Data Focus: You can put more fish in the river, but if the habitat isn’t there, it doesn’t matter

Data Focus: You can put more fish in the river, but if the habitat isn’t there, it doesn’t matter

One of the most common myths in the salmon recovery debate is that “if we just stop fishing, salmon will come back.” That assumption ignores what is really driving the decline of salmon and the reason we’ve failed so far at recovering them.

What the graphs below show is a historic trend of decreased impact on one particular chinook stock from fishing, but no corresponding increase of actual wild fish. You can limit fishing all you want, but for salmon in Puget Sound, habitat is the real key to recovery.

From the Treaty Rights at Risk whitepaper:

For more than two decades, harvest rates in all fisheries have been sharply reduced to compensate for the precipitous decline of salmon abundance in Washington state waters, but today harvest cuts can no longer compensate for losses in salmon spawning and rearing habitat.

Analysis of total U.S. harvest rates and run sizes for North Fork Stillaguamish River chinook illustrates this point. Washington harvest rates have been sharply and steadily reduced in reaction to declining returns. While this harvest action maintained spawning at targeted levels, it did not result in more fish returning to spawn, clearly indicating that factors other than harvest are responsible for the stock’s decline.

As a result, the Stillaguamish Tribe’s treaty-protected river fishery was effectively eliminated and with it, an essential element of tribal culture and source of traditional food. Although the action was not matched by other managers, the tribe gave up even its most basic treaty-reserved ceremonial and subsistence harvest for more than 25 years in an effort to ensure the conservation of this run. In recent years, the Stillaguamish people had to purchase fish from outside their river system to conduct the traditional first salmon ceremony that welcomes and honors the salmon that are the foundation of their culture.

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