Legends tell of people walking across rivers on the backs of salmon, scooping fish from creeks with pitchforks and rivers turning red from flashes of scales in the fall.
Whether or not they’ve ever been true, the hyperboles for Washington’s historical abundance of fish just sound ridiculous now.
Are there few enough to classify the fish as endangered? What would it mean for Washington coastal rivers’ spring Chinook populations to earn such a designation? The answers aren’t clear, but tribes, nonprofits, businesses, officials working to combat flooding and other stakeholders may soon find out.
The southern resident killer whales that frequent Washington’s Puget Sound and coast are already recognized as “endangered” on the federal level under the Endangered Species Act. But their main source of nutrition, the declining Chinook salmon, still have yet to earn the designation in many of the state’s coastal rivers beyond the Columbia. And, like so many fish fans, orcas particularly love spring Chinook.
This week, two conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Rivers, jointly filed a petition to list spring Chinook in the Chehalis, Quinault, Queets, Hoh and Quillayute river basins as “endangered” under federal law.
While most salmonoid species head back to their rivers of origin in the late summer or fall, the early-returning spring “kings,” as they’re commonly called, are as fatty and delectable as they are threatened. Colder water is more oxygenated, and therefore more healthy for fish. But the spring Chinook make their difficult, final journeys upriver during the warmest months of the year. The fish also rely solely on stored energy, and between their depleting strength and increasing stressors from climate change, barriers and waters warmed by recently-logged areas without adequate shade, they’re easy pickings for fishermen and predators. Or, they might just die.
An endangered listing would mean protections for the fish, the waters they live in and the land through which that water runs. The potential of a listing for spring Chinook has been a discussion topic for many years in the Chehalis River Basin, the largest basin situated solely within the state of Washington, as officials work to balance the fight against chronic flooding with the conservation of salmon and other aquatic species, invaluable cultural and economic resources for communities and tribes.
To the knowledge of Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, no organizations have petitioned for this listing in the past. Last year, the center petitioned for a similar listing in Oregon and the National Marine Fisheries Service began conducting a review for the decision earlier this year, signaling a step forward in the listing process.
“We think there is a good case for a threatened or endangered listing, due to the continuing declines of spring-run and the multitude of threats,” Miller told The Chronicle. “The determination is up to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The first hurdle is a 90-day finding on whether the petition presents sufficient information. … That would initiate a status review of the species, information gathering from the state, other agencies, tribes and scientists, and launch of a public comment period.”
The news release announcing the petition’s filing specifically notes the proposed new dam on the Upper Chehalis, referring to the Chehalis River Flood Zone Control District’s application for a water retention facility 1 mile upstream of Pe Ell meant to reduce the effects of catastrophic flooding, like what the basin saw in 2007 and 2009.
Former Lewis County Manager Erik Martin, who still serves as the administrator for the flood zone control district, said one piece of the feedback on the facility’s draft environmental impact statement was adding protections for spring Chinook because of the endangered orcas. Further, he said the unique design of the proposal would provide more adequate fish passage than even the most ecologically-progressive “run of the river” designs for dams in the past.
“We’ve been concerned with fish mitigation habitat mitigation since the beginning,” Martin said. “We don’t have a reaction specifically (to the petition). It’s been our goal to create an ecological lift … and federally-endangered orca were a comment on the draft EIS. It’s the food chain.”
But Miller says his organization won’t bend.
“The Center for Biological Diversity is absolutely opposed to building the Upper Chehalis flood retention facility/dam,” Miller said, later adding, “It would … foreclose on any possibility of restoring spring-run fish in the upper watershed. There would be no way to mitigate those impacts.”
While new data has shown an increasing population of seals and sea lions are eating more spring Chinook than previously thought, Miller said the Center’s main concerns are the human impacts including logging, harvest, climate change, water diversions and the proposed dam.
“It's only because salmon runs are depleted by human activities that predation by sea lions or native fish such as pikeminnow even become a concern,” he said.
He said an endangered listing could allow removal of “invasive predators.”
Each of Washington’s coastal tribes were notified of the petition in advance of its filing, Miller said, but he was unaware of any official position. On the Chehalis River, the Quinault Indian Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation are stakeholders. Both have important economic and cultural ties to spring Chinook, among other salmon species, which could potentially be threatened or helped by an endangered listing. The eventual impacts would only be known after considerable negotiation.
Leadership from both, though, seem hesitant about the petition.
In a written statement to The Chronicle, the Quinault Business Committee, also called the Tribal Council, said, “When we ceded our lands under the 1856 Treaty of Olympia, we reserved the right to fish in our usual and accustomed places and grounds. Treaties are the supreme law of the land in the United States. The Quinault Indian Nation will never stop our work to protect and restore spring Chinook and the habitats they depend on, but we also have concerns over the potential impact of an Endangered Species Act listing on our fishing rights and our autonomy to manage our fisheries.”
The nation canceled spring and summer Chinook fishing season openers from 2019 to 2022, the statement said, and expects the fishery to remain closed in 2023 in response to “chronic low abundance.” The Quinault Indian Nation, the statement said, hasn’t opened a commercial fishery for spring Chinook on the Queets River since the mid 1990s.
“The Quinault Indian Nation shares concerns about the dire condition of spring Chinook in Washington’s coastal rivers. We have long supported and funded efforts to protect and restore the species,” the Tribal Council wrote, later adding, “We look forward to working with the federal government to balance the goals and requirements of the Endangered Species Act with our treaty fishing rights and fisheries management priorities."
Chehalis Tribal Council Chairman Dustin Klatush provided a similar, cautious response.
“The Chehalis Tribe is aware of the effort to have Spring Chinook listed under the ESA. We have seen the petition and are studying the effects on the tribe and fish in the Chehalis River,” Klatush said. “The tribe will not decide to support or oppose the petition until there is a clear understanding of the effect on Chehalis Tribal Community and the fish that have sustained the tribe for countless generations.”
Both Klatush and leadership from the Quinault Indian Nation sit on the Office of Chehalis Basin board, a state-formed agency to address aquatic species degradation and the impacts of flooding through policy. The office’s executive director was not able to be reached for comment by The Chronicle’s press deadline.
The Coast Salmon Partnership, a nonprofit organization based in Western Washington, works to maintain and restore salmon habitat. The group’s executive director, Mara Zimmerman, formerly of the state’s fish and wildlife department, was an essential player in climate change modeling for the Chehalis River Basin’s fisheries. The partnership has “served as the platform for local governments to solve salmon recovery issues,” Zimmerman said, within the constructs of existing laws. In light of the recent petition, she said, that commitment remains the same.
To read the petition in full, head to https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/fish/pdfs/WA-Spring-Chinook-Petition-05-23-23.pdf.