executive summary page 5

Challenges Facing Salmon

Salmon have a complicated life. They are born in freshwater rivers and streams but spend much of their lives in estuaries and the ocean, traveling far and wide. At the end of their lives, they return to their home streams to spawn the next generation, beginning the cycle all over again. During their travels, they encounter many obstacles that challenge their survival from habitat loss, poor ocean conditions, more and bigger floods, drought, pollution, predators and competitors, and barriers to passage to name a few.

Habitat Loss

The population in Washington has grown by 1.6 million people since 1999, when the statewide salmon recovery strategy was adopted. Our population needs houses, drinkable water, and other resources, which strain the environment in the following ways:

  • Development along our shorelines often results in bulkheads, seawalls, and other armoring to protect buildings and infrastructure. These armored shorelines destroy salmon habitat by preventing waves from grabbing sediment from land and creating sandy beaches. Instead the sandy beaches are eroded, leaving rocky beaches that are inhospitable to salmon and the fish they eat. Shoreline armoring exists on 27 percent of Puget Sound’s 2,500 miles of shoreline. While we are seeing increased removal of armoring in the past few years, hundreds of miles remain hardened.
  • Development of land along streams often removes the trees and bushes that provide shade, filter pollution, and when they drop branches and leaves create good salmon habitat. Since the arrival of settlers in the early 1800s, between 50 percent and 90 percent of land along streams and other waterways has been lost or extensively modified.
  • Land development increases paving and impervious surfaces, which in turn increases the amount of pollution and contaminated stormwater entering waterways. Stormwater runs off roofs and pavement, picking up pollution from oil, fertilizers, pesticides, garbage, and animal manure, before heading, usually untreated, into street drains and then directly into streams, bays, and the ocean. For example, untreated stormwater runoff contains many chemicals, in addition to copper, and has a profound impact on salmon. In the past decade, up to 90 percent of coho salmon in urban streams in the Puget Sound watershed died before they could spawn because of toxic stormwater runoff.
  • Population growth increases the need for water for drinking, for use in homes and businesses, and for irrigation. More demand for water often impacts the quality and the amount of water left in streams to support salmon.


Dead fish in elevated temperature river

Summer Chinook salmon downstream of State Route 20 during elevated river temperatures. Photo by Chris Fisher, fisheries biologist with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Climate Change

Air temperatures increased across the Pacific Northwest by about 1.54 degrees Fahrenheit from 1901 to 2016, and are projected to continue rising, reaching increases of 4.99 to 8.51 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century (1). Summer air temperature will see the largest increases. Warmer air translates into less snow accumulating in the mountains, earlier melting of that snow, and less and warmer water in the streams in the summer. Observations since the 1950s have shown the following:

  • 25 percent decrease in snowpack levels measured April 1 in the Cascade Mountains (2).
  • A nearly 20 percent increase in water in snow-influenced rivers in the late winter and early spring.
  • Drier streams in the summer. Stream flow in the summer as a percentage of the annual flow decreased up to 15 percent.

Fish listed under the Endangered Species Act are of great concern because they are especially sensitive to changes in stream temperature and habitat. Salmon need cool, clean water to survive. The predicted combination of warmer summers with less water in streams, snowmelt occurring earlier in the year, and more water in winter streams, means many freshwater species, particularly salmon, steelhead, and trout will be affected in the ways described below.

  • Rising stream temperatures can stress the health and fitness of salmon leading to increased disease and death, as well as decreased spawning success.
  • More floods, and more severe floods in the winter can scour places salmon lay their eggs, and earlier floods can flush out young salmon before they are ready.
  • More severe and frequent fires and floods can increase the amount of fine sediment that enters streams and fills in pools and buries spawning gravels.
  • Warmer, drier summers can increase the number and intensity of fires, destroying more trees along streams and leading to “flashier” systems, with bigger floods during storms and less water in the river at other times. Fewer trees along streams also means fewer branches, downed trees, and root wads will fall into streams and create fewer places for fish to rest and hide from predators. Very hot and intense fires also can destroy the native seed bank in the soil and leave burnt areas susceptible to invasive vegetation.
  • Major climate changes can alter food webs including what is available for salmon to eat and what animals eat salmon. For example, warmer stream temperatures can adversely impact the stream insects that juvenile salmon eat, as well as allow warm water fish species to expand their distribution in the watershed and eat more juvenile salmon.


Fish Passage Barriers

Addressing fish passage is critical for salmon recovery in Washington State. Salmon need to be able to reach the ocean and return home to spawn. They also need to be able to reach healthy habitats to feed, grow, and transition from saltwater to freshwater. Some of the most frequent barriers to fish are culverts, which are pipes and other structures that carry streams under roads. Poorly designed culverts can create fish passage problems when they are too high for fish to reach, too steep for fish to swim through, or when the water velocity exceeds fish swimming capabilities.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that about 20,000 barriers to salmon and steelhead exist across the state.


Note: This map shows barriers by salmon recovery region. Data are from August 2018.

Restore access to spawning and rearing habitat

In 2001, the western Washington tribes sued Washington State for its failure to correct fish-blocking culverts, saying it damaged their treaty rights to fish.

In 2013, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the tribes, requiring four state agencies to correct barriers at an estimated cost exceeding $3.6 billion. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this decision in 2018.

Combined, the four agencies have corrected more than 330 barriers to date, potentially opening 1,042 miles of upstream habitat.

Many additional efforts are underway.

  • As part of the 1999 Forests and Fish Law, private landowners and state forestland managers in Washington have removed 7,300 fish passage barriers since 2001 across 9.3 million acres, opening 5,100 miles of fish habitat. Large private and state forest landowners are 84 percent done with their goal and are on track to correct the fish barriers they are responsible for by 2021.
  • The Family Forest Fish Passage Program administered jointly by several natural resource agencies has corrected 397 barriers, since 2003, opening 933 miles of habitat in small, privately owned forests.
  • To ensure new barriers are not created, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife requires an environmental permit commonly known as a Hydraulic Project Approval. Anyone planning certain construction activities in or near state waters, including work on culverts, must obtain a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
  • In 2014, the Legislature created the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board, chaired by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, with the purpose of coordinating the removal of fish passage barriers under state, local, tribal, and private ownership that block salmon access to prime spawning and rearing habitat.

Predators and invasive species

Sea lions, seals, and other marine mammals as well as birds and non-native fish are eating more salmon, compromising salmon recovery. Some studies estimate that hungry sea lions and seals may be eating up to 44 percent of adult spring Chinook heading up the Columbia River from the ocean. The problem is complex and varied across the state. In some cases, infrastructure, such as dams and dredge-spoil islands in the Columbia River, exacerbate the issue In other cases, climate change and landscape changes caused by wildfires or human activities can increase the number of predators.

In addition, salmon face threats from invasive species, which are not native to Washington and don’t have natural predators. These species can compete with salmon for food and habitat and sometimes eat salmon. For example, northern pike, a voracious predator that can eat up to two-thirds of its body length, recently has been found in Washington and eats salmon and steelhead.