Statewide efforts underway to restore fish passageways for salmon recovery
Every generation in Rob Woeck’s family shares fishing memories of the Pacific Northwest. The Washington State Department of Transportation employee said his family put down their initial roots in the Washington Territory during the 1880s. They grew up fishing commercially and recreationally, he grew up fishing, and each generation in between did as well.
It’s a part of their identity as much as fishing is part of the overall Pacific Northwest identity, and even more so for local tribes over thousands of years.
“I can’t imagine a situation where my grandkids don’t know what it’s like to see Chum salmon spawning in front of them,” Woeck said. “And if we don’t follow through, then that will be the case.”
He’s talking about following through on recent legislation that Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law that aims to increase salmon in the Salish Sea, among other things. While funding, collaboration, grants and resources contribute to that vision, Woeck said there’s one more vital thing people can do to help restore an abundant salmon population.
“Care,” he said, laughing.
He visited with Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday at Edgecomb Creek in Arlington, a recent Washington success story for fish passage restoration. Finished in 2018, the relatively small creek now runs through peoples’ backyards. Woeck, environmental program manager for I-405, said it’s so small that people could step over it in places or maybe not even notice the newly built ecosystem. But this creek saw more than 80 spawning Coho salmon in the stream last year — and Woeck is sure that even more swam through.
“It was literally full,” Woeck said. “I stopped counting at 80 fish on our site. It felt like I was walking in a stream in Alaska. It was really impressive.”
Wednesday’s visit to a fish passage restoration site was just one of the stops Inslee made to learn how Washington is carrying out recent legislation to aid orca and salmon recovery.
“A success story of orca and salmon health is made up of so many vital components,” Inslee said. “We can’t just work on one part of it and call it good. We need strong investments in fish passage restoration, continuous shoreline and estuary restoration and innovative ways to whale watch without negatively impacting the orca’s environment. If we want to save these Pacific Northwest icons, we must work together.”
Decades of development have blocked and damaged streams and passageways for salmon and other fish. It’s common for people to not know they have a historic salmon stream in their backyard.
“You can blink and miss them but they are extraordinarily important to the success of salmon in this area,” Woeck said. “One small stream might have 80 fish but multiply it by 1,400 different streams — that’s a lot of fish.”
This is the big picture of a 2013 ruling around historical tribal fishing rights. A federal court ordered the state to remove fish passage barriers so that small streams that act as salmon breeding grounds so the bigger waterways in Washington can be restored.
These efforts implement key recommendations from the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, recommendations that will improve habitat and forage fish population. The governor signed the bill that will help increase Chinook salmon, as well as Chum, Steelhead, Coho salmon and more during the recent legislative session.
“When we invest in salmon recovery, it’s not just salmon that we’re saving,” Inslee said. “This funding also preserves our Pacific Northwest legacy, our way of life, our jobs, our neighborhoods and our communities. Whether you live near, love to play in or simply care about Puget Sound, this is a win for Washington.”
One of the largest challenges in restoring fish passageways is maintaining enough public support so that projects such as Edgecomb Creek maintain legislative backing and get the right amount of funding. The governor visited the creek Wednesday to see what happens when groups work to rebuild places that have the potential to host salmon, which is a main part of the Southern Resident orca’s diet.
“In some locations, we’re replacing barriers that don’t actually have fish there yet,” Woeck said. “It’s the story of, ‘if we build it they will come,’ idea.”
For this particular restoration project, WSDOT bought out a property owner last year, tore down the house and then rerouted Edgecomb Creek to a site south of the highway. His team, along with the Tulalip Tribes, use backhoes and dump trucks full of gravel to create a natural fish habitat.
“When we invest in salmon recovery, it’s not just salmon that we’re saving. This funding also preserves our Pacific Northwest legacy, our way of life, our jobs, our neighborhoods and our communities. Whether you live near, love to play in or simply care about Puget Sound, this is a win for Washington.”
— Gov. Jay Inslee
Woeck said the tribe offered a large amount of support for the project and even volunteered their time.
“That partnership was extraordinarily effective at this site,” he said.
The state is fixing fish barriers statewide. And they’re trying to do so in an efficient and effective way. Woeck said it’s becoming common to visit a site to scope out the construction plan and find smaller streams within a couple of miles that also need work, even if the smaller stream falls lower on the priority list. So, WSDOT is working to combine or ‘batch’ multiple projects to decrease the construction impact on Washington drivers.
“We would have to close down the roadway a few different times to address all those sites,” he said. “So, if we batch the projects, we may only need to impact that stretch of traffic one time.”
Although restoring fish passageways will take some time, Woeck is ready for the job because he knows it will impact salmon recovery efforts in a lasting way. He said that people’s interest in salmon recovery increases when they stumble across salmon swimming in backyard streams or watch salmon appear in new places around a neighborhood.
“Seeing the salmon changes people’s attitude,” Woeck said. “And that change has a lot of power. Most people have busy lives and they have to make decisions based on singular experiences. So, if they go out in the fall and see a salmon in a spot where they’ve never seen a salmon and have that singular experience, they can go from someone who is against spending public money on salmon recovery to someone who is a complete supporter. The more of that we can experience, the better.”
You can watch a video from WSDOT to learn more about fish passage restoration in Washington.