Sacrificing to Save Salmon

Six months after the largest and most commercially-prized Pacific salmon species, the Puget Sound Chinook, hit the federal Endangered Species List, local efforts to craft a homegrown recovery plan for Seattle's signature fish remain mired in special-interest face-offs amongst the region's three million inhabitants. Now, it's the federal government's turn to call the shots, as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) prepares to release new salmon protection regulations before the end of the year.

This one-year-old chinook salmon faces daunting odds in making it to maturity.© Jeffrey Rich Nature Photography

The NMFS rules must fill a void left by the Washington governor's salmon recovery plan, which stalled in the legislature this year. Local efforts to save salmon remain locked in disputes between everyone from fishermen to homeowner associations, as an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing has come to roost for the first time in a highly urbanized environment.

Trent Matson, a spokesman for the Building Industry Association of Washington, remains skeptical of proposed reforms. “Until we see the sound science backing up someone's regulatory proposals,” he says, “it's hard to support them.” Matt Longenbaugh, a habitat biologist for the NMFS, replies, “To anyone who is really looking, the science is there that says what we need to do.”

And most locals have agreed to do their part to save the imperiled fish—if the price is right. According to a recent Elway Poll, 79 percent of Puget Sound residents said they would water their lawns less to help restore salmon runs, but 60 percent were unwilling to pay higher utility rates or accept restrictions on their property rights. Such refusals are unrealistic, according to NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman, who says, “There ain't no free lunch when it comes to saving salmon.”

Salmon habitat is polluted by urban runoff, washed away by shoreline bulkheads, barricaded by dams, choked by siltation from eroded riverbanks and drained by urban and agricultural water consumption. Addressing these issues will require far-reaching reforms, and the NMFS rules will likely demand that average citizens share in the sacrifices. “It's kind of payback time now,” says Gorman. “We realize that some of the things we did were pretty stupid and that we need to correct those errors.”

The new NMFS rules will build upon existing local laws on urban sprawl, water quality and shoreline management—many of which have been inadequately implemented, according to the Sierra Club's Northwest Regional Director, Bill Arthur. “It might ultimately be ESA and the salmon that put teeth behind the enforcement of those laws,” he says.

But federal listing is hardly a guarantee of salvation: after nine years of protection and more than $3 billion in federal spending, three runs of salmon on Washington's lower Snake River still remain on the brink of extinction.