OLYMPIA - In an attempt to improve habitat for chinook salmon in the Skagit River estuary, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is launching an independent study to examine potential estuary restoration projects on its 13,000-acre Skagit Wildlife Area and nearby lands.
The department is seeking an engineering firm to do the study, which is expected to be completed by early summer. The study is aimed at identifying critical fish and wildlife habitat which needs protection and estuary restoration opportunities.
"This estuary is an important place for people, fish, birds and other wildlife," said WDFW North Puget Sound Regional Director Bob Everitt. "We want to review our current management practices for the Skagit Wildlife Area and identify potential restoration opportunities that best serve those needs."
Besides its benefits to fish, the Skagit River estuary is one of the most important places for migrating waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway, with hundreds of thousands of birds using the area during annual migrations. The Skagit Wildlife Area also is a popular destination for bird watchers and bird hunters.
A unique habitat where river meets saltwater, estuaries act as nurseries for juvenile fish including Puget Sound chinook salmon, which have been designated for federal Endangered Species Act protection since 1999. Fish biologists have found that estuary habitat is essential for healthy chinook populations– and that adequate estuary habitat is lacking around Puget Sound.
In the late 1800s the Skagit estuary was the largest in Puget Sound– comparable in size to all other Puget Sound estuaries combined– and contained more than 25,700 acres of vegetated wetland. Today, only 1,941 acres of vegetated wetland remain.
About 200 acres of the estuary were restored in 2000 when more than two miles of dikes and other man-made structures were removed from Deepwater Slough in a cooperative project with WDFW, the Skagit System Cooperative, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other entities. Several historic channels were reconnected, opening up juvenile salmon habitat that had been inaccessible to the fish for decades.
"Salmon recovery efforts to date have focused mainly on hatchery modifications, harvest restrictions and fresh-water habitat improvement projects, but estuary restoration efforts have lagged behind," Everitt said. "This project will help us identify additional habitat protection and restoration opportunities on state lands."