Saving PNW salmon may involve saving another fish too, scientists say

Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into salmon recovery, and more work is needed. Now, scientists are asking the question: Could saving a smaller, less recognizable fish, be one of the keys to their recovery?

Save the Salmon is a calling that brings energy. Salmon represent culture for local tribes, food for orca, and in a broader view: saving salmon means preserving what’s left of nature.

Save the herring? That doesn’t have the same ring to it, but if salmon recovery is going to make a dent – restoring herring populations will be important.

"The awareness of the importance of herring was always there," explained Jed Moore, a research biologist for the Nisqually Tribe. "The will to look at it and research it more heavily on behalf of salmon is the newer thing. This work is the next layer."

Herring are a forage fish – or a prey fish – that salmon feed on. Research through Long Live the Kings and the Pacific Salmon Foundation uncovered trends that show an abundance of herring in the Salish Sea, links to Chinook and Coho growth. In essence, having more herring to feed on gives fish a greater chance to survive their journey to the ocean and their eventual return.

Moore glides his Nisqually research vessel out of a dock along the Nisqually River and begins a long journey to a number of research stops – it’s a cold, but sunny, day and he and two researchers from Long Live the Kings have a number of places to collect data.

The key is a number of buoys placed in the river. From the boat it doesn’t look like anything special, but as Liz Duffy and Ashley Bagley begin to pull the buoys on-board it’s obvious there’s a lot more taking place underwater.

They quickly grab a rope, and hook it to a winch – as it whirs an entire Christmas tree pops up above the water.

"So, this is about the same size though as herring eggs," Bagley explains pointing out a bunch of tubesnout eggs, just mature enough where you can see the eyes.

That’s the problem: eggs are easy to find – herring eggs, not so much.

The Christmas tree, and various evergreen branches that have been sunk are meant to encourage herring to spawn. It’s a historic practice-- elders within the tribe still recall sinking evergreen boughs into the waters after Christmas.

"They’d put their boughs out in the water when they knew herring were spawning," Duffy explains. "The herring would spawn on these boughs and they could use them for ceremonial purposes and eating – things like that. We’re trying to sort of adapt that traditional harvesting technique as a supplemental spawning habitat."

The new goal is to use the traditional harvest method to restore herring population.

Initial trials on the Nisqually haven’t returned herring eggs, but it’s still early – the researchers are aware that full-grown herring swim in the area. They’ve captured adult herring for DNA analysis, but what they haven’t seen yet is spawning in some of the historic regions recorded by elders. The hope is that returning that population will eventually bolster salmon.

Further north near Port Gamble, similar methods are being tried – the area has a different relation to herring. Their population still spawns in the area, but their numbers began to rapidly decline in the early 2000s.

"It’s been a pretty traumatic experience for the S’Klallam people," said Hans Daubenberger, a senior research scientist with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. "When those fish came into the bay it was like the whole bay came alive. Birds, fish, crab – it was an incredible thing to see."

Without a robust population, the area has changed. Daubenberger believes it could take generations to return herring, and eventually salmon – but it’s a fight he’s not willing to give up on. He tells FOX 13 that herring will play a key role in the evolution of this area.

"I don’t think everybody is aware of how important herring and other forage fish – other small fish – are to the importance of the eco-system in Puget Sound."

Diet studies show that Chinook are eating fewer herring than they did in the 1970s, when survival rates were higher. There are unanswered questions over whether competition for food contributes to low survival rates – but with limited habitat and dwindling numbers there’s real concern that a lack of food is contributing to poor Chinook and Coho survival.

It’s perhaps a wake-up call that many aren’t hearing with the constant drumbeat of new funding, and positive stories about restoration work unfolding in Washington state. If we’re going to save salmon, scientists believe we’ll need to get a lot of things right: fixing habitat, reducing toxins making their way to water, ensuring rivers remain cold in the face of climate change – and making sure salmon have food to eat, like herring.

"There’s a lot of work that has to be done," said Daubenberger. "We’re not in a great place, right now. We have climate change to deal with, local habitat problems to deal with – but if you think about it in a century of rebuilding mindset instead of, ‘we won’t ever get there in my lifetime,’ than you can start to imagine how we could get back to a place where we have the abundance we once did."