Skagit Valley: Reclaiming salmon habitat - Plan to restore estuary, but at cost to duck hunters

Skagit Valley Herald


Skagit Valley, WA - Plan is to restore estuary, but at cost to duck hunters

For salmon supporters, the Wiley Slough project means opening a channel, restoring prime estuary habitat they hope will lead to larger salmon runs for decades to come.

But for duck hunters, the project means a significant change in the most popular hunting grounds in this part of the state.

The potential of losing a prime duck hunting area to benefit salmon is another of the tradeoffs under consideration in an effort to remove the chinook salmon from the federal Endangered Species List.

Although public attention largely has been focused on rivers and creeks, state and tribal leaders also have been working on restoring Skagit County's estuaries. These are the zones where fresh and salt water mix -- where juvenile salmon make the transition from freshwater smolts to saltwater adults.

Estuaries are especially important to Puget Sound chinook salmon, the only Skagit River salmon run on the Endangered Species List. Fish scientists believe the chinook cannot be removed from the list unless more estuaries are created.

When European settlers erected dikes and installed tide gates around 1900 and into the mid-1950s, they created the farmland for which Skagit County is famous. That process destroyed 75 percent of the estuary in the Skagit and Samish river basins.

About 50 years ago, the Washington Game Department diked Wiley Slough and converted the area from tidal marsh to farmland. Grain is planted there each year to attract ducks for hunters.

Now, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is considering reversing the action taken in the 1950s, removing the dikes and returning Wiley Slough into an estuary.

A necessary step

Restoring estuaries is one step humans can take to help endangered Puget Sound Chinook salmon, said Charles Simenstad, research associate professor of aquatic and fishery science at the University of Washington. It's not a magic bullet that will solve the problem, but it's a necessary step, he said.

In the last 15 years, scientists have studied how juvenile salmon use estuaries, said Larry Wasserman, environmental services director for the Skagit System Cooperative, a consortium of tribes with fishing rights on the Skagit River.

Not all salmon need estuaries. Pinks, commonly known as humpies, tend to go right to sea after spending a limited time in the river. But spending time in estuaries is absolutely critical for chinook and chum. Those fish need the time to adjust, to make the change from freshwater juveniles to saltwater adults. Chinook and chum use that time in estuaries to gain size before heading out to sea, so they have a better chance of survival against predators.

Because of the dikes and tide gates, there isn't enough estuary to accommodate all the salmon juveniles heading out to sea. So some are forced to skip the estuary, missing the chance to bulk up before heading into the ocean. Studies have shown fish that skip the estuary entirely hardly ever return, Wasserman said.

The key to restoring estuary is having enough of it. The habitat must be large enough to not only accommodate the salmon, but provide food while the fish grows.

Wasserman said the tribes have no specific target for how much estuary is enough. But it appears that to meet the recovery goals set by the tribes and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, it would take an additional 3,000 to 4,000 acres of estuaries.

Simenstad said some scientists argue that diversity of estuary is more important than just having lots of it. Either way, studies have shown that chinook and chum that spend time in estuaries live to return in higher rates than those that are pushed straight out into open water.

Tide gates stopped

Efforts to restore estuaries sometimes resulted in political battles.

For example, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife had been pushing dike districts and property owners to replace conventional tide gates with self-regulating tide gates. Those let some of the tide in, thereby creating mixing zones for fresh and salt water.

Skagit River Delta farmers opposed that move, saying the self-regulating gates would sacrifice drainage and flood protection for fish. They took their case to the Legislature this spring and won, forcing the department to concentrate its efforts elsewhere.

Wiley Slough is a different fight, involving duck hunting.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has looked at converting Wiley Slough to an estuary based on the perceived success at Deepwater Slough. In 2000, Deepwater Slough was converted from a diked-off, dead-end ditch back into a distributary of the Skagit River's South Fork.

Removing dikes on Deepwater Slough opened 225 acres to the tides, and created fresh estuary. Fish advocates, from tribal scientists to state employees to environmentalists, declared Deepwater Slough's opening a success almost immediately after the water began flowing.

Opening Wiley Slough would turn a smaller area, about 175 acres, into tidal marsh.

A draw for ducks

The area around Wiley Slough, known to hunters as the Headquarters area, is just a small part of the Skagit Wildlife Area, which stretches from near Conway almost to Camano Island.

The whole area is open for hunters. However, those 175 acres at Headquarters are especially critical, said Dave Engel, chair of the Northwest Chapter of the Washington Waterfowl Association.

For one thing, it's the only area on this side of the Cascades to hunt pheasants, Engel said. And it's the only area where duck hunters without boats have access.

The Headquarters area is so popular that Engel himself stays away, preferring to hunt in sloughs south of Conway to avoid the crowds.

The area is popular because the grain is a duck magnet, concentrating the birds in a relatively small area.

Engel said he isn't resigned to the project's inevitability. The state agency is merely in the planning process, and it could take two years before any dirt is moved.

Meanwhile, the waterfowl association is pushing the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to slow down. There needs to be more monitoring of the Deepwater Slough project, Engel said. And he wants more attention given to the number of ducks and geese that flock to the grain fields every winter.

Ducks to decline

The program director for the tribal consortium, Steve Hinton, agrees the number of ducks coming is likely to drop, but he says the quality of the hunt will be better. While the kill rate will drop, the area will change from simple grain fields to a complex of ponds and natural bushes, he said.

Estuaries also provide food for ducks, but spreads them out over a wider area.

Hinton, who hunted ducks as a youth, wants to keep hunting possible if Wiley Slough becomes a tidal area again. One possibility he raised is a boardwalk system, which would allow hunters to walk into the area. There could be open water and blinds as well.

In any case, construction is unlikely to start until 2006. Because it involves removing dikes, not building new ones, Hinton thinks it can be done for less than $1 million -- maybe as little as $500,000. Most of that money would come from state and federal tax grants.

Hinton talks about the project as if it's a done deal, and he has the backing of the state agency that owns the land. Engel insists it could still be stopped, and he is trying to mobilize duck hunters to protest.

Tribe creates estuary

While Wiley Slough gets most of the attention, it's not the only estuary restoration project in the works. Scientists are continuing to monitor Brown Slough. In addition, tribal scientists are preparing for some work in the area of Fornsby Creek on the Swinomish Reservation.

The Brown Slough project is one that Hinton considers a triumph of political compromise. The tribes convinced Dike District 22 to install a gate in a new dike that was put in after the 1990 floods. The new gate doesn't open and close as water rises and falls like a tide gate, but is always open unless someone closes it. The result is a channel that can be closed off in the case of very high tides or floods, but is otherwise open to fish.

The channel is flanked by dikes, and farming takes place right outside the dikes. Hinton argues that shows salt water intrusion isn't as big a threat as some farmers say it is.

The tribe also plans to create some new estuary on its own land. It will replace tide gates in the Fornsby Creek area on the west side of the Swinomish Channel, in an area Hinton calls the Smokehouse Floodplain.

The site includes 300 acres of farmland and is crisscrossed by drainage channels and sloughs. There are three places where the sloughs exit into the channel.

In two cases, the conventional tide gates will be replaced by the fish-friendly, self-regulating tide gates. The third will be left as it is so that scientists can compare the results.

In part, the move to restore channels is a way to respond to criticism that the tribe isn't doing enough with its own land.

"The intent is, we want to walk our talk," Hinton said.

But he acknowledged that the area won't be fully opened to the tides through dike removal, the way the duck hunters' Headquarters area will be. Instead, the tribe will just work with the channels that were created after the dikes were installed.

Construction on that project will begin in 2004, Hinton hopes, but may have to wait until 2005. It will result in the loss of some farmland currently used to grow potatoes, he said.

Critical for chinook

Without more estuary, Wasserman said, chinook salmon recovery won't occur. Tribal harvest of chinook has dropped 95 percent since 1985, he said, but the habitat is in such short supply that cutting harvest altogether won't restore the species. Simply letting more fish spawn won't help if the juveniles don't have estuaries to bulk up, he said.

If the projects work as they're intended, and more estuary projects follow, Wasserman said, the chinook returns could quadruple. That means more fish for everyone -- sport fishermen, commercial fishers and tribe members alike.

James Geluso can be reached at 360-416-2146 or by e-mail:


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