White River fish kill higher than expected
April 30, 2009 · Updated 4:30 PM
More than 23,000 White River fish - including 6,000 endangered juvenile chinook salmon - died when the White River below Mud Mountain Dam was dewatered this spring, according to a report issued by the Puyallup Indian Tribe.
"Draining the White River killed thousands of salmon when they were at their most vulnerable and devastated the river's food chain," said Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the Puyallup Tribe.
Around 10 a.m. on April 8, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer started holding water behind Mud Mountain Dam near Enumclaw, to allow for maintenance work farther down the river - near the bridge between Enumclaw and Buckley - at a dam owned by Puget Sound Energy. Instream flow in the river was dropped from more than 1,100 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 300 cfs in three hours.
Puyallup tribal staff presented their findings to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency whose authority it is to enforce the federal Endangered Species Act. NOAA Fisheries has not taken any enforcement action, although a spokesman has indicated a review is under way.
Ladley is adamant someone should be taken to task for the incident and believes NOAA is dragging its feet. "Unfortunately, NOAA Fisheries has indicated that they aren't interested in following up on the deaths of endangered chinook," he said. "What is the point of trying to protect and recover endangered chinook if thousands can be killed without penalty or due recourse?"
Ladley attempts to put the spring fish kill into perspective. "Six thousand dead juvenile chinook is a lot when you consider just over 800 wild adult chinook came back to the White River last year - a relatively good return," he said. "If we're to succeed in restoring White River chinook, we have to do a much better job protecting them from events like taking the water out of the river."
Ladley estimated more than 17,000 coho, 6,000 federally protected chinook and 400 chum were killed when the river was dewatered on April 9. He adds, however, many more salmon possibly died. "The conservative nature of this estimate cannot be overstated," he said, in a statement to NOAA Fisheries investigators. "Many fish were undoubtedly overlooked" he said, because they were either hidden from view or already scavenged by birds.
Puyallup tribal staff were able to determine that most of the strandings occurred in side-channel areas that juvenile salmon prefer. By locating where similar habitat occurred along the dewatered stretch of the White River, Ladley estimated the total impact of the salmon kill.
The fish kill will have repercussions on salmon populations and recovery efforts on the White River for years to come, Ladley believes. "Salmon recovery on the White River has been a joint effort across tribal, state, local and federal jurisdictions. Everyone has gotten together and put a lot of energy into recovering this chinook population," he said. "It's unfortunate that all the sacrifices we've made - from harvest restrictions to money spent on hatchery operations - can be wiped out because of this fish kill."