State Report Says Salmon and Steelhead Are Near the Brink of Extinction


A new report from the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office shows a number of salmon and steelhead populations in Washington state are teetering on the brink of extinction, according to a Thursday press release by the state Recreation and Conservation Office.

The report, titled ‘State of Salmon in Watersheds,’ shows that 10 of the 14 populations of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered in Washington under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) are not making progress. Of the 10, five are in crisis.

“We have come a long way in addressing the factors killing salmon,” said Erik Neatherlin, the executive coordinator of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office. “Some salmon populations are strong and nearing recovery. Unfortunately, many challenges are outpacing restoration efforts, holding back recovery of the majority of salmon.”

The report noted that salmon populations are expected to worsen as the climate warms and mountain glaciers, which feed cold, clean water to salmon-bearing streams in the summer, continue to disappear. In addition, Washington’s human population is expected to grow from 7.6 million to 9 million people by 2040, adding the equivalent of three more Seattles to the state.

“More people means more demand for water and for land along waterways, both of which conflict with what salmon need,” Neatherlin said. “It’s important to remember that Washingtonians rely heavily on salmon to support jobs in the fishing and tourism industries, as a food source and for traditional tribal culture and for recreation.”


Cause and Effect

The report comes one month after the Washington Department Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) announced that all but one coastal river (Quillauyute) was expected to have below the expected returns for steelhead. That prompted the WDFW to prohibit fishing for salmon and steelhead in coastal rivers from floating devices and the use of baits and scents, starting Dec. 14, 2020. The department is also closing coastal rivers sooner than usual, ranging from Feb. 1 to April 1, depending on the river.

On Monday, the Olympic National Park announced it will close the Queets River for steelhead fishing on Feb. 1 to protect the native run. The 2020-21 forecast for Queets wild steelhead is expected to be well below the escapement goal of 4,200 fish. Queets wild steelhead have failed to meet their escapement goal in each of the last four years, and returns in recent years were among the lowest on record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approved an application on Aug. 14, 2020 to expand a program to kill sea lions preying on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River basin. The removal includes up to 540 California sea lions and 176 Stellar sea lions through 2025.


Finding a Solution

In 1991, Snake River sockeye salmon were the first salmon population in the Pacific Northwest to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, 14 species have been listed in Washington. No species have been added since 2007, when Puget Sound steelhead were added to list, which included more than 50 stocks of summer- and winter-run steelhead.

“We are making progress,” Neatherlin said. “However, we still are losing more ground than we’re gaining. We must come together and we must step up our actions. We know what needs to be done and we have the people in place to do the work, we now just need to make saving salmon a priority across Washington and provide the funding and resources to get it done. We must save salmon.”

The report and accompanying website recommend a list of actions geared toward reducing the many factors that kill salmon. Following are a few of the report’s recommendations:

• Adapt land-use and other regulations to accommodate salmon. Integrate and give priority to the needs of salmon and other natural resources in land-use plans, long-term infrastructure planning processes and related regulatory programs. The report also calls for increasing compliance and enforcement of existing land-use laws.

• Ensure clean, cold water in streams by reconnecting floodplains and protecting sources of groundwater and cold springs, which feed salmon-bearing streams in the late summer and during droughts.

• Improve fish passage by removing barriers to migration and re-introduce salmon to places above dams where they’ve been blocked.

• Work with Indian tribes in Washington to establish a statewide standard for protecting fully-functioning and healthy land along streams and rivers for salmon.

• Fully-fund salmon recovery, which currently receives only 22 percent of the estimated need.


A Step in the Right Direction

Washington has been making steady progress restoring habitat in recent years. Since 2005, 20,013 acres of riparian areas have been treated and 12,008 acres of estuaries and near-shore areas have been treated.

Following the removal of the Elwha Dam in 2012, steelhead and all five of the native species of salmon in the Clallam County river have been making recoveries.

Other in-state dam removals on Trout Creek, Middle Fork Nooksack, Pilchuck and White Salmon rivers have boosted salmon and steelhead populations in those respective areas. There are currently efforts underway to improve passage at Mud Mountain Dam near Enumclaw, and to place salmon above dams where they have not been for nearly 100 years, such as at Chief Joseph Dam near Bridgeport and Grand Coulee Dam near the town of Grand Coulee.

“Salmon are key indicators of the health of our environment,” Neatherlin said. “We are at a crossroads, and as we look forward, we need to come together to find solutions that work for salmon and people. Just as we develop long-range plans for roads, powerlines, development and other infrastructure, we need to begin to do the same for salmon if we want them to be around in the future.”

For more information and to read the full report, visit