New Puget Sound steelhead plan charts course for recovery

February 2019

Some 8,000 aging culverts under roads and driveways around Puget Sound block threatened Puget Sound steelhead from reaching high headwaters streams where they historically spawned, creating a major obstacle to the species’ recovery.

A new proposed recovery plan for Puget Sound steelhead highlights culverts and other threats, and outlines a roadmap for recovery of the native fish into a self-sustaining population and resume their place as a keystone of Puget Sound’s marine environment. NOAA Fisheries developed the plan with help and support from many partners.

Steelhead fry

Steelhead fry. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Nearly 1 million wild adult steelhead once returned to Puget Sound rivers but less than 5 to 10 percent of that return today. Puget Sound steelhead were designated as threatened in 2007, bringing them under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

“Puget Sound steelhead are remarkably resilient, but they have been pushed to the limit by decades of habitat loss, and adverse marine conditions,” said Elizabeth Babcock, North Puget Sound Branch Chief in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Based on the best available science, this plan is a solid and comprehensive blueprint for recovery.”

Recovering the steelhead that are highly valued by Northwest tribes, prized by fishermen, and preyed upon by endangered killer whales would provide ecological and economic benefits.

The proposed recovery plan is now open for public comment through March 28 at, by going to this link and submitting comments online. The recovery plan is not regulatory, but rather provides a roadmap for agencies, organizations, tribes, and others working toward recovery of Puget Sound steelhead.

“This plan helps steer actions where they will make the most difference for fish,” said Dave Price, Puget Sound Recovery Coordinator. “We have many excellent partners who are working on behalf of steelhead recovery, and this plan provides a guide.”

The Puget Sound Steelhead Recovery Team, which assembled the plan, includes biologists and other experts from NOAA Fisheries, tribes, state wildlife agencies, and conservation groups familiar with the pressures affecting the threatened stock. The team contributes local knowledge and expertise on different river systems and runs of Puget Sound steelhead that will be essential in reaching recovery.

The Recovery Team identified 10 main pressures that are limiting steelhead recovery:  fish passage barriers at road crossings; dams, including fish passage and flood control; degraded floodplains; residential, commercial, industrial development (including impervious runoff); timber management activities; water withdrawals and altered flows; ecological and genetic interactions between hatchery and wild fish; harvest pressures (including selective harvest) on wild fish; juvenile mortality in estuary and marine waters; and climate change.

While the harvest of Puget Sound steelhead has been greatly reduced in recent decades, there remains some risk that fishing for hatchery steelhead and salmon can result in incidental or unintentional catch of these threatened steelhead.

Two key concerns for the species’ recovery are fish passage barriers from culverts and early ocean survival. The number of culverts under roadways has increased with continuing urban and suburban growth throughout the Puget Sound region.  According to the plan, survival of juvenile steelhead when they first migrate from the streams to the ocean is poor. Recent tracking of young steelhead from some Puget Sound rivers found that, depending on the river, only 1 to 39 percent of juvenile Puget Sound steelhead survived their first few months at sea.

“Many of the recovery strategies focus on the Puget Sound Basin and early marine migration routes because threats in spawning and rearing habitats and early marine migration zones are critical impediments to recovery,” Babcock said.

To reach recovery, Puget Sound steelhead would have to meet criteria for abundance and productivity, and the main threats to the population must be ameliorated to the point that the fish will not become threatened again. The recovery plan projects that it may take at least several decades, and possibly up to 100 years, to achieve that goal.

“It took a lot of collaborative work by the Puget Sound Steelhead Recovery Team to put this plan together, and it gives us the game plan that we need,” Babcock said. She stressed that there are roles for many partners in the effort -- from tribes to local watershed groups to private landowners. “It will take a great deal of collaboration across many sectors and jurisdictions to reach recovery.”


Recovery planning for Puget Sound steelhead