The Nisqually Indian Tribe is expanding a search to determine the range of troubled steelhead in the Nisqually River watershed.
“For years we’ve been surveying the mainstem by boat and helicopter, now we’re also trying to get the true geographic scope of these fish in the Nisqually watershed,” said David Troutt, natural resources manager for the tribe. “We’ve doubled the amount of walking surveys we’re doing, so we’re getting a better sense of how steelhead use the watershed.”
In the early 90s the population of Nisqually steelhead decreased from 6,000 to fewer than 1,000. “Since they fell off a cliff, their population seems to have stabilized,” Troutt said. “The overall population data we’re seeing indicates that they’re finding somewhere to spawn successfully.”
The expanded surveys will include smaller creeks and streams often overlooked in traditional spawning surveys.
Nisqually steelhead are part of a larger Puget Sound steelhead population that is listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Participants in the tribe’s “Salmon Watchers” program are also keeping an eye on small creeks, looking for steelhead. “If they think they see a steelhead, we’ll send out a survey crew to walk the creek and look for spawners,” Troutt said.
It’s a mystery why Nisqually steelhead are at such low levels. “We know fishing pressure isn’t the problem,” Troutt said. “The Nisqually Tribe hasn’t fished for steelhead for almost 20 years and sport fishermen stopped fishing for them seven years ago.”
Additionally, the fish have relatively good freshwater habitat available to them. The reason for the decline likely lies in the marine habitat. “We are confident that all of our work in habitat protection and restoration over the past 20 years has improved the freshwater environment, butwe still do not fully understand why steelhead haven’t been coming back in strong numbers, so we need to get a clearer picture of steelhead populations in the Nisqually River,” Troutt said.
“Our fishing rights reserved in treaty mean much less when the salmon we’ve always depended on are disappearing,” said Georgianna Kautz, natural resources manager for the tribe. “The more we know about how these fish, the better we can protect them and bring them back to harvestable numbers.”
For more information, contact: David Troutt, natural resources director, Nisqually Indian Tribe, (360) 438-8687. Emmett O’Connell, South Sound information officer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4304, firstname.lastname@example.org.