Salish Sea salmon are struggling to survive. Long Live the Kings Executive Director Jacques White, who holds a Ph.D. in marine, estuarine and environmental sciences, gave a presentation on the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project as one of SeaDoc Society’s “Marine Lecture Series” on March 13.
“We think that marine survival is a critical, important factor in the recovery and management of salmon in the Pacific Northwest,” said White. “We advance science, we improve management then we implement solutions, which we’ve shortened to ‘learn, plan, act.’”
LLTK is focused on restoring steelhead, Chinook and coho and supporting sustainable fishing, moving “from science to action,” White said.
“Steelhead are a super complicated fish,” White said. “It’s essentially a rainbow trout that decided it was going to be a salmon.”
Steelhead breed and spend their juvenile time in freshwater, then go to sea as adults, and then back and forth from sea to freshwater many times during their lives. This transition differentiates the steelhead from the rainbow trout that spends its whole life in freshwater. Chinook, on the other hand, has been observed as having as many as 14 different life-history possibilities.
“It’s quite complicated, and that diversity is important,” White said. “Through this diversity, the salmon population are hedging their bets. That diversity … is one of the things that [humans have] changed.”
White added that the different salmon species have historically ventured into the marine environment at different times of the year, when conditions may be better for them.
According to White, salmon need healthy estuaries, wherein they enter “puberty times 100,” changing from freshwater fish to seawater fish and back. He added that salmon need nearshore habitats, like kelp beds, to live in once they’ve reached the ocean.
“They also need a healthy marine environment. … The salmon are not distributed evenly or randomly in this environment,” White said. “They identify areas of the marine environment that are important for them that have the food resources, where they can avoid predation.”
White said he is concerned for the health of the salmon because they are an indicator species. He said his worry is primarily because of future generations of humans but also because of the Southern resident killer whales. Salmon are important to coastal ecosystems, said White, and the diet of the SRKW is 98 percent salmon.
“[Salmon are] critically important to the growth and the health of our watersheds,” he said. White said that they are important to coastal ecosystems for other animals, birds and insects. According to White, most of the nitrogen in coastal forests is derived from the Pacific ocean and not from land, because of the nutrients the salmon are bringing upstream.
The long-standing practice of recreational fishing is important to the northwest economy and communities, White said. More than 90 percent of contemporary boat buyers are getting boats to go salmon fishing, he explained. But fishing isn’t the cause of the declining salmon population, according to White. In fact, there were already massive cutbacks to wild salmon harvest when the Chinook was added to the endangered species list in 1999.
“The number – the pounds of salmon – that went on the market, that came from artificial production in net pens around the world, exceeded the wild catch. And we’ve been in that space now for a number of years. Whether we like it or not, salmon farming is an increasing source of salmon for the worldwide market,” White said. “It’s not fishing that’s controlling the abundance of these fish. What [then] are the factors that are controlling it?”
A hypothesis that LLTK considered was that hatchery fish were outcompeting wild fish. However, White said, that theory cannot be demonstrated, and both hatchery and wild fish marine survival has dropped off.
Working with the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada, the two organizations created the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project to research and preserve dwindling salmon populations. With more than 200 scientists working on more than 80 studies, the project hopes to pinpoint what is causing the decline. Over the last five years, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project has raised $20 million to match the $20 million that was contributed via grants from local native tribes, Washington state, and the Canadian and U.S. federal governments. The program is entering its last year.
“It’s involved two countries and one question, and that question is, ‘Why are [salmon] dying in the Salish Sea marine environment,’” White said.
Scientists are researching everything from toxins to temperature, from diseases to predation – both by humans and the steadily growing marine mammal population.
“The marine mammal protection act – with the exception of Southern resident killer whales – has been a huge success,” he said. “We are seeing large whales – more large whales – in Puget Sound that we’ve ever seen in my lifetime, for sure. We are seeing a ton more seals, more sea lions, more porpoises.”
Scientists have also observed an increase in both pink salmon populations – and in jellyfish – and water temperature, and there are a lot more people. He hypothesized that those factors could be contributing to the decline.
“You can look at the zooplankton in the water and you can tell how many coho are coming back with 78 percent accuracy,” White said, adding that it doesn’t work for Chinook or steelhead. “That’s really helpful. That means you don’t have to go out in the ocean and pound around and try to find those fish and monitor how many are in the ocean.”
Project scientists are approaching the research three different ways, White said: “Bottom-up research” is the theory that the salmon are not getting enough food; “Top-down research” is the idea that predators are killing the salmon; and then modeling the data to put it all together.
Salmon eat everything from insects to crab larvae to other fish, White said. In an estuary, salmon eat a lot of bugs, and off-shore they eat a lot of crabs. An outlier for a salmon’s diet, he explained, is in the waters around the San Juan Islands. The salmon that are near the islands are preying on forage fish – herring and sand lance.
“Our data indicates that herring and sand lance are more important here than they are in other places,” White said in response to a question at the end of the presentation. “It doesn’t mean that insects aren’t important.”
White explained that for one study, coho were equipped with electronic transmitters for tracking.
“Marine survival of coho in the Strait of Georgia has fallen off over time,” White said. “We find accumulations of these transmitters around seal haul-outs.”
White explained that a student in British Columbia expanded on this idea and thought, “What if we monitored the seals, too.” So, working with Wildlife Computers, a technology firm in Redmond, Washington, the scientists created a tracking device with a GPS that can register when a seal eats a tagged fish. It was tested on a seal named Hermes at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, British Columbia. The tracker is attached to velcro that is glued to the seal’s fur – the velcro is harmlessly removed from the animal when the seal molts. With this tracker, scientists were able to learn more about wild seals’ dietary preferences.
“Even though the density of fish in the environment is higher for pink and chum (salmon species), the seals like the same ones that we do. They like Chinook, coho and Sockeye,” said White. He added that seals are eating 47 percent of the juvenile coho in the strait and 40 percent of the Chinook. This is a five-fold increase from data collected in the 1970s, he explained.
“Seals eat a lot salmon, but orcas eat a lot of big salmon. … [Orcas are] doing much better from July to September, when the peak of the population of the hatchery population of Chinook comes back,” White said, adding that, in the ‘70s, seals weren’t eating many juvenile salmon, so the orcas had more to feed on. “Because there’s more seals, they’re eating a lot – so it’s not trivial.”
While some of White’s solutions are farcical and include trading Miami Seaquarium 1,000 harbor seals for one whale (Tokitae – the last known captured orca in captivity) and getting the SRKWs to eat the seals, a more realistic alternative may be sterilization.
One disadvantage to the salmon, White explained, may be the hatcheries that were created 150 years ago to protect them. He said the hatcheries may create a higher demand for harbor seals, and that working to restore forage fish populations – like herring and sand lance – could help the salmon in more ways than one.
“That would be beneficial to both juvenile salmon and things like steelhead that probably don’t eat much when they’re on their way out, but would distract the predators,” White said.
Another solution, White explained, may be to take the hatchery stock out of Puget Sound and dump them into the Pacific Ocean farther north, so that the seals don’t eat the juveniles.
“What about this ‘dilution is the solution to predation?’ If we can create a large prey field that would distract the seals from eating steelhead, Chinook or coho, that might be beneficial,” White said. “If we’re dumping all of our hatchery fish in the water at the same time, that’s like ringing a dinner bell for the seals and other predators to come get them.”
Contaminants may also be affecting the mortality of salmon. Research has found that contaminants such as flame-retardants are high in juvenile Chinook. Especially the ones spawning in the Snohomish River.
“In one part of the Snohomish River, flame retardants are so high in juvenile Chinook that it’s probably causing them harm,” White said. “In order for us to really determine where best to operate … we kind of need to quantify all of [this data], and play around with the numbers before we start implementing very expensive management actions.”
With just 15 percent mortality, White said, using transmitters to track hatchery fish from the river to the sea has been beneficial and has demonstrated that very few fish are actually making it the whole way. For a 2-year-old steelhead, it takes 13 days to get from hatchery to sea.
To drum up interest in funding state and private agencies seeking to rehabilitate the salmon population, LLTK created a game called “Survive the Sound.” Last year, approximately 1,000 people participated, sponsoring a single, tagged hatchery salmon represented by a cute cartoon – for $25 – and tracking its progress to the sea. This year White hopes to have 10,000 participants. Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, LLTK is introducing the game to students in more than 200 classrooms this year. Readers can also sponsor a fish and follow its migration progress by visiting https://www.survivethesound.org/.
“What I hope to leave with you: We’re starting to understand what … the factors [are] that are affecting juvenile salmon survival in Puget Sound, and this is directing us toward specific management actions,” said White. “I promise you, we’ll get there.”