need broader participation if we want to ensure that these stocks thrive."
Randy Harder, executive director of the Point No Point Treaty Council, said the chum plan has already contributed to that effort, noting that some local governments that reviewed the habitat section are already using it to help guide their land-use planning and regulatory efforts.
"This plan is the best available science and should be considered a starting point for local jurisdictions to begin their planning for salmon habitat recovery," Harder said. The Treaty Council, which played a major role in developing the conservation plan, is the natural resources consortium of the Skokomish, Port Gamble S'Klallam, Jamestown S'Klallam and Lower Elwha Klallam tribes.
In developing their plan, the state and tribal co-managers examined factors contributing to the decline in summer chum numbers – including harvest levels, hatchery practices, habitat, and other factors – then developed specific recommendations to address each issue. Many of the recommended steps, particularly those related to harvest levels and hatchery practices, have already begun.
Efforts to reduce the catch of summer chum have been under way since the early 1990s, when the number of returning salmon plummeted to just a few thousand fish from as many as 75,000 in the mid-1970s. Starting in 1992, WDFW and the tribes have carefully directed fisheries away from summer chum and reduced the "incidental" chum catch during other fisheries to extremely low levels.
To rebuild weak stocks and repopulate streams where summer chum are now extinct, fish are being produced from eggs taken from naturally spawning stocks at four local "supplementation" projects on Hood Canal and three on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The state and tribes have also made significant changes in hatchery practices for other salmon and trout species to avoid producing fish that might compete with wild summer chum.
The conservation plan calls for a continuation of restrictive regulations, coupled with additional monitoring of harvest and hatchery practices and other strategies to protect and rebuild summer chum habitat in the region.
To help improve habitat conditions for chum salmon, the plan recommends a variety of measures – including new restrictions on logging, bulkheads and other development – for each affected watershed. These recommendations are directed to a variety of jurisdictions, since the authority to protect and improve salmon habitat rests with a variety of local, state and federal governing bodies.
"Local jurisdictions have a critical role in addressing the habitat improvements outlined in the plan," Koenings said. "It's going to require a long-term commitment, but the summer chum plan lays out, in a comprehensive fashion, where we need to go from here."
Prior to completing the plan, the co-managers sought review by local governments, citizens and fisheries organizations. Both Koenings and Harder said they were pleased by the response.
"We and our tribal co-managers are confident this plan will lead to the recovery of summer chum," Koenings said. "We also expect this experience will help us in drafting plans for other salmon species, although every species is unique and will require an approach tailored to its needs."
The "Summer Chum Salmon Conservation Initiative" document is posted on WDFW's website.