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‘How little we know’

The results of the salmon study could mean regulatory changes.

Federal and state protections that restrict off-shore construction during months when young salmon hug the island’s shoreline may miss the mark for some salmon, including the sensitive chinook population.

Government “work windows,” which permit the construction of piers, docks, bulkheads and rafts, run from June through March.

But the city’s seining study found these work periods fall directly in the months when coho and chinook populations are at their highest.

Puget Sound chinook, which is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, were never netted during the two-year study’s cumulative March catches and only once in April – just as the work restrictions begin.

About 20 were caught in both May months and fewer than 70 during the June months of 2002-04.

But the catch number rises to 107 just as the construction period is renewed in July. The high rate continues into the summer, with 84 catches recorded during both August months.

Because vibrations from pile-driving can kill young salmon, and work activities can disturb or destroy habitat, the work stoppage periods are vital for salmon survival, said marine habitat specialist Jim Brennan.

“The potential to harm these fish is greater during the months these young fish are using our island’s habitats,” he said. “And now we’re finding that the regulations created to protect them are not a good fit.”

Crafted more with pink and chum salmon in mind, state Department of Fish and Wildlife marine habitat specialist Randi Thurston admits the study results show that state regulations are not serving chinook and coho.

“We need to take another look at these long-standing rules,” she said. “We need to look at these state laws that were last updated in the early 1990s because there’s a lot of new information out there.”

Thurston said the laws were driven by limited knowledge of salmon behavior that became vague once salmon left their spawning streams.

“We didn’t have good ideas as to how much time they’re spending in the Puget Sound area,” she said.

City planner and study lead Peter Namtvedt Best said many early salmon research and regulations were crafted with “maximum production and harvesting” in mind.

“For all the salmon research that’s been done over the last century, it’s amazing how little we know,” he said. “Now we’re playing catchup. Now we’re filling those black holes and looking at salmon not just from (a) fish management (perspective). Now we’re looking at the bigger picture and their ecological function.”

While acknowledging the need for a “work window” regulations update, Thurston said that change must come from a higher level than her department.

“It has to come from the Legislature, from Olympia,” she said.

Thurston said the study results can help build the case for regulatory change.

“It’s definitely helpful,” she said. “The info Bainbridge has collected is similar to other surveys in Sinclair Inlet, south Puget Sound and King County. It will hopefully form a shared strategy.”

Brennan was surprised to hear the state is warming to the study’s results.

“The De­partment of Fish and Wildlife seemed to take offense when we presented our results,” he said, referring to a similar study he led in King County. “They thought we were pointing the finger at them. But now they have the data and have to decide what to do next.”

As for what happens in Olympia, Brennan said that’s largely up to voters. “The question is do we have the political will as a society to protect our resources?” he asked. “Now, how will we go about doing it?”

The city’s beach seining project is still underway at 11 sites around the island. For more information or to volunteer, visit www.ci.bainbridge-isl.wa.us/seine.

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