Skagit Wildlife Area Island Unit Alternatives Analysis

Island Unit Alternatives Analysis 

Aerial of the Island Unit
Aerial view of the Island Unit, Skagit Wildlife Area

WDFW is considering an estuary restoration project on the Island Unit to respond to changes at the site and the broader landscape, including aging tide gates and dikes, anticipated sea level rise, and shifting habitat needs. The department is assessing several options that range from no restoration to restoring the entire 268-acre site.

To evaluate options, the department is conducting an alternatives analysis, which is a planning tool used to evaluate a range of choices relative to a set of common criteria. WDFW is evaluating alternatives based on state requirements and policies, fish and wildlife needs, community values, as well as input from the Island Unit Advisory Group, tribes, and the public.

A public comment period on the Skagit Wildlife Area Draft Alternatives Analysis Report, was held from Nov. 16 to Dec. 16, 2020.  

The department is currently reviewing comments and developing a Final Alternatives Analysis Report. The final report will identify a preferred alternative that contains a summary of comments and updated information. WDFW anticipates releasing the final report in early 2021.    

Project background

The Island Unit, accessible only by boat, covers approximately 268 acres on two islands in a tidally influenced reach of the South Fork Skagit River within the 17,000-acre Skagit Wildlife Area. Dikes and tide gates on the site allow the production of winter waterfowl forage and freshwater wetland management, making the Island Unit a popular destination for waterfowl hunting.

Alternatives Analysis: Frequently Asked Questions

Why are we not seeing increased fishing opportunities with millions of dollars already spent on salmon habitat restoration and hundreds of acres restored back to estuary?

Salmon populations are affected by numerous factors, including habitat conditions, ocean conditions, fishing (both direct harvest and as by-catch), predation, competition, and dam operations. We know from monitoring restoration project sites that juvenile Chinook salmon are using restored areas at densities similar to surrounding marshes and we are starting to see better survival of Chinook salmon smolts due to increases in estuary habitat. However, impacts they experience during other stages of their life mean that the increased survival at a young age does not yet translate directly into detectable gains in adult Chinook returning to the river to spawn.

Fishing opportunities in Puget Sound are affected by the condition of all stocks that could potentially be impacted by a fishery. The listing of Puget Sound Chinook salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the late 1990s curtailed fishing opportunities as protections for these stocks went into place. The Skagit River system on average produces more than half of the wild Chinook that return to Puget Sound. Fishing for wild Chinook in Puget Sound will continue to be constrained due to limiting Chinook stocks from neighboring river systems.

There has not been a recreational fishery targeting wild Chinook in the Skagit River since 2009, but a future fishery does appear to be within reach with gains in adult returns. When the escapement forecasts substantially exceed 14,500 Chinook, which it has come close to doing in the last five years, sport fisheries for these stocks become an option in the Skagit River. We know that smolts with access to estuary habitat have a greater chance of surviving to adulthood and contributing to escapement forecasts. 

Why don’t we just stop all fishing for a year or two? Wouldn’t that help recover salmon without doing all this habitat restoration?

Fishing in Puget Sound and Washington rivers, including the Skagit River, is carefully managed by WDFW and tribes (co-managers) under the authorization and supervision of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries as required by law. Puget Sound Chinook are federally listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and fisheries for Chinook are the most scrutinized throughout Washington. While it may seem counterintuitive for NOAA to allow any harvest of an ESA-listed species within its jurisdiction (waters of the United States, NOAA has no control over harvest in Canadian Waters except through negotiated terms in the Pacific Salmon Treaty), NOAA’s position on harvest in fisheries is that carefully administered harvest will not impede Chinook recovery, and simply restricting harvest will not lead to recovery of Puget Sound Chinook.

There are thousands of acres of estuary in Skagit Bay already – why do we need more? What difference will a few more hundred acres make?

Salmon habitat from the headwaters to Puget Sound have been impacted for over 150 years, resulting in habitat degradation and losses. Now, just a fraction of historic habitats are available to salmon. In the late 1990s when Chinook salmon were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, it was estimated that only 13% of estuary habitats preferred by Chinook salmon remained in the Skagit delta. The Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan identified the estuary as a bottleneck to Chinook salmon population recovery. Even if more spawning habitat were available, the young salmon coming down the river would not survive because there is not enough rearing habitat (including estuary) for them to feed, grow, and transition to saltwater. The Recovery Plan identified a need to provide space for an additional 1.35 million out-migrating smolts, which was estimated to be approximately 2,700 acres of additional estuary habitat. Several hundred acres of estuary have been restored since the plan was written. There is still a need to restore more estuary to meet recovery plan goals and achieve a healthy and sustainable Chinook salmon population in the Skagit watershed.

Why isn’t restoration being done on private lands? Why is all the restoration being done on public lands?

With the remaining need for additional estuary, restoration will have to happen on public and private lands. There are several reasons that restoration has been completed and continues to be considered on public lands first. House Bill 1418 required prioritizing actions for Chinook recovery that did not negatively impact commercial farmland, and specifically prioritized estuary restoration on public lands. A subsequent report that prioritized projects categorized Deepwater (Island Unit) as a Tier 1 project, with Tier 1 projects being the highest priority projects for implementation. It is the only Tier 1 project that has not been completed to date. Additionally, the Island Unit was identified as a priority project through the Skagit Hydrodynamic Modeling Project, which assessed 22 estuary restoration project concepts throughout the delta for their ability to maximize benefits and minimize impacts to farm, fish, and flood interests.

Will waterfowl populations decline without enhanced forage at the Island Unit?

Waterfowl congregate on the Island Unit because of current management, which provides a high concentration of calories and water level management designed to optimize foraging for dabbling ducks. Estuary also provides forage for dabbling ducks, however our understanding of the relative value is not complete due to lack of data. It is assumed that estuaries provide lower caloric concentrations of forage and, because water level fluctuate with the tides, forage is not available as consistently.

Food resources are also available on the larger landscape in the estuary, on other WDFW-managed lands, and on private farmland. The Island Unit and quantity of forage available there is relatively small compared to the food resources available on the larger landscape. Therefore, waterfowl populations are not expected to be negatively impacted with full or partial restoration of the Island Unit.

Community engagement

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is committed to sharing timely project information with the local community, stakeholders, tribes and government agencies, as well as providing opportunities for comment during project planning.

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Advisory Group

In July 2019, WDFW solicited applicants for advisory group to provide input on several aspects of the project. The advisory group met from November 2019 through November 2020, and will meet again after a preferred alternative is selected. To view the meeting summaries and materials, visit the advisory group website.