Healthy, naturally functioning estuaries are vital to all living things—including you.
Estuaries are lifelines to birds, mammals, native plants and our great Northwest salmon. They are nurseries where young salmon grow and gain strength to begin their perilous ocean journey. Returning adults rest and eat their last meal there as they await the rains that signal the time to expend their last ounce of energy to reach their ancestral spawning grounds.
Development has swallowed or altered more than 80 percent of the historic estuarine habitat in Puget Sound. That loss continues today. That’s one reason why the tribes are so active in estuary restoration and protection, and why they’re leading the effort to create new estuarine habitat.
I’ve written about the breathtaking work done by my own Nisqually Tribe in opening up the Nisqually estuary just north of Olympia. Last fall the tribe restored more than 100 acres of estuary, opening tidal channels that had been blocked behind dikes for decades.
Our scientists are already finding wild juvenile chinook in this new habitat. Their stomachs are full of shrimp and other sources of food that have colonized the restored habitat.
And there’s more. An additional 700 acres of estuarine habitat will be reclaimed at the mouth of the river in the next few years.
On the Skokomish River, after 60 years, the tides are again flowing across more than 100 acres of estuary. The Skokomish Tribe is removing nearly a mile of dikes, part of a multi-phase effort to restore more than 300 acres of the estuary to its historic conditions.
In the North Sound area, the Swinomish and other tribes have partnered with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to restore tidal and river functions to 310 acres of Milltown Island, on the South Fork of the Skagit. This project alone is removing 1,000 feet of relic dikes and opening 1,500 feet of new channel. Upcoming projects include dike removal at Wiley Slough to return natural conditions to 175 acres of estuarine wetlands.
All of this work is helping to recover wild salmon, especially threatened Puget Sound chinook. But it’s also making a better home for all forms of life, including people. Instead of accepting a steadily shrinking estuary pie, the tribes are working to make that pie bigger.
There is much more habitat restoration work to be done, of course. But we have been busy, as co-managers of natural resources in this state. We’re not doing this just for ourselves and the fish and wildlife that sustain us all; we’re also doing it for the long term health and vitality of everyone and everything living here — including you.
Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer, NWIFC, (360) 438-1180.