House Minority Leader and 2nd Legislative District Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, says he’s looking forward to making salmon habitat legislation a bipartisan priority following the recent Billy Frank Jr. Pacific Salmon Summit.
“I’m going to be joining with my caucus and with anybody who wants to be a part of the effort to effectively and efficiently address the salmon crisis clear across the state, in Puget Sound and especially here along the Nisqually River,” Wilcox said in a November video update to constituents.
Wilcox said he’s hoping the Legislature can bring three priorities that have been agreed upon by the Billy Frank Jr. Salmon Coalition. Those include increasing salmon production on fish hatcheries, opening up and preserving fish habitat and controlling predatory animals along the banks.
“You become deeply aware of that you have to do all of them. We’ve been working on habitat for a long time, but if you don’t produce fish in hatcheries and control predators then we will have paid a high price and have failed,” Wilcox later told the Nisqually Valley News. “The people that I trust most are the fish biologists that work with the tribe because nobody has a greater desire to preserve natural runs than tribes … In some cases, the capacity is there, it’s just not being used.”
Money for hatcheries doesn’t make up a large percentage of the Legislature’s environmental investments, Wilcox said, but they have been seeing an increase in recent years.
Wilcox also pointed to stormwater runoff coming from urban parts of the state. Wilcox said early studies are underway on the potential effects.
Wilcox’s statement comes as the region continues to struggle with sustaining fish habitat both in the Puget Sound and along local rivers, and as agencies look for multi-pronged approaches.
Just weeks ago, the Nisqually Indian Tribe closed down its chum salmon fishery early due to the low runs anglers were seeing.
“We’re really in a crisis mode down here on the Nisqually,” Tribal Council Member Willie Frank III told Q13 FOX News. “I don’t want to be that generation that catches the last salmon.”
One prominent avenue to restore fish habitat in streams that feed into larger watersheds and rivers is through expensive and impactful barrier removal programs. While counties such as Thurston have been leading the charge toward this effort, not all counties can afford to follow.
According to a press release published by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from July, the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board awarded the state roughly $25 million in grants to remove barriers and give fish access to roughly 82 miles of streams in Washington.
“A coordinated approach is key to helping fish reach the ocean, return home to spawn, and get to healthy habitats to feed, grow and transition from saltwater to freshwater,” Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Recreation and Conservation Office, said of the grant.
Currently, the Thurston County Fish Passage Enhancement Program — which was founded in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that stated that Washington state was responsible for removing fish barriers — has funded about $4 million of fish barrier passage projects over the 2019-2020 public works budget. Many of the state’s culverts must be fixed by 2030.
Those funds are expected to remove six high-priority fish barriers throughout the county, including one in the Nisqually Watershed where Piessner Road meets Toboton Creek.
Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, who represents the 22nd Legislative District and serves on the House Environment and Energy Committee, said she doesn’t see much in his next session as far as legislation for salmon, but said they’re looking at a culvert repair initiative for the state transportation budget in the next biennium.
“We’re definitely looking at culvert repair as being apart of that overall transportation package,” Doglio said. “The two go hand in hand and we’re in a crisis when it comes to fish right now and we need to be coming at it from every angle.”
Doglio said the state should also continue to prioritize lowering greenhouse emissions and tackling climate change. A greener economy could also be a partial solution to contaminated stormwater runoff, Doglio said.
“Honestly, when it comes to oils from cars, electrifying vehicles you get the double dip. You get both reduced transportation emissions and lesser oils that runoff on the waterways,” Doglio said.