monitoring salmon recovery progress

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How we Measure

Charting a course to recovery

Measuring the numbers of fish, the health of their habitat, and recovery plan implementation gives us tools to determine how well salmon are recovering.

At the scale of the recovery region, data is used to adaptively manage so that the recovery plans are implemented most effectively.

At the state scale, data is used to inform harvest and hatchery management as well as our efforts to keep habitat cool and clean for fish. Also habitat restoration effectiveness is monitored to inform which project types are effective.

The indicators in this report tell us about the status of fish populations, watershed health, and implementation of recovery and sustainability plans. The high level indicators in the list below were adopted in 2009 by the state Forum on Monitoring Salmon Recovery and Watershed Health and today still provide information that is used to tell us how we are doing and whether we need to adjust recovery plan implementation. This 2016 report contains information about most of these indicators.


Adult spawners
Adults harvested
Juvenile out-migrants (smolts)

Watershed Health

Land use and land cover
Biological health (in-stream)
Stream physical habitat
Riparian condition
Water quality
Water quantity (stream flow)

Implementation Indicators

Plan implementation progress
Barriers to fish passage
Hatchery practices meeting scientific standards

Adult Abundance (Adult Spawners) – What does this indicator mean?

The State of Salmon in Watersheds reports on specific changes over time of the numbers of fish, as well as a broader summary about how each species is doing overall. Each region has several charts that display abundance of the fish populations. “Abundance” represents the number of fish returning to spawn (either total number of fish spawning naturally, or number of wild-born fish spawning naturally). The type of abundance data available and used for evaluation depends on several factors, including the ability to distinguish between hatchery-origin and natural-origin fish on spawning grounds. In most cases, the fish that are counted toward recovery goals are wild-born (natural-origin) spawners.

Abundance is one key piece of information the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses to evaluate salmon recovery status. Additional attributes for evaluating population status that are not reported on here include productivity, life history, genetic diversity, and the spatial structure of the populations (i.e., where and when fish migrate and spawn). NOAA also considers threats and factors affecting the health of listed fish populations including habitat, hatcheries, harvest, and hydropower (the 4 Hs) impacts.

The fish abundance data in this report is from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. For more detailed information about methods and data sources, visit the Salmon Conservation and Reporting Engine.

Juvenile Abundance (Juvenile out-migrants) – What does this indicator mean?

The abundance of juvenile (young) salmon is one of several measures that tell scientists about the health and productivity of rivers in Washington State. Some rivers may have more juveniles simply because they are larger, other rivers may have more juveniles because the habitat is better.

To compare rivers, we measure “juveniles per mile” or juvenile density. Juvenile density is the total number of smolts produced in a river divided by the amount of area available for freshwater rearing. This measure is used to assess watershed health – a healthy river will support higher densities of juvenile salmon than an unhealthy one.

In addition to measuring freshwater density, scientists combine information on the numbers of juvenile salmon with the number of wild adult fish that spawn in order to understand fish survival at each stage of their lives, specifically in freshwater or salt water. This measure is used to assess which life stage and which growing environment is contributing to long-term trends, either positive or negative, for the population.

The juvenile abundance data in this report is from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department tracks juvenile abundance densities to varying degrees across the state.

Habitat Projects – What does this indicator mean?

In some areas, habitat has been restored and the numbers of fish has increased. Washington’s salmon recovery organizations and tribes work hard to restore and protect salmon, steelhead, and bull trout habitat all over the state.

Included here are restoration measures for three types of projects: riparian habitat treatments, estuary habitat treatments, and fish passage barrier corrections.

For more detailed information about these essential activities, visit the Recreation and Conservation Office’s Habitat Work Schedule and PRISM Project Search public databases, the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board’s SalmonPORT, and data from the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Recovery Progress – What does this indicator mean?

Salmon recovery in Washington is driven by regional salmon recovery plans. The recovery plans provide the actions and rationale for where to invest and when.This indicator is measured by comparing the actions implemented against what is recommended in the regional recovery plan.

The data sources for this indicator are the regional salmon recovery organizations. Percentages are statewide averages based on estimates made by each recovery region of its progress implementing actions in recovery plans. These regional estimates are based on best professional judgment. The estimates describe progress in implementing recovery plan actions, and do not reflect the biological response of fish.

While these regional determinations are based on best professional judgment, they are grounded in the regional organizations’ extensive knowledge of recovery issues and recovery progress. Because not every regional organization tracks recovery implementation progress for each “H” (habitat, hatchery, harvest, and hydropower), some percentages are based on the remaining regions that do track each “H.”

Harvest – What does this indicator mean?

Washington tribes and Washington State co-manage fisheries to provide harvest opportunities for salmon and steelhead. Harvest focuses on hatchery and healthy natural-origin fish. As a fish population increases or decreases, harvest managers adjust the amount of catch, matching fishing to fish availability. Beyond Washington, our salmon and steelhead are largely harvested in Alaska and Canada.

The charts of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife data in Puget Sound show where harvest occurs and the percentage of years of compliance with the Endangered Species Act. This helps answer the question, “Are salmon harvest rates being held to levels that do not further threaten or endanger listed populations?”

Co-managers in cooperation with federal agencies and other states set fishing seasons. Harvest management seeks to achieve population-specific conservation goals for Endangered Species Act listed fish. Caps on harvest-related impacts are intended to provide additional protection. This means that the maximum fish harvest in an area is set by the “weakest link” present in that area.

The harvest charts illustrate historic and present day catch numbers over time from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife based on sport catch record cards and commercial landings. The fish caught are hatchery and wild coho and Chinook salmon in both marine and fresh water. Tribal catch is not included here.

Ecological Concerns – What does this indicator mean?

Ecological concerns were developed by NOAA Fisheries and are similar to “limiting factors” referred to in recovery plans. Each regional recovery plan has its own set of ecological concerns, which are changes to habitat that can lead to threats to salmon and steelhead survival. The charts for this measure show percentages of projects that address the main ecological concerns for two regions, the Upper Columbia River Salmon Recovery Region and the Snake River Salmon Recovery Region. Percentages are shown by subbasin and by ecological concern.

Tracking ecological concerns and habitat restoration facilitates more efficient and strategic planning. Tracking ecological concerns also allows for the assessment of habitat actions and their benefits to listed species and how these benefits may contribute to recovery.

Funding – What does this indicator mean?

Funding charts in this report show 1997-2015 salmon recovery funds managed by the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office by region and project type.

The Recreation and Conservation Office is a state agency that manages multiple conservation funds and boards, including the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. The charts in the Web site indicate how the board and other salmon-related funds were distributed by region across the state.

State funding sources:
Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account, Catastrophic Flood Relief program (through the Office of Financial Management), Coastal Restoration Grants, Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, Family Forest Fish Passage Program, Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund, Salmon Recovery Fund (state match to federal grant), Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.

Federal funding sources:
Coded Wire Tag Program, Environmental Protection Agency, hatchery reform funds, Land and Water Conservation Fund, Marine Shoreline Protection (through the Department of Fish and Wildlife), Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, and Puget Sound Chinook critical stock program.

Note: The $883 million total shown in the statewide chart and the numbers in the regional pie charts do not include the local matching resources, which would bring the statewide total investment to more than $1 billion.

How do I get more information on the projects?
The board awards funding to projects during public meetings and presents detailed information online to ensure the funding process is visible and accountable to the public. Information on individual projects can be viewed on Project Snapshot and the Habitat Work Schedule.

Hatchery Management – What does this indicator mean?

Congress established a hatchery review initiative in 2000, in recognition of the role of hatcheries in meeting harvest and conservation goals for salmon and steelhead. The initiative’s independent Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG) made recommendations for improving hatcheries in Washington. Eighty-eight percent of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) hatcheries are consistent with the independent HSRG’s recommendations for proper broodstock management.

The charts about hatcheries in this report show the progress the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has made toward addressing recommendations for proper broodstock management within its programs. Achieving HSRG broodstock management recommendations presumes that hatchery programs operate in a manner that poses the least amount of biological risk to associated naturally spawning populations.

In addition, the department has updated and submitted new hatchery genetic management plans to meet NOAA Fisheries requirements and support salmon recovery. Ninety percent of these plans are under review. Because (due to past practices) rates that hatchery fish stray in some watersheds remain significantly above HSRG recommendations and pose a risk to recovery, the department has established rigorous monitoring and adaptive management programs that meet federal permit requirements and reduce stray rates and risks to salmon recovery. Tens of millions of dollars are needed for capital construction projects at department hatcheries to meet recovery goals.

This report shows the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery program locations, and whether each program has a Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan.

Land Use Changes – What does this indicator mean?

Land Use/Land Cover analysis is shown for two regions: Puget Sound and Hood Canal. In these region’s pages, the map and change data relates to the Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Sign target for reducing the development conversation of ecologically important lands – part of the Land Development and Cover Implementation Strategy process. For the purposes of this Land Development and Cover indicator and target, ecologically important lands are those lands that in their current state either: 1) Provide high hydrological function, with respect to regulating water flows, or 2) Provide high habitat or biodiversity value.

Note: At the time this target was developed (2011), data were not available to incorporate water quality functions into the definition of ecologically important lands.

The chart shows that while no county was close to meeting the adopted target, it is very important to remember that this information is based on analyzing a relatively small series of time periods, 2006 to 2009 and 2009 to 2011. Additional change detection monitoring over time should help to improve the reliability and utility of this information. A third time period of 2011-2013 is being assessed now and is about 75% complete as of June 2016. Puget Sound counties vary significantly in both the rate and total acres of change within rural lands in the important land base.

For more information on the methods used to detect change on the important land base, see High Resolution Change Detection by WDFW.

This analysis measures the extent to which changes occur on the landscape over time. Tracking the rate at which land is developed helps determine whether habitat restoration and protection actions are working, or if more habitat is lost than restored. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife does this analysis.

The data used to report on forest loss were based on land-cover change information for lands not in federal ownership as determined by the Landsat satellite imaging system. Due to image element limitations, this approach does not capture relatively small land use changes, such as clearing for single homes or lot expansion. Therefore, only larger events (more than two acres) are reliably captured in these values.

Water Quality – What does this indicator mean?

Clean and reliably available water is essential for safe drinking, sustaining farms and gardens, swimming, and boating. Cold water is essential for many fish species including recovering salmon and steelhead.

Routine freshwater monitoring data collected by the Washington State Department of Ecology’s River and Stream Monitoring Program are summarized by a technique called the “Water Quality Index” (WQI). The index ranges from 1 (poor quality) to 100 (good quality).

The map shows the most recent year’s water quality index scores for long-term stations with 5 or more years of monthly data, and may include stations monitored by organizations other than the Department of Ecology.

All current long-term Ecology monitoring stations with at least 5 years data are included. Most stations shown are near the mouths of major streams. These stations integrate upstream water quality and capture large basin-scale trends. However, status and trends at these locations may not reflect status or trends in any particular subbasin.

Annual scores were determined by water year (WY), which runs from October to September, beginning with WY 1994.

The index summary does not include non-standard elements like metals. For temperature, pH, oxygen, and fecal coliform bacteria, the index is based on criteria in Washington’s Water Quality Standards, Washington Administrative Code 173-201A. For nutrient and sediment measures where standards are not specific, results are based on expected conditions in a given region. Multiple constituents are combined and results aggregated over time to produce a single score for each station and each year.

The Puget Sound chart in the region’s water quality section shows Annual Water Quality Index scores for monitoring stations near the mouth of 14 major rivers. Scores are calculated for each water year from October 1st to September 30th. Higher numbers indicate better water quality. Source: Statewide Water Quality Monitoring Network, Washington State Department of Ecology; Stream and River Water Quality Monitoring, King County.

Find out more about water quality: The Department of Ecology’s new Water Quality Atlas is an interactive search and mapping tool that accesses Water Quality Assessment category results by geographic location, water quality standards by location, areas covered by Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), and permitted wastewater discharge outfalls.

Stream Flow (Water Quantity) – What does this indicator mean?

The data in the water quantity map shows whether the long-term trends of annual summer low flow levels are declining or increasing. The trend test uses data collected since 1975, representing more than 35 years of measurements. The advantage of a long-term data set is that the influence of annual weather differences and cyclic climate changes (e.g., el niño and la niña; or the phases of the pacific decadal oscillation) are minimized over time. Because trends are measured over decades, this indicator is not sensitive to relatively short-term changes occurring over just a few years even if significant flow restoration occurs. To measure a change in trend, either large changes in flow must occur (such as a dam setting minimum downstream flows), or a very consistent change over a long period of time is needed.

Habitat Status and Trends (Habitat Quality) – What do these indicators mean?

How do we measure the quality of Washington’s habitats? One program run by the Washington Department of Ecology measures the status and trends of overall stream habitat by collecting data about shade, wood, in-stream biology, and other stream characteristics to show habitat changes over time. This is an important statewide monitoring program. In this report, we show information about four qualities that are relevant to salmon: sediment, large wood, riparian cover, and an index of biotic integrity.

Sediment in Salmon and Trout Streams
One big factor that limits salmon recovery is sediment. Sediment is the greatest cause for lower water quality scores in western Washington streams. Although sediment is part of the natural cycle, land-disturbing activities cause extra soil particles to run into streams. This excess sediment causes many problems for salmon, including: smothering fish eggs, insects, and plants; clogging fish gills to impair breathing; increasing water temperature; and decreasing light, which can affect plant growth and the ability for salmon to see their prey. Worse, excess sediment can change the shape and route of the stream and reduce its ability to hold floodwater. It causes streams to become unstable. Also, some nutrients and toxics attach to soil particles, hitchhiking rides to water bodies.

The bars of the graph show sediment levels measured during 2009-2012 among randomly-selected salmon and trout streams of the state. Crews estimated the percentage of bottom rocks that are tiny (up to 2 millimeters). They examined the stream bed across the entire channel width, including margins above water, where sediment often accumulates.

Some researchers have reported optimum levels of sediment for steelhead (16 percent sediment), Chinook (11 percent sediment), and bull trout (11 percent sediment). However their values were based on measurements limited to the wetted channel. So these optima are lower than would be expected for bank full channels.

Riparian Cover – East and West
The plants on streams and river banks are called riparian vegetation. These plants and trees shield streams and rivers from summer and winter temperature extremes that can be fatal to fish. The cover of leaves and branches shade the stream, ensuring that the water temperature is cool enough for salmon, there’s less algae, and more dissolved oxygen, which fish need to breathe. The plants also drop branches and leaves into the water, which provide food for the insects salmon eat and places for salmon to rest and hide from predators. Finally, the roots of the plants help keep the soil from entering the water and burying spawning gravel.

The charts show the amount of riparian cover in each salmon recovery region of the state. The Department of Ecology set riparian cover goals for each area.

Large Wood
Large tree root wads and logs are good for salmon. Adding wood to streams is a common way to improve fish habitat. The wood slows the stream, which creates places for fish to rest and hide from predators. A slower stream will erode its banks less, reducing the amount of sediment in the river. Wood also creates deep pools, which are cooler. It also helps streams retain organic matter and nutrients. which are a food source for the insects and fish salmon eat. The map below shows the amount of wood in salmon streams by recovery region. A large circle indicates more wood. A high or green rating for wood is also good. Overall, we would hope to see more and larger green circles.

There is debate about how much benefit wood provides, and how much wood is needed. Longer-term studies of whole watersheds could help us understand where wood occurs naturally, how much, and what type of wood. This could guide future wood placement projects to increase their effectiveness.

Stream Biological Health – Bug Counts
A Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity (BIBI) measures bugs (insects and other small, barely-visible animals) found on stream bottoms. We look at their species composition to assess water quality and habitat conditions of the streams. Each type of bug has a characteristic response to human-caused environmental changes. Ten data values (metrics) are combined into a single number (index) that provides an overall score. These types of indexes are used by many water quality monitoring programs throughout the Northwest and the world. “Biological integrity” is the ability to support and maintain a balanced, integrated adaptive assemblage of organisms having species composition, diversity, and functional organization comparable to that of natural habitat in the region. The Department of Ecology has assigned good, fair, or poor ratings to BIBI scores, based on comparison to relatively natural conditions in each of three zones in the state: west of the Cascade crest, mountainous places east of the crest, and places in the Columbia Plateau.

The bars in the graph reflect percentage of randomly-selected stream sites, sampled in each salmon recovery region for a given survey year, with good, fair, or poor BIBI scores. Data are not limited to salmon and trout streams but also includes streams that flow from upstream.

Initial sampling of the state happened in 2009-2012. During that period, the lower and middle Columbia River regions had the highest percentage of good-scoring sites. The Snake River, Puget Sound and Northeast Washington regions had the highest percentage of poor BIBI scores.

Re-sampling of regions began in 2013. Since then, the percentage of fair-scoring sites has decreased in each of the three salmon recovery regions reported. Changes over time show an increase in the percentage of good scores in the Coast and Puget Sound regions, and an increase in the percentage of poor sites in the lower Columbia River region. More monitoring is necessary before concluding that these results represent trends.

Human Population Growth – What does this indicator mean?

The Puget Sound region has the largest and most rapid population growth in the state, and is predicted to increase in population faster than before.

Population in the central Puget Sound region passed 3.9 million people in April 2016, growing by 86,320 people (a 2.2 percent increase) in the past year, according to the PSRC, July 2016. This is the biggest population gain this century, and the highest growth rate in the past 20 years, the report said. Population growth has accelerated since 2010 and the rate of change between 2015-16 surpassed the last peak in 2005-06 by nearly 30 percent.

The main driver was people moving here during the last year. Since 2012, more than 86,000 people have migrated to the four-county Puget Sound region, accounting for more than half of total population growth, the report said.

Population projections for the region are shown in the map in the report.