YELM (May 17, 2005) – Every winter for the past ten years, the Nisqually River steelhead run has gotten smaller. “No one seems to have a good answer on why steelhead haven’t been coming back in strong numbers,” said David Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe.
To piece together an answer, the tribe and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are doubling their monitoring efforts by conducting steelhead redd surveys by the air and by boat. “We need to get a clearer picture of steelhead populations in the Nisqually River,” said Craig Smith, harvest management biologist for the Nisqually Tribe. Redds – nests dug by steelhead in river gravel – are easily identifiable from the air and by boat because the fish rub gravel clean as they dig.
“You can’t see the entire river from a boat, but you don’t see every steelhead redd from the air either,” said Smith. “By using both methods, we are making sure we see every redd possible.”
While steelhead have been declining in the Nisqually for the past decade, the reasons are not well understood. The state and tribal co-managers would like to see just under 2,000 steelhead return to spawn every year, but since 1993, fewer than 1,000 have come back. Decades ago, the Nisqually River had the strongest run of steelhead in the Puget Sound, over 6,000 would return every year. “The Nisqually Tribe hasn’t fished for steelhead since they have been in decline and sport fishermen stopped fishing for them three years ago,” said Troutt.
The tribe is using the expanded redd data to write a multi-species recovery plan for the Nisqually River that includes steps to recover steelhead and other salmon species. “We can take steps now to protect the stocks that are having trouble,” said Troutt. In addition to chinook, which are listed as “threatened’ under the federal Endangered Species Act, the plan will also address coho, pink, and chum salmon.
There is a large part of the steelhead life cycle that is still a mystery. “Like all salmon, steelhead go out to the saltwater for a period part of their life,” said Troutt. “There might be something happening out there that we don’t know about.”
While the tribe and its local partners have made great strides in protecting and restoring freshwater habitat in the Nisqually watershed, damage to the marine nearshore of Puget Sound continues. The nearshore is the swath of submerged land roughly 30 feet below the lowest average tide that is always exposed to light.
“Steelhead spend a lot of time feeding and rearing in the nearshore,” said Troutt. “The loss and degradation of habitat in the nearshore is likely having a significant impact on Nisqually steelhead. The more we know about Nisqually steelhead, the better job we can do bringing them back. ”
For more information, contact: Craig Smith, harvest management biologist, Nisqually Indian Tribe, (360) 438-8687. 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.