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Written by Bill McMillan of the WSC(Wild Steelhead Coalition)

A letter forwarded to WSC membership today. Lots of reading, but it puts things into a historical persepective:

Hi there Richard ...

Longtime no see.

As you might imagine, when I began to analyze in depth the U.S. Fish Commission and the somewhat later U.S. Bureau of Fisheries reports, I was similarly stunned by the catch figures.

In my growing interests regarding Puget Sound fisheries after moving onto the Skagit River (1998) I began to read over the old Washington State fishing guide books I have -- one from my father when he was based at Sand Point Naval Air Station in 1944 and the other which I purchased in my early days of interest as an 11-12 year old in 1956. Included in the 1956 book were the steelhead sport catch data for 1953-54, and 1954-55 from punch card computations of Washington Department of Game. The number one river was the Puyallup in 1954-55 with 16,886 winter steelhead caught, and number two was the Skagit at 16,170 (did not include the Sauk which was kept separate with another 1,000 or so). One typically figures that catch represents 1/2 to 1/3 of total run-size which would mean both rivers minimally had over 30,000 steelhead returning in the winter of 1954-55. If one takes the 1/3 computation it would mean over 50,000 steelhead for each. The second winter of my arrival at the Skagit, Puget Sound steelhead seemingly collapsed (actually a long progression downward since 1895) with an estimated run-size of just over 3,000 steelhead. The co-managers' response (WDFW and Boldt Case tribes) was to lower the escapement goal from 10,300 to 6,000 steelhead. Conveniently, the next year's steelhead return was predicted to be about 6,300 steelhead. Presto! Problem fixed.

This sort of stuff has never cut it with me. I got out of the UW Fisheries school in 1966 because I would not be a part of the biostitution taught there by the Donaldson regime.

Something was definitely broken with Skagit River steelhead. The managers were playing the tricks I was long used to in my days in dealing with S.W. Washington managers and those of the Grande Ronde River in Northeast Oregon. My first inclination was to let it go. I had paid my dues regarding fishery activism that included loss of a wife and family in that blind pursuit. Then on Thanksgiving weekend (4 days) of 2000 Puget Sound Energy shut off the flow to the Baker River for the entire 4 days. I went to the beach along our house where several hundred chum salmon had been actively spawning and found 67 of their redds dewatered, now 50'-60' from the river. I threw down my fishing rod and said, "This is enough!" I flagged every redd, called my ex P-I editor friend, Jack de Yonge, who had been trying to get me into Skagit River activism. He orchestrated subsequent front page in Skagit Herald, Seattle P-I, New York Times, 3rd page Wall St. Journal, and radio and television coverage as far away as LA.

PSE stock investment took a hit despite the high profits that year from the Enron debacle which had led to PSE keeping Skagit flows very high all fall with particular high losses of salmon redd success when they subsequently dewatered in drought of that fall and winter. For the first time, that spring PSE began to concede in the development of minimum flow standards they previously managed to forestall for 50 years. I could not believe this had been allowed to go on for that length of time and could well understand part of the collapse in steelhead and salmon in the Skagit River -- all simply because people sat by and did nothing for 50 years beyond grouse about it during the ongoing relicensing discussions while PSE provided coffee and doughnuts at their comfortable Baker Lake Lodge as the perpetual meeting place.

From that point onward, I realized once again that living on rivers does not provide the option of avoiding personal responsibility. If you do not act, kiss it good-by.

When I returned from 2 months each fall of living on the Kvachina River of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula in 1995 and 1996, I had come to realize what salmon and steelhead abundance actually once was. It was not a trip of place; it was a trip in time. Kamchatkan abundance represents what Americans initially bought with the Louisiana Purchase and the claim to the West Coast insured by Lewis and Clark. It also represents what we have subsequently done through Euro-American colonization driven by capitalism without necessary cultural restraint. Nevertheless, I never did the numbers. I simply wanted to bury myself in the joy of the experience of what Kamchatka provided rather than make use of the lessons.

Then in 2003, I was provided my first experience of Alaska by 3 friends, one of whom is a fishery biologist and geomorphologist at the NW Fisheries Science Center. We went to the Situk River. I had not experienced Kamchatka at steelhead spawning time (only the fall). The Situk provided the more complete view of what steelhead natural abundance looks like in spawning ground activity. I was absolutely mesmerized by it from the comparative experiences of doing spawning surveys ever since 1979. The numbers of steelhead spawning were like those of chum salmon on good return years along the Skagit River bar in front of my home. I suddenly realized how distorted my perspective had been regarding the actual biological reality of what natural carrying capacity for steelhead production must be. My eyes, and your eyes, have been through the dark filter of 150 years of natural resource depletion our experience has limited our thought processes to. On coming back home from the Situk, I further found that the present Situk "abundance" in 2003 was less than 1/3 of the steelhead abundance counted through a USFWS weir operated on the Situk in 1952 when 25,000-30,000 kelts were passed out the weir. So Alaskans are already viewing their fishery resource through the filter of depletion.

On return from the Situk in 2003, I immediately began to further dig into not only Situk River information but that of the Skagit, Puget Sound, and Olympic Peninsula rivers where my son was doing biological work first with the Hoh Tribe and then with the Wild Salmon Center. I talked with Bob Johnson of Alaska Fish & Game a couple of times to try and dig out as much Situk data as possible, as well as examining all of the weir data from a number of creeks and rivers on the ADF&G website. Evidently because of all my queries, in the latter part of 2003 ADF&G came out with a complete paper about the Situk River steelhead. It became apparent that they had questioned for years whether the historic data collected at the Situk weir in 1952 was accurate and not some sort of miscalculation or typo. It turned out the guy who operated the weir in 1952 was still alive. He was contacted and the numbers confirmed. If you are interested in that history, I suggest your reading it:

Bain, C., S.T. Elliot, R.E. Johnson, and G. Woods. 2003. Situk River steelhead: a review of historical data through 1996. Fishery Manuscript No. 03-01, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Anchorage.

You can find it by going through the many publications available off the ADF&G website. The reason there is a range of 25,000-30,000 steelhead in the kelts counted out the Situk weir in 1952 is that so many steelhead went through in one particular night it was difficult to keep count (the minimum count that night was 6,000 passed through) and also because they knew fish were sometimes passing the weir during higher flows at each end without being counted. Also, even that count was low because the weir was not put in until June of 1952 (primary purpose to count sockeye going up not steelhead going out) and steelhead spawning in the Situk can begin as early as February with a May peak. So, undoubtedly many steelhead kelts passed before the weir was put in.

You can read much of this information off a complete paper I did for the Wild Salmon Center a couple years ago that is on their website: Historic steelhead abundance: Washington NW Coast and Puget Sound (with particular emphasis on the Hoh River). Also, about the Situk/Skagit comparisons in a paper on the Wild
Steelhead Coalition website (it had one error regarding the Situk drainage size -- an ADF&G error -- which I
corrected to 77 sq. mi. in the Wild Salmon Center paper that I later did).

The route to steelhead recovery on the Situk River has depended on ADF&G not setting a restrictive escapement goal beyond knowing that in 1952 (after years of attempted eradication of both steelhead and Dolly Varden in the 1930s) the Situk had phenomenal numbers of steelhead that subsequently crashed in 1953 and remained at 1,000-1,500 steelhead until recovery efforts began in the 1980s. As Mark Chilcote recently indicated at the Boise Steelhead Managers' Conference, "...if steelhead are to have a future on the Columbia River and in Oregon in the face of global warming, we need to get out of their way in their ability to adapt that is presently constrained by harvest driven by MSY formulas and focus on hatchery production." Alaska effectively did so. There has been a continuous rise in Situk steelhead numbers. The past two years the kelt counts were over 15,000 each year and now half of what they were in 1952 from a depletion that was down to less than 5% of their historic numbers in 1952.

For recovery to work you first have to acknowledge what the magnitude of the historic baseline you began with was. The continual evidence is that we have been ultra conservative with historic baselines, and ultra liberal with harvest goals. This has created our worldwide course to fishery disaster. Good management needs to do just the opposite. Quite frankly, after examining the historic records, I don't believe that using the limit of catch evidence we can possibly overestimate what North Pacific Rim salmonid abundance was at the time of 1800.

Let's take the Situk. It is a river of 77 sq. mi. drainage and avg. annual flow of about 1,000 cfs. We know it had 25,000-30,000 steelhead as late as 1952 -- direct counts of kelts going out a weir. The Situk is at the northern extent of steelhead range. Most steelhead smolts at the Situk require 3 years of rearing (with a range of 2-6 years, as I remember) before they smolt. At the Boise conference, the Alaska representative there indicated they have now found their previous scale estimates likely underestimated the ages and the actual avg. age at smolting is thought to be 4 years in most Alaskan streams -- not three.

The Stillaguamish River, like most streams in Washington, has steelhead that primarily rear 2 years before they smolt, so Situk River steelhead juveniles have to use the river's resources for 1-2 years longer than those of the Stillaguamish before they can go to sea. Therefore, the Situk's steelhead productivity regarding juvenile rearing is more limited than that of the Stillaguamish due to juveniles having to rear twice as long. Growth in Alaskan streams is retarded due to the short summer growing season and cold water temperatures even during the summer. The Stillaguamish drainage is 684 sq. mi., or 8.9 times that of the Situk. The math is pretty basic: 8.9 x 25,000-30,000 = 222,500-267,000 steelhead as the theoretical productivity of the Stillaguamish system compared to the Situk. But that does not factor in the greater juvenile productivity that should be expressed by a life history that only takes 2 years to reach smolt size rather than the Situk's 3-4 years. The math strongly suggests that the 90,000 steelhead computed for the Stillaguamish is already compromised by my conservatism (fight against it as I might).

Was the Stillaguamish as productive as the Situk per drainage area? Maybe not. The Situk has a significant lake in the headwater areas which would stabilize flow. That is an advantage. It also meant it had the nutrients of sockeye salmon that go with the lake. However, factor in the longer rearing time and it begins to eat away at the lake advantages.

Part of the Stilly drainage is passable only to summer steelhead due to waterfalls on Deer Creek and Canyon Creek. Those summer run steelhead were not even included in the numbers of steelhead harvested in 1895 from the Stillaguamish (the commercial steelhead count was simply those sold to buyers from November 15 through about March). There was no potential for pink salmon to be counted as steelhead, and no buyer was going to accept a chum salmon for fresh fish market as a substitute for steelhead (chum value per pound was half a cent while steelhead were 3-4 cents, the highest price of commercial salmon purchased in 1895 because they kept better). We can only wonder what summer steelhead numbers once may have been, but that 60,000-90,000 fish is entirely winter runs. However, there remain areas of the Stilly drainage that no steelhead can access due to falls, so that would perhaps reduce the available drainage area down to 600 sq. mi. available, or lets even say 500 sq. mi. to be ultra conservative. At 500 sq. mi. if Stillaguamish steelhead production was equal to the Situk it would mean a minimum of 160,000 steelhead if we use 25,000 steelhead as the baseline for the Situk.

to be continued.......
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
How did I derive 60,000 to 90,000 steelhead? In 1895, 20 citizens of the Stillaguamish sold 180,000 pounds of winter run steelhead to Seattle fish buyers at a station 6 miles up the Stillaguamish River. Fishing was all by set and drift gill nets in the river. It was further estimated that an equal number of steelhead was taken by the ranchers upstream for home use (360,000 lbs total). How convert pounds into fish? Jim Myers of the NOAA biological review team decided to use 12 pounds per steelhead in his desire to be very conservative in the computation of Puget Sound steelhead average weight. I found Queets River tribal gill net records that indicated the avg. steelhead was 9.85 lbs there as caught in the winter of 1934. The Queets is noted for some of the largest steelhead on the coast which the Stillaguamish certainly is not, nor is the rest of Puget Sound. I found the 1940 record of Pautzke and Meigs regarding 454 steelhead weighed and measured from the winter sport catch on the Green River. I threw out the 7 steelhead of less than 2 lbs as unlikely to show up in the commercial net catch and found the average was 7.61 lbs. Analysis of steelhead sport catch from 4 Washington Rivers in that same era found the average winter run steelhead was 7.8 lbs. I ended up using an average weight of 8 pounds for ease of computations and to balance that commercial caught fish may be a little larger. The Stilly total catch would have been 45,000 winter run steelhead in 1895. Using the lower estimate that catch represents 1/2 of the run-size it results in 90,000 steelhead returning to the mouth of the Stillaguamish in 1895. It was specifically noted in the U.S. Fish Commission Report that the Stilly was singled out as "quite a steelhead river." It was the only river singled out to provide the high catch of steelhead from the long tables of data in the written part of the report.

What was the accuracy of these reports? There was certainly no incentive for a buyer to over-report the number of fish handled and the money made from them (both statistics provided). In fact, probably just the opposite considering potential taxation (1894-95 was a pivotal period with uncertainty regarding income tax according to Wikipedia, but presumably no one would want to report more than he made to the government with the uncertainty of whether you would be taxed on it or not). There is also the commercial fishery fact of that era that continues sometimes to this day, that when the catch is brought in and there is a glut in the market, the fishermen may have to dump their catch due to lack of the market buyer to purchase them. 1895 was definitely a year of high numbers of steelhead being caught and purchased.

From the habitat standpoint, in the 1895 report it indicated the Skagit River was ascended by large steamboats with regularity 40 miles upstream in high flows and 20 miles in low flows. This means that the river had been cleared of all logjams. (The Skagit in the 1870s was totally blocked by at least 3 river spanning logjams just above Mt. Vernon until settlers took them out to provide passage up and downstream.) The removal of those logjams had a profound effect on salmon and steelhead productivity. The same sorts of logjam removals undoubtedly occurred on the Stilly to accomodate the log drives if nothing else. At the same time the many braids of the river deltas were being drained for farming by putting all the braids into single channels. In Kamchatka all those little braids were the most productive areas with all species of salmonids crowded together into them as the most secure rearing places. In a 1998 publication by George Pess and other authors, the loss of coho (and all salmonids) in the Stillaguamish and Skagit was largely attributed to eradication of beaver dams in these braided areas and in the many tributary streams. All of these things were already done by the 1880s on the Skagit and Stillaguamish. By 1895, steelhead productivity had already been significantly compromised (the Situk River is clogged with continuous jams of large woody debris). But prior to 1895 the fishing industry had not fully developed in Puget Sound, especially as far north as the Stilly and the Skagit. So 1895 provides the best baseline year.

Factoring in all of these things, it becomes evident that as astonishing as the 1895 steelhead catch was, there is every reason to believe that it is a very conservative estimate as to what the pre-contact steelhead productivity of the Stillaguamish was say at the time of 1800.

At this time, there is considerable interest in trying to develop more accurate historic baselines from which to better determine our own future regarding our past uses of natural resources and how long we can sustain ourselves at this continuing rate. For instance, in Rosenberg et al. (2005) in the publication of The Ecological Society of America (The history of ocean resources: modeling cod biomass using historical records), the authors went through a similar process as I did regarding interpreting historic catches into actual fish numbers compared to those of present. Here is just one of the stunning quotes:

"...the best estimate of adult cod biomass on the Scotian Shelf today comprises a mere 38% of the catch brought home by 43 Beverly schooners in 1855. In other words, 16 small schooners from the mid 19th century fleet could contain all of the adult cod on the Scotian Shelf today."

The conclusion was that the current total biomass of cod is 50,000 mt -- about 4% of the adult biomass in 1852, and in 2002 adult biomass was only about 3,000 mt, or less than 0.3% of the biomass of adult cod in 1852.

These percentages are very similar to the depletion levels I have been finding for both salmon and steelhead in Washington rivers. And there is no reason to suggest it would be otherwise. Fisheries worldwide have been driven by the same economic factors of minimally regulated fisheries until they totally collapse. As we are learning with today's U.S. economic free fall in its basic institutions of capitalism -- the free market economy has pretty predictable results given no constraint on the prevalent human desire for ever more.

In the Sacramento system it is now determined pre-contact steelhead abundance was 1-2 million fish, now reduced to less than 1,000 some years in the 1990s (page 19, Central Valley Steelhead, by D.R. McEwen, 2001, Fish Bulletin 179: Vol. One, Contributions to the biology of Central Valley salmonids, California Dept. of Fish and Game). Again, these are phenomenal numbers difficult to comprehend in the filter of depletion we are used to viewing salmon and steelhead abundance through -- in the case of California, beginning in the 1500s as European contact and therefore at it a few hundred years longer than on the Stillaguamish (but modern technology quickly caught up).

I have presently contracted by NOAA Fisheries to help develop an historic GIS map and several papers describing the historic distribution and abundances of each ESA listed species/stock in the Columbia Basin including into Canada. My fellow authors will be similarly describing the pre-contact habitat of each subbasin. We hope to find what habitat types provided the greatest productivity for each species/stock from which to better focus recovery efforts. We, of course, should have done this long ago. We really have no clue what the carrying capacity of pre-contact habitat was by type. My mantra ever since returning from Kamchatka in 1996:

To study only depletion is to further perpetuate depletion.

This is essentially what we have done in fisheries science for the past 50 years once the myth of the modern fish hatchery came on line to detain our learning of how fish and habitat function together. It is clear from the Situk River that there is very low mortality from parr to adult returns and that non-typical steelhead habitat can be incredibly productive. Also, part of the productivity is provided by adults that much more commonly spawn more than once than occurs in Washington (potentially a continuing artifact of over-harvest that has eliminated that important life history option for repeat spawning).

As part of my continuing Columbia River research, it has become apparent that the usual estimate of salmon/steelhead run sizes being 11-16 million at the time of Lewis and Clark are very low -- and as one would imagine they would be coming through the N.W. Power Planning Council at that time and the filtration of private power companies as well. Those numbers never did add up to me given relatively recent Fraser River returns of 20 million in the 1990s and the evidence of much larger numbers from smaller systems in Alaska. As part of this investigation of historic sources, I was continually attracted by the common sighting of seals and sea-lions by Lewis & Clark, David Thompson, and John Kirk Townsend on the Columbia River up to Celilo Falls in the early 1800s (especially abundant at Celilo Falls, The Dalles, The Cascades near Bonneville, and the mouth of the Washougal River all noted). I finally decided to do the math a couple weeks ago with rather astonishing results. The computed number of seals and sea-lions from their exclamations of their abundance suggested about 100 seals/sea-lions per mile of river with thousands clumped together at the more concentrated sites. Celilo Falls was upriver 200 miles. 100 x 200 = 20,000 seals/sea-lions that were virtually present year around from the breadth of the sightings described throughout the year. By multiplying an avg. wt. of 10 pounds per salmon/steelhead, times perhaps 25 pounds of salmon/steelhead (combined consumed and maimed) per seal/sea-lion, it came out that the annual historic consumption by those animal "fishermen" before the major tribal fishery at Celilo Falls was 15 million salmon/steelhead -- essentially equaling the high figure for total run-size to the Columbia. Prior to coming on this, I was figuring the Columbia had about 35 million salmon/steelhead but now I must up it considerably to accommodate what the seals/sea-lions ate which does not begin to include what the bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes, and etc. ate along with the tribal harvests. As I say, I do not believe it is possible for us to factor in all the things that we are missing in figuring what historic abundances prior to Lewis and Clark were. There are powerful economic forces that want it otherwise. For instance, no power company wants to mitigate for what historic numbers of salmon and steelhead were.

This is not to say that we will ever restore salmon/steelhead to pre-contact numbers. Won't happen with present human life styles on the planet. But it does provide us a better picture from which to measure our own survival, if in fact, we as human beings have the remaining instinctual courage to do what we must. This is not really about fish. It is about us ... and how to contain ourselves to planetary survival by counting the diminishing "beans" we have to work with.

But I like the example of the Situk River. It demonstrates that considerable progress toward restoration can, in fact, occur, despite our economic inclinations to do otherwise. The Situk River was in as bad a situation regarding steelhead not so unlike the Stillaguamish. While the Stillaguamish flood plain will never be restored in our lifetimes, nor probably that of my children or potential grandchildren, there is no good reason that rivers like the Queets, Hoh, Quileute, and Quinault on the Northwest Coast cannot be restored as effectively as the Situk. 30%-65% of those systems remain pristine in Olympic Park and there has been no agricultural or industrial development of consequence beyond industrial scale logging and industrial scale fish harvest -- both of which are reversible over time.

My best regards, Bill
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What can you say, but WOW!! Everyone needs to get involved. Keep hounding the politicians, keep after Hydro. The promised to maintain flow levels on the Coquitlam, but that doesn't look like it is happening, they need to act on the Alouette Sockeye. Tell every restaurant that you eat in or every store you shop in that you will take your business elsewhere if they sell farmed salmon. Thanks for a great read Rod.
 
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