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FY 2016 Program Highlights


Scientists in Washington State are collaborating to address and remediate barriers to fish passage to help imperiled species recover.
Priortizing Fish Passage Barrier Remediation or Removal in Western Washington
by Sean Connolly and Miranda Plumb, Division of Fish and Aquatic Conservation

Scientists, tribes, and conservation agencies have a new, landscape-level tool to address and hopefully help reverse declines to western Washington salmon populations.

Federal agencies--including the Service--in 2016 completed a first-ever effort to assess, prioritize, and lay plans to strategically remediate 80 fish passage barriers identified on federal lands in Puget Sound and Washington Coast watersheds. Lack of access to high-quality upstream spawning and rearing habitat is one of the major challenges inhibiting restoration and recovery of the region's coho, chum and Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout populations.

Perched culverts like the one above block native, migratory fish from reaching upstream habitat for spawning and rearing. Photo credit: USFWS
Because the barriers, such as culverts and road crossings, exist on land owned and separately managed by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (National Wildlife Refuges), and the U.S. Navy, prioritizing them for removal or remediation in a coordinated fashion has historically proven challenging.
But in 2014 a Memorandum of Understanding signed by 15 federal agencies within the Puget Sound Federal Caucus set the stage for increased collaboration, sharing scientific and program resources, and coordinating federal efforts to recovering the Puget Sound ecosystem and its imperiled species. Land management and resource conservation agencies saw in the MOU an opportunity to work together and develop a standardized approach assess the barriers' impact to migrating fish and then address them sequentially to maximize the cost-to-conservation benefit.

A sample map of fish passage barriers identified on federal land in Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula watersheds. USFWS


The need was important. Despite 10 years of Endangered Species Act protections, populations of Puget Sound Chinook salmon and steelhead and Hood Canal chum salmon were not improving to desired levels. Area tribes, which not only have a cultural interest in healthy salmon runs but treaty rights that guarantee fish for harvest, had expressed concern that federal recovery efforts weren't working as effectively as they could. Establishment of the Puget Sound Task Force in September 2016 further reinforces the need for collaboration at a federal level to protect the ecosystem.

Puget Sound Chinook salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act.: Photo Credit: USFWS
The Service was instrumental in the conducting the on-the-ground assessments. The agency's National Fish Passage Program, with help from Forest Service 'Service First' funding, supported a two-person fisheries crew that collected data at 61 sites over two years. Service staff also designed and implemented the assessment protocols, intentionally paralleling similar efforts undertaken by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess passage barriers on state-owned lands.
By using the same protocols and a similar remediation framework, federal, state, and tribal agencies now will not only be able to plan across jurisdictional boundaries, but also leverage funding to ensure the barriers most in need of remediation or removal are addressed in the most effective order.
Once fish passage barriers have been systematically identified and their impact assessed, conservation and land management agencies can determine what remediation actions are needed, and what sequence will be most cost- and conservation effective.
Photo Credit: /USFWS

And while much of the project focus has been on Puget Sound, an 8 million-acre watershed with 4.7 million people,, the inventory and prioritization approach is already proving useful in other areas, too. In 2017, the Service and partners will conduct a basin-wide assessment of the Hoko watershed on the Olympic Peninsula, using the same methods as the first barrier prioritization project. The Hoko watershed currently supports the largest populations of Chinoook, coho, and steelhead in the Western Strait of Juan de Fuca, but its fish migration barriers have never been comprehensively surveyed.

Culverts, if designed or retrofitted correctly, can be successfully passed by migratory fish like these sockeye salmon, allowing them to reach previously-inaccessible habitat. Photo Credit: USFWS

Maximizing habitat connectivity through fish passage, both in densely-populated areas like Puget Sound as well as salmon strongholds like the Hoko basin, is vital for ensuring the region's iconic fish populations remain healthy or can be recovered. Luckily, there's already a framework for identifying, assessing, and laying plans to overcome those barriers one at a time, using science to guide decision-making. It's a structure the Service is proud to have helped put in place.

For more information on this project, contact Miranda Plumb, Western Washington Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office at (360) 753-9440.


Last Updated: May 25, 2017
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