Nisqually tribal surveyors are hitting the water with a new piece of equipment that will help them better track endangered steelhead.
“We’ve been adapting our surveying techniques to gather more precise information on not only how many steelhead make it back each year to spawn, but where exactly they spawn,” said David Troutt, natural resources director for the tribe. “In the past we’ve doubled the amount of walking surveys we’re doing, and now we are using new tools to make that time on the river more productive.”
The surveyors are carrying tablet computers, allowing them to mark steelhead redds – or nests – more accurately than they could with expensive GPS units. The tablets display a detailed stream map prepared by the tribe’s geographic information department, allowing the surveyors to mark redd locations precisely.
“Depending on how well the individual GPS unit was communicating with the satellites it was using to determine position, we could end up with some pretty non-specific GPS points,” Troutt said. “But now, we couldn’t possibly get more accurate.”
In the early ’90s the population of Nisqually steelhead decreased from 6,000 to fewer than 500. “Since they fell off a cliff, their population seems to have stabilized,” Troutt said. “The overall population data we’re seeing indicates that they’re finding somewhere to spawn successfully.”
Following the steelhead spawning season, tribal staff will revisit the redd sites and categorize them by type. “Because our data should be so accurate, we can go back and look to see if we can find a pattern in how the steelhead spawn,” Troutt said. “This is the type of analysis we wouldn’t have been able to do before.”
Nisqually steelhead are part of a larger Puget Sound steelhead population that is listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“We know fishing pressure isn’t the problem,” Troutt said. “The Nisqually Tribe hasn’t fished for steelhead for almost 20 years and sport fishing has also been closed for many years.”
The reason for the decline likely lies in the marine habitat. “We are confident that all of our work in habitat protection and restoration over the past 20 years has improved the freshwater environment, but we still do not fully understand why steelhead haven’t been coming back in strong numbers,” Troutt said.
To that end, a few years ago, the tribe began working with the non-profit Long Live the Kings and the federal government in the Salish Sea Survival Project. The purpose of the project is to determine what might be affecting steelhead survival in Puget Sound.
“We’re building on our expanding knowledge of the steelhead’s freswater habtiat and connecting it with new understanding of their saltwater lifecycle,” Troutt said.
“Our fishing rights reserved in the treaty mean much less when the salmon we’ve always depended on are disappearing,” said Georgiana Kautz, Nisqually natural resources manager. “The more we know about how these fish, the better we can protect them and bring them back to harvestable numbers.”