Tribes monitor fish in nearshore ‘nursery’

LA CONNER— Nearly every day in the spring through early fall, somewhere in the Skagit basin and San Juan Islands, a crew from the Skagit River System Cooperative (SRSC) is sampling fish populations.

Rain or shine, in smooth waters or blustery wind, the crew pulls beach seines and sets fyke traps to count and measure fish before returning them to the water. Crew members also record water temperature, salinity, depth, velocity, substrate and vegetation. As a result, SRSC, the natural resources arm of the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes, has a 15-year (and counting) comprehensive database of the way fish use nearshore habitat.

The nearshore is a nursery to a variety of fish including sculpins, perch, smelt, herring and salmon. Puget Sound chinook salmon, listed as “threatened” by the federal Endangered Species Act, depend on estuaries for extended rearing during outmigration.

Monitoring this habitat is a crucial, yet often underfunded, aspect of the salmon recovery effort, said Eric Beamer, SRSC’s research director. Without it, nobody knows whether a restoration project did what it was supposed to do.
Tribal members Jason Boome, Upper Skagit, and Jeremy Cayou Jr., Swinomish, sample fish populations in the Swinomish Channel for the Skagit River System Cooperative.
“Restoration science is rather new and the designs used are often untested and unique by site,” Beamer said. “It is critical to learn what actually happens at sites. The restoration might work better than predicted, worse than predicted, or just different than predicted. If we monitor, we can find out what actually happens and often take corrective action.”

SRSC’s best example of funding to monitor the effectiveness of a project was $50,000 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Deepwater Slough restoration. At the time of completion in 2000, it was the largest estuarine project on the West Coast. But $50,000 was only 2 percent of the total project cost and it wasn’t enough, Beamer said.

Beyond measuring the effectiveness of a particular project, long-term monitoring on a larger scale is essential to understanding and maintaining salmon recovery.

“This kind of monitoring evaluates the response of the entire chinook salmon population to natural and human-caused changes to the environment,” Beamer said.

SRSC intends to monitor whether chinook populations are increasing or decreasing in response to multiple factors:

  • Restoration that has occurred.
  • Existing habitat that is or is not protected.
  • Environmental changes such as global climate change, which could alter flooding, sea level rise and marine survival conditions for salmon.

The essential data collection includes:

  • Spawner surveys and test fisheries to estimate chinook escapement.
  • Lower mainstem river smolt trapping to estimate the number of wild chinook juveniles that successfully rear in freshwater habitat of the watershed.
  • Estuary trapping to estimate the number of wild chinook juveniles that successfully rear in the estuary.
  • Nearshore beach seining and tow-netting to estimate the number of wild chinook juveniles that successfully rear in the nearshore.
  • The indicator stock program and regionwide catch sampling to estimate harvest of Skagit chinook production.

“It’s nice when monitoring confirms what we think is happnening,” Beamer said. “But monitoring results are especially important when things don’t go exactly as planned. That way, you can do course correction.”

For more information, contact: Eric Beamer, research director, Skagit River System Cooperative, 360-466-7228 or [email protected]; Kari Neumeyer, information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 360-424-8226 or [email protected].