• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chinook Salmon Scarcity Marks Puget Sound Wake-Up Call

Air Date: Week of

Around Seattle, there are so few native salmon left that Puget Sound Chinook, once the most the mightiest of them all, has just been proposed for the endangered species list. People are the problem for the fish. With rapid growth in the northwest, salmon habitat has been dammed, paved over and polluted. Now residents are trying to figure out how to save the animal that has symbolized their region. We have two reports, starting with Keith Seinfeld, of member station K-P-L-U in Seattle.


MAN: Hello, how are you? Who's gonna be next up, oh!

CURWOOD: At Seattle's Pike Place Market, tourists gape as fish mongers toss huge silvery fish over the crowd between the display case and the fillet table.

MAN: How about a T.K.?

CROWD: How about a T.K.?

MAN: Hah!

CURWOOD: It's a ritual built around an enduring symbol of Puget Sound: the salmon. Once so plentiful that school kids longed for the day they would be served something else for lunch, most salmon on sale here today is farm- raised, or brought in from the distant waters off Alaska, or even the Atlantic Ocean. There are so few native salmon left that Puget Sound Chinook, once the mightiest of them all, has just been proposed for the Endangered Species List. It will come as no surprise that the problem for the fish is people. With rapid growth in the northwest, salmon habitat has been dammed, paved over, and polluted. Now residents are trying to figure out how to save the animal that once symbolized their home. We have 2 reports, starting with Keith Seinfeld of member station KPLU in Seattle.

SEINFELD: There's a good reason Chinook are known as king salmon. It's not their distinctive black gums or their spotted blue-green backs. It's that they're the biggest salmon of all, typically weighing more than 20 pounds and occasionally reaching 100 pounds. They're strong enough to spawn in gravel the size of grapefruits on all the major rivers running from Washington's Cascade Mountains through cities and suburbs and into Puget Sound.

(Flowing water)

SEINFELD: Washington State fisheries biologists keep a count of Chinook on the Cedar River, where it enters Lake Washington in downtown Renton. They trap tiny fish in a cage as they swim downstream.

(Clanking sounds)

MAN: On the hour, we crank this thing up, pour em into the electronic fish counter here.

SEINFELD: After the count the fish are released. Biologists are catching just a dozen or so of the fry a day. Last fall, only a couple hundred adults made it home to spawn: less than one quarter of the number needed to keep the run alive.

SMITH: They need a natural river.

SEINFELD: Carol Smith is a biologist with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department.

SMITH: They need a river that acts like a river. They need a river that flows like a natural river. They need a river surrounded by a natural environment, and that means forest that's supplying huge, large trees that fall down in the river and provide habitat.

SEINFELD: Instead, these tiny Chinooks pass through golf courses and housing developments. And here in Renton, a huge Boeing plant building 737s. Downstream they'll try to survive the swim through Lake Washington lined with luxury homes and marinas, and then into downtown Seattle's Lake Union and a manmade shipping canal. Finally, they enter Puget Sound with its industrial ports and fishing nets. All told, here in the greater Seattle area, more than 4 million people live smack in the middle of what Ms. Smith says used to be ideal salmon habitat.

SMITH: It's just an immensely diverse environment. We have mountains that are richly feeding rivers. We've got lots of rivers here because of the precipitation in the mountains. We have a great estuary called Puget Sound. And then we have great ocean out there. Unfortunately, the same qualities that probably make it fairly attractive for salmon have made it fairly attractive for humans as well.

SEINFELD: The clash between nature and a booming metropolis finally led the National Marine Fisheries Service to propose Chinook salmon as a threatened species, and that's triggered a scramble by state and local governments to find ways to save the salmon.

LOCKE: Life without the king salmon is simply unthinkable.

SEINFELD: Washington Governor Gary Locke.

LOCKE: And when wild salmon are threatened with extinction, our northwest way of life is also threatened.

SEINFELD: Polls show strong support for saving the salmon, and Governor Locke has committed his administration to the task. But even the Governor's own aides wonder how deep the support runs. Curt Smitch, a former director of the State Wildlife Department, is the man charged with assembling a salmon plan.

(Sounds of writing)

SEINFELD: He's organizing the campaign on a white board in his office.

SMITCH: When we get into really telling people they have to change their behavior, we're going to see just what they're willing to do. And that's the debate that’s just beginning.

SEINFELD: Pollution from roads and parking lots and backyard pesticides will need to be cut. That could require millions of tax dollars for treatment plants. Water use in the dry months of July and August may need to be limited, and perhaps most controversial, development near streams and in floodplains might need to stop, even on private property. The Governor has asked local governments to draft habitat conservation plans, which Mr. Smitch's office will coordinate and then bring to the legislature for approval and funding. Any local resistance could be overcome by the threat of direct Federal intervention. Curt Smtich.

SMITCH: If we do nothing, then they have to come in and through a very regulatory top-down approach tell us the things we can and cannot do that are contributing to the decline of the salmon. Then it just ends up in Federal court. The impact, we believe, to the state would just be a massive set of injunctions, stop this, start this, and conflicting messages coming from the courts on what we're doing in our watersheds.

SEINFELD: In states such as Oregon and Maine, statewide salmon recovery plans have convinced Federal agencies to defer endangered species listing. And Will Stelle, the regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service, says his agency welcomes involvement by local governments here in Washington.

STELLE: That is enormously good news, because the counties have the tools that none of us else have to do this job well.

SEINFELD: For instance, local governments have zoning and land use authority. And in the past local governments have balked at cooperating with the Endangered Species Act. But making this partnership work won't be easy. Oregon spent three years working on its plan, and Federal biologists recently asked for more revisions. In contrast, Washington's been working only for a few months. And even if they come up with a satisfactory recovery plan, it's not clear how much that will mean for Chinook salmon. Endangered listings haven't led to dramatic gains for Columbia River or California salmon runs. Carol Smith, a biologist standing in one of Seattle's rivers, says some rivers could see the return of massive salmon runs, but probably not in crowded suburbs like Renton.

(Flowing water)

SMITH: We're never going to have historic levels in a river like this. Because I don't see much hope in society ripping out Renton. (Laughs)

SEINFELD: So far, few voices are saying the costs are too high. But elected leaders are beginning to ask where the money will come from. And some of the traditional finger-pointing has already started among fishermen, developers, farmers, and loggers, over who shoulders the most blame and the most responsibility. By next year we'll know if leaders can even start to deliver on their promises to save wild salmon in the urban northwest. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Seinfeld in Seattle.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth