Pulling Salmon Back From The Brink: Fisherman and Biologist Mike Schiewe

Mike Schiewe

Mike Schiewe at his home in Hansville, on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula. Photo by Liam Moriarty

By the 1990s, Northwest salmon were declared to be on the road to extinction. Fishing was cut back, development was curtailed, and dam and hatchery operations were improved to save the salmon. Are the efforts to turn it around working?


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This week KPLU environmental reporter Liam Moriarty talks with Mike Schiewe, a long-time salmon fisherman. He’s also one of the biologists behind the Endangered Species listings.

Liam Moriarty: I’m sitting on a bluff in Hansville, which is on the northern edge of the Kitsap Peninsula. We’re looking across Admiralty Inlet at Double Bluff on Whidbey Island, and I’m sitting with Mike Schiewe … Now, you’re a sports fisherman. You’ve done a fair amount of fishing around here.

Mike Schiewe: I have. For the last 40 years, first with my father in law and then later with friends, we fished literally all over Puget Sound.

The lighthouse at Point No Point in Hansville

The lighthouse at Point No Point in Hansville became operational in 1879. It was the first light house in Puget Sound. This is also the place where in 1855 Washington's first territorial governor Isaac Stevens signed a treaty with the S'Klallam, Skokomish and other Indian tribes to cede their land - much of the Olympic Peninsula - to the government. That treaty, and others like it, was the legal basis for the 1974 Boldt decision that affirmed Native fishing rights. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Liam: How has that changed; how did you see that change?

Mike: It’s been pretty darn remarkable. Early on the salmon season was year-round. Just about any day of the year you could head out, weather permitting, and find fish in some location. The 1990s brought much constraint and limited seasons because of the Endangered Species Act listings.

Liam: I guess it’s a little ironic because you were one of the prime scientists that did the research that led to those listings. Tell me about that.

Mike: I worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the early 90s we started to receive petitions asking us to list various populations of salmon, pretty much throughout the Northwest. We set up what I would characterize as a scientific jury process where we convened panels of experts for each of the species. We launched a comprehensive survey of all populations of salmonids, all five species: Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Pink and Chum, and we also did the anadromous form of Rainbow Trout – the Steelhead.

We ended up identifying — I believe it was 26 populations, ultimately, that we considered to be either threatened or endangered.

Liam: Now, take me back, say, to the 1970s. What was happening with Puget Sound salmon in that period of time?

Chinook salmon fishing circa 1900

Chinook salmon fishing circa 1900. Photo courtesy North Cascades National Park archives

Mike: I think for the most part the commercial harvest was starting to wind down. There were fisheries on Coho in the fall – purse seiners. There were gill netters still operating.

In a cultural, political, legal way, the fishing was changing because the tribes were beginning to exert their fishing rights when the Boldt decision came down. That drastically altered the fishery with the idea that the fishery had to be divided roughly 50/50 between the tribes and the non-tribal fisheries. The non-tribal fishery at the time was a very much declining commercial fishery. It was still a full blown sport fishery. It just slowly – the fishing abundance – the levels came down and there just wasn’t much work to be had.

Liam: Was there a sense at the time of what was happening; what was going on there to cause that?

Mike: Shoreline development – not only on the shorelines of Puget Sound but certainly all the rivers that salmon depend on as nursery areas were being lined with houses, roads, road run-off, storm water. The population of the Puget Sound basin in general was literally exploding. Basically as much as you can contribute, for example, the demise of fish in the Columbia River to harvest and dams, I think Puget Sound was sort of harvest and habitat loss.

I would be remiss in not I guess calling attention to the fact that this was a time of great growth in hatcheries. Hatcheries are a great tool for producing mass, large numbers of fish that can help maintain harvest at a high level, but they basically mask the decline of the wild population.

Skunk Bay to Foulweather Bluff in Hansville, WA

Looking across Skunk Bay to Foulweather Bluff in Hansville, WA. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Liam: At what point did folks start connecting those dots?

Mike: I think it’s a fair question to ask why the agencies weren’t doing anything on their own initiative. But frankly they weren’t. It took the push by some of the conservation community and fishing groups to change that dynamic.

Liam: In the subsequent 15 years since the salmon stocks were all listed, what’s been achieved; where are we at now?

Mike: I think we’re now just beginning to see some of the progress. Puget Sound is perhaps a fairly difficult environment to measure some of that progress.

The problem is very, very dispersed. It’s a very complex process of land use and counties and municipalities making changes in how we do those things.

Liam: Are we seeing the sort of progress that we would have hoped to be seeing when the fish were listed 15 years ago?

Mike: Habitats that support productive, sustainable fish populations don’t return to their higher state in just a matter of a couple of years or even a decade. It’s very likely going to take 30-40 years of sustained better management to see those things turn around.

It’s the old death by a thousand cuts which brought us to this point. Those thousand cuts slowly have to heal over.

Personally, I’m a very firm believer that humans are part of the ecosystem and they need to be on the table in their needs at the same time as the needs of their environment. There is no reason why they are mutually exclusive.

Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye salmon returning to spawn in the Cedar River. Photo courtesy blogs.kcls.org

Liam: Well, Mike; thanks for having me out.

Mike: Thank you for coming out. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with you.

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4 Responses to “Pulling Salmon Back From The Brink: Fisherman and Biologist Mike Schiewe”

  1. Sightline Daily published this article on salmon recovery and one re a phytoplankton bloom in 2008 following Alaska’s Kasatochi Island volcanic eruption. Could the effects of that eruption help explain the large salmon returns of this year?
    I’m thinking of the boost to the food chain from the phytoplankton bloom, and the decimation of the sea birds on the island, many of which would be fish predators.

  2. You mentioned that your story is moving north to Canada. The Courtnall family of Vancouver island would be a great interview. They are a working class family from Duncan. For decades the entire family has fished and lived along the Salish sea. Two of the brothers played in the NHL and have been famous advocates for the islands fishing eco-system

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