Balancing fish and farms on a Washington estuary

  • A tidal marsh habitat for fish, waterfowl and other species.

    Polly Hicks, NOAA
  • The restored Fisher Slough, which by late November was providing freshwater tidal marsh habitat for fish, waterfowl and other species.

    Polly Hicks, NOAA
  • The original infrastructure, built in 1927, had floodgates that were closed much of the time.

    The Nature Conservancy
  • The Fisher Slough project and farmland near Skagit Bay.

    NOAA, Google Earth
  • Floodgates will stay open for 90 percent of the tidal cycle, providing freshwater tidal marsh habitat for fish, waterfowl and other species.fish, waterfowl and other species.

    The Nature Conservancy
 

In late summer last year, a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered in northwest Washington to witness the rebirth of a waterway -- the result of years of negotiation, compromise and patience. Those present heard about the project's importance, not only for Pacific salmon, but also for the local community's livelihood.

It sounds a lot like the breaching of the century-old Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula last fall. But this little group was about 100 miles away, near the town of Mount Vernon, at a place called Fisher Slough in the Skagit River Delta. What they were celebrating was less dramatic in appearance than the Elwha, but it was also biologically significant, and just as thorny politically.

As environmental battlefields go, Fisher Slough seems pretty meek, with a copse of alders in the midst of a small, shallow lake, bracketed on one side by road, on the others by fields. But since Euro-Americans settled the delta in the mid-1800s, Fisher, like most of the sloughs, has been drained and plumbed with levees, ditches and tidegates, creating some of the most productive farmland in the country: More than 100,000 acres are farmed by over 1,200 operations in the Skagit Valley.

The Skagit River is also one of the state's major salmon producers, the last to support wild populations of all five species of Pacific salmon, one of which -- the Puget Sound chinook -- was federally listed as threatened in 1999. The subsequent species recovery plan, released in 2005, identified estuaries like Fisher Slough as critical habitat.

Unlike in other parts of the Skagit River Delta, where conservationists have squabbled with farmers over salmon restoration, the work at Fisher Slough has tried to benefit both groups. By helping farmers reduce flood risk, among other things, the project has won their grudging support, and thus serves as a model for other projects seeking to resolve conservation vs. agriculture stalemates. "In a lot of ways, it looks modest," says Bob Carey, project director with The Nature Conservancy's office in Mount Vernon, "but we think it will have far-reaching effects."

Salmon are famously itinerant, swimming from the river to the sea to grow, and returning to the river to spawn. Threats to them are couched principally as impediments to movement: hooks, nets, and dams. But salmon also spend important periods of their life relatively stationary. During the fry stage, they travel downstream to estuaries. Depending on the species, they might spend weeks or months preparing physiologically for years in saltwater. The change, called smoltification, is costly: As fry become smolts, they are sluggish, vulnerable to predators. They need shelter, usually in the form of woody debris. Healthy estuaries provide this. "As we have learned more about what fish need, and salmon in particular, it's become increasingly clear just how important estuaries are," says Charles Simenstad, a restoration ecologist at the University of Washington.

When the chinook was federally listed, longstanding regional tensions between Coast Salish fishermen and farmers bubbled to the surface. Tribes, frustrated at the salmon decline, demanded that farmers begin substantive restoration work on estuary lands used for agriculture. But to restore an estuary can require dismantling not only durable physical structures, but also social ones, some of which are even more deep-rooted. Many of the farms in the Skagit Valley are over 100 years old. (Invocations of their age tend not to impress the tribes, it should be noted.) Even as farmland acreage in Skagit County has declined by almost 25 percent since 1930, agricultural interests remain a potent force in local politics, and farmers rejected any a priori assumptions that they were to blame for the salmon's decline. The delta had been diked for over a century, but the salmon didn't start to disappear until the 1930s. Yes, habitat loss (and by extension farms) bore some of the blame -- but so did logging, the dams, commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, and global warming.

Lawsuits piled up. Both sides dug in, as often happens when two ways of life square off against one another. "Conflict over habitat restoration isn't a new thing here," says Steve Hinton, the restoration director for the tribal Skagit River Systems Cooperative, or Skagit Co-op. "But the listing really kicked it up a notch."