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The Puget Sound estuary is home to many marine creatures including Orca whales, seals and Pacific salmon. Pacific salmon are an iconic species of the Puget Sound region and spawn in most major tributaries that feed the sound. Puget Sound salmon species include king or Chinook, coho, chum and sockeye.

The declining salmon population in Puget Sound is "a telling indicator of the ecological health" of the area and "billions of dollars have been spent to reverse the declining salmon runs". It can beattributed to several factors, including the 4 H's—habitat, hydropower, harvesting and hatcheries—and "the Fifth H"—history. Salmon have ecological requirements such as logjams, wood and gravel in the rivers, high oxygen content, correct ocean and fresh water temperature, and proper sunlight. History has the power to greatly impact the rise or fall of the salmon population in the Puget Sound. "Humans have conducted at least three full-scale experiments on how well salmon adapt to a changing landscape. Salmon failed each time, first in Great Britain, then in New England, and now in the Pacific Northwest".

Pacific Salmon have disappeared from 40 percent of their historic range outside Alaska. For every 50 salmon the Columbia River basin supported 150 years ago, today it is estimated to support seven. The state of Washington continually tried to place the blame for this decline on Native American fishing, even as commercial fisheries took more than a sustainable amount of fish each year. State courts continually curtailed tribal fishing rights by limiting the sites and times of year that they could fish. When brought to the federal courts, however, these cases have been repeatedly overturned, as in the landmark Boldt Decision of 1974. In this decision, Judge Boldt consulted the original treaties made with numerous tribes in the 1850s to determine what rights the tribes had regarding fishing. The treaties all stated that the tribes had the right to fish at "all usual and accustomed places" and that this right was "secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the territory". Judge Boldt interpreted the phrase "in common" to mean that the tribes and other citizens were each entitled to half of the fish harvest. This was a groundbreaking decision whose repercussions are still being felt today, especially by fishermen who complain that the tribes take nowhere near the half allotted to them.

There has been a struggle on salmon returning to their Pacific Northwest rivers and streams because of the struggling Northwest's economy. This provides a much-needed economic influx from increased recreational and commercial salmon fishing. Three percent of wild salmon runs in the Columbia Basin are below historic numbers. Recent studies also show that the ocean's temperature may be warming again and that the Northwest is suffering its sixth straight year of below-average waters.

Under provisions of the ESA, numerous salmon populations throughout the Pacific Northwest have been listed as endangered. One of the factors that contribute to declining salmon runs in Puget Sound, and the Pacific Northwest in general, is the lack of logjams in rivers. Logjams are essential to the survival of healthy salmon populations. Logjam and river current interaction carve deep pools into riverbeds, providing salmon and their young, also known as fry, with hiding places from predators. Logjams also force some of the water from the main river to spill out over the adjacent floodplain, formingtributaries along the river, which supply ideal habitat for maturing salmon. The natural processes of spawning and reaching maturity become much more difficult for salmon without the services logjams provide.

Another reason for salmon population decline is the use of increasingly sophisticated fishing technology. Some of the first Native American fishermen depended only on canoes, nets made from nettle or cedar fiber, and their personal skill to catch fish (Pacific Coast 2005). Today’s fishermen use trackers tolocate the fish they want to catch, whether salmon or otherwise, and then use technology like powerboats, winches, and nets made of almost unbreakable substances to catch the desired species. Advances in technology have their disadvantages, however. Advances in fishing technology have enabled fishermen to catch more and more fish of all sizes and species. For an extended period of time now, fishermen have been catching not only the larger, mature fish, but also the smaller, immature fish that have not had the chance to reproduce. This practice is detrimental to salmon populations because it does not leave any fish to propagate the salmon species.

In addition to technological advancements in fishing, invasive species and natural predators threaten the remaining salmon population. These include, but are not limited to, harbor seals, sea lions, killer whales and various sea birds. While these species are natural predators of salmon, juvenile salmon also have competition to deal with when gathering food. One major source of competition are jelly fish that feed on the same organisms as juvenile salmon. The proliferation of jelly fish and decrease of salmon could potentially lead to the "infestation" of jelly fish in local waters.[42] Also, as the organisms that salmon feed on begin to dwindle due to factors including overfishing and invasive species, salmon are further threatened as their food sources become precarious, as is the case with herring populations around Puget Sound (Puget Sound Action Team).


The Puget Sound boasts an impressive habitat for salmon, as well as other flora and fauna necessary for the species’ survival. Healthy eelgrass and kelp beds foster juvenile salmon as they make the change from small rivers and streams to a new ocean habitat in the Puget Sound before they travel on to the Pacific Ocean. Prey for salmon at different stages of their lives also thrives in healthy Puget Sound habitat, including sand lances and rockfish. As it applies to habitat, the human population along the Puget Sound shoreline has made these pristine environments harder and harder to come by. Shorelines have been bulk-headed and armored, estuaries have been filled to make agricultural land and naturally occurring logjams have been removed to make navigation in the sound easier. Habitat degradation is cited by the WDFW as one of the major contributors in reducing the Salmon stock’s resilience (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2001). An additional loss of salmon habitat along the Puget Sound has been that of salt marsh habitats along shorelines. These habitats provide salmon with important grounds for shelter as well as food. Nearly all salt marshes in and around the major Puget Sound region urban areas have been destroyed. In fact, there has been a 73% loss of salt marsh habitat in and around the Puget Sound over the last 125 years.

[edit]Hydroelectric dams[]

Hydroelectric dams contribute to the decrease in salmon populations as well. They prevent adult salmon from entering upstream to spawn. The fluctuation in water flow puts tremendous amounts of stress on salmon and reduces their ability to survive. Some dams have fish ladders that allow salmon to pass through the dam. This system helps salmon reach their spawning sites; however, the juveniles often get killed on the way downstream by the turbines in the dam. Continued use of hydroelectric dams has been the subject of local controversy. Discontinuing the dams' use would leave the region with insufficient energy supplies, since about 55% of the local energy supply is provided by hydroelectric dams. On the other hand, environmentalistsare in favor of stopping hydroelectric dam operations.

Dams affect almost all the major rivers in the Pacific Northwest, particularly near the Puget Sound. Some important river systems for salmon affected by hydroelectric dams include the Baker River, Nisqually River and Green River systems. Dams impede the natural lifecycle of salmon by creating physical barriers to their spawning grounds with detrimental consequences. Reduced watervelocity from these barriers significantly increases the time needed for young salmon to travel down the river to start the ocean phase of their lifecycle. This augmentation in migration time for salmon and alteration in "timing" possibly leads to disorientation and an increased susceptibility to predation. Another adverse effect known as "supersaturation" can occur for fish encountering dams that is similar in nature to "the bends", which can kill humans. Dams also play a major role in "taming" once "wild" rivers, the latter much more beneficial to sustaining wild salmon populations, thus negatively altering the natural environmental dynamics of ecosystems suitable for salmon.


Overfishing is another major historic factor in the depletion of salmon. Salmon became popular because it was considered very cheap compared to the growing costs of meat. As fishing became more popular, so did canneries. In 1877, the first Puget Sound cannery was built in Mukilteo, and by 1900, Puget Sound had expanded its operating canneries to 19. The effectiveness of the cannery fish traps was so great that biologists began to argue that a guaranteed number of fishes needed to be allowed to escape the nets to reach their spawning grounds, in order to prevent the total extermination of salmon.

The production of canned salmon grew slowly until about 1890 when it started to rapidly increase. During the World Wars of the 1900s canneries started to decline progressively. This was mainly due to voters supporting salmon protection initiatives because their traps were banned in Washington as voters passed Initiative 77 in 1934; however, because of this Oregon fishing boats began increasing their catch since Washington banned their traps. Through this, there was no increase in the number of salmon reaching their spawning grounds 18 years after the initiative passed. The ban in Washington eventually led to technological advances in salmon fishing. Vessels for open-ocean salmon fishing started developing in the 1930s through advances in marine technology. This allowed huge floating canneries to harvest and package salmon in the open ocean far from where runs were originally located. Thus, through the development of marine technology, countries with no salmon or depleted runs could harvest fish in other countries' open water, which in turn began to negatively affect salmon conservation and recovery efforts.

Today, Alaska currently hosts most of the American salmon fisheries because it is able to maintain relatively healthy habitats and salmon runs. Alaskan and Canadian fisheries do have impacts on Puget Sound salmon stocks, however.

Currently, fisheries are managed to minimize impacts on weak and endangered stocks of fish. Nearshore and freshwater fisheries are regulated by the WDFW and the treaty Native American tribes. Ocean fisheries off the Washington coast are managed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council and Pacific Salmon Commission. Fisheries impacting endangered species are required to have permits under the ESA.