The Return of Hood Canal Summer Chum

The scent of decomposing salmon might be offensive to some, but to Thom Johnson, it’s a sweet reminder of nearly two decades of work.

“That’s the smell of success, rotting salmon, nothing like it,” said the environmental program manager for Point No Point Treaty Council. “It’s the best smell in the world. Those are the nutrients for the next generation.”

The Hood Canal/Strait of Juan de Fuca summer chum population was listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1999. Now it’s one of the few salmon populations that are close to its recovery goals.

After starting with fewer than 1,000 fish in the late 1990s, there are typically from 20,000 to 40,000 summer chum salmon returning to this region each year.

The Hood Canal Coordinating Council, area tribes, state, federal and local agencies, regional fish enhancement groups, land trusts, volunteers and nonprofit organizations have spent nearly two decades implementing a variety of recovery measures after decades of over-harvest and destroyed habitat left summer chum on the brink of extinction.

“It was a massive effort by at least a couple of dozen organizations,” Johnson said. “You can’t do a restoration like this without everyone participating.”

As with anything to do with salmon recovery, the effort balanced the three H’s: harvest, hatcheries and habitat.

Since the mid-’90s, harvest restrictions have been put in place, including reduced, relocated and delayed fisheries. In the 1970s, the harvest rate was between 40-60 percent of the population; today it’s 8 percent or less.

A hatchery supplementation program was implemented throughout the region to increase fish abundance. From 1992-2003, hatcheries were operated where needed, including on Big Quilcene, Hamma Hamma, Lilliwaup, Union and Tahuya rivers and Big Beef Creek in Hood Canal and on Salmon, Jimmycomelately and Chimacum creeks in the Strait.

“We took unique steps that were successful using only wild fish from each creek or river that needed to be boosted, while also being careful to minimize any impact to the fish,” Johnson said. “After four years, numbers in Salmon Creek were good, so we took a representative sample as planned and moved them to Chimacum Creek, which had zero fish.

“We wanted to reintroduce summer chum to where they had been spawning as recently as the 1970s. We now have self-sustaining wild summer chum there with about 1,300 fish returning to Chimacum Creek this season.”

At the same time, habitat projects protected and restored some of the streams in the region, further supporting chum populations.

Salmon Creek, a summer chum stream in Uncas Valley near Discovery Bay, had been altered beginning in the 1890’s when the lower valley was homesteaded as a farm.

“The original stream channels on the property were straightened or drained with the excavated gravel placed on the banks, all to help maximize the pasture land,” Johnson said. “We were able to buy about 200 acres of lower valley from willing landowners and put the curves back in the stream, get rid of dikes to allow water to flow into the floodplain, add logjams to help stabilize the stream and naturally distribute the sediment load, and plant a nice streamside forest to keep the temperatures cool.

“Plus, much of the upper watershed now has conservation easements in place that will protect the forest and control any new development. It’s a nice package that makes in-stream habitat more hospitable for salmon eggs in the gravel.”

Downstream, the estuary in Discovery Bay underwent a similar restoration led by the North Olympic Salmon Coalition and partners. Near the mouth of Salmon Creek, nearshore armoring, an old railroad grade and an old log mill site with a toxic sawdust pile were removed, and historic shoreline, tidal marsh and tidal channels were restored.

“These summer chum start in a nice freshwater habitat and hit a healthy estuary habitat,” Johnson said. “We are monitoring the number of summer chum adults coming into the stream in the summer/fall and the number of summer chum fry migrating to the bay the next winter/spring. This allows us to estimate the survival from egg-to-fry over time and to evaluate the restoration measures which are in place.”

There are other good examples of habitat restoration in the region, but, overall more needs to be done to truly recover summer chum.

As for the next steps, the protective harvest measures will continue and the hatchery supplementation programs have reached their goals and mostly have been phased out.

“Habitat is where it’s at,” Johnson said. “We need to redouble our habitat protection and restoration efforts throughout the region. We’re close, very close to recovery and that’s exciting, but we’ve got to be smart and strategic and keep working together.”

All the partners involved in the effort:

Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, Skokomish Tribe, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Point No Point Treaty Council, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S Forest Service, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Navy, U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Parks, Hood Canal Coordinating Council, Jefferson County, Mason County, Kitsap County, Jefferson Conservation District, Mason County Conservation District, Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, North Olympic Salmon Coalition, Wild Olympic Salmon, North Olympic Lead Entity for Salmon, Long Live the Kings, Northwest Watershed Institute, Jefferson Land Trust, Great Peninsula Conservancy, Trust for Public Lands, The Nature Conservancy.