Why are the Salmon Dying in the Northwest?

At Duke’s Chowder House we are proud to be one of the most popular seafood restaurants in Seattle, a city that clings to the coastline of the Salish Sea. Our founder, Duke Moscrip, built the philosophy of his restaurants around serving fresh tasting, sustainably harvested seafood.

The Northwest waters, known as the Salish Sea, includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Home to over 3,000 species of marine life, the Salish Sea plays a major role in marine biodiversity along the coastlines of Canada and the United States. However, something is happening deep within its waters.

The salmon are disappearing.

People often ask Duke why he sources his salmon and other seafood from Alaska, and not from the ocean waters directly outside his window.

“We would love to buy local,” he answers sadly. “But the salmon are just not here.”

Over the past thirty years, the Chinook, Coho and steelhead salmon populations have dropped dramatically. The survival and prosperity of these salmon are integral to the overall health of the ocean ecosystem. This is why the Salish Sea Survival Project has been formed: to investigate the mystery of the disappearing salmon, and to suggest solutions to the problems they face.

The Project

Salmon are dying

Adult Chinook salmon swim upriver to spawn. Their numbers are low year after year.

Officially launched in 2014, the Salish Sea Survival Project is unique in its formation. Its goal is to pool resources from both the United States and Canada  to try and determine the primary factors affecting the dwindling salmon populations in the area. It represents one of the largest trans-boundary projects in history, with over 40 diverse organizations working together. The project has been coordinated by two major groups: the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada, and Long Live the Kings in the US.

Both of these organizations have long and impressive histories when it comes to protecting salmon, and now they are taking their commitment to a new level. This is the first comprehensive study of its kind. Together researchers are looking at the physical, chemical and biological factors that may be affecting salmon in the Salish Sea and trying to come up with a solution.

Why the Salish Sea?

From among the seven major Pacific salmon species, three have experienced significant declines in populations over the past thirty years: Steelhead, Coho and Chinook. However, these species also live in other parts of the Pacific Ocean, such as the Columbia River region. Those populations have not suffered the same devastating drop in numbers. This indicates that whatever is causing the salmon to disappear from the Salish Sea is specific to these waters.

What researchers do know is that the Salish Sea has undergone significant changes over the past few decades, such as:

• Increased water temperature
• Higher ocean acidity
• More harmful algae
• Loss of forage fish species
• Increased seal and porpoise populations that are predators to salmon

And the list goes on. There exists a massive information gap when it comes to our understanding of how salmon survive and flourish. Specific knowledge of how they are affected by these variables is severely lacking in the scientific community. This is why the Salish Sea Survival Project is so important.

Impacts of Salmon Decline

The marine ecosystem is incredibly complex, and when it isn’t healthy, the impacts are enormous and far-reaching.

1. Economic: The Salish Sea has supported a thriving fishing industry for hundreds of years, for commercial, recreational and indigenous operations. The economic impact that salmon loss has, especially on smaller coastal communities that were built on the fishing industry, is devastating. Related industries such as tourism are also affected, further decimating the economy of coastal towns and the surrounding areas.

2. Environmental: Salmon populations are interconnected to all the marine life around them, resulting in a diverse and intricate ecosystem. All species depend on one another to maintain the balance that ensures a healthy survival rate for all. Addressing the problems affecting salmon populations will help other species facing a decline in numbers, such as orca whales.

3. Cultural: The coastal regions that border the Salish Sea have a strong personal connection to salmon. Their cultural significance goes back centuries, tightly woven into the legends and history of indigenous communities from British Columbia and Washington State. A healthy salmon population contributes to a sense of identity for coastal communities, and their loss has serious impacts that continue for generations.

Salmon are dying

Trying to solve the mystery of what’s happening to the salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

Hypothesis: What’s Going On?

Though the project will conduct research for a few more years, the team of scientists and researchers has come up with a working theory of what exactly is happening in the Salish Sea. A basic breakdown consists of three main factors:

1. Weather, water, and plankton populations (known as bottom-up processes) have changed drastically, and the salmon are unable to sufficiently compensate.

2. Predator patterns (or top-down processes) have also changed, adding to the decline in numbers as more and more salmon are taken as prey.

3. On top of these ecological shifts are additional factors (higher toxins, more disease, increased competition for food, etc.) that further decimate the salmon populations.

Each of these factors compounds to create a severely dangerous and unhealthy environment for the salmon. The threat of these factors combined is enormous and could explain the dramatic decline in population in such a short time span.

Working Together

Salmon are dying

Hundreds of people work together to make this project happen.

The Salish Sea Survival Project is made up of an incredible team of researchers and scientists. Whether in the field or in the laboratory, these individuals all contribute to this groundbreaking study in a meaningful and important way.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation and Long Live the Kings have partnered to bring together over 40 groups from federal, state, academic, indigenous and non-profit entities resulting in the largest transboundary cooperative study in history. Using innovative online project management tools, this large team can work together from a variety of remote locations. Advanced communication strategies help keep teams on the same page, while state-of-the-art data sharing technology ensures everyone is informed about the progress of the project.

Duke continues to support the project through Long Live the Kings, hoping to restore salmon populations to the healthy numbers he knew growing up in the area.

“I will do everything I can to make sure there is plenty of salmon and Wild Seafood for our grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren,” he said at a recent fundraiser for the group, struggling to hide his emotions. “I know we can restore the runs, and we intend to do our part to make it happen.”

Help support the Salish Sea Survival Project by purchasing Duke’s new cookbook, “As Wild As It Gets”. A portion of every book sold goes to Long Live the Kings and funds their efforts to restore Wild Salmon. Or go to https://lltk.org/ and donate directly to Long Live The Kings.

December 5, 2016