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article imageHalf of Columbia River sockeye salmon dying in overheated waters

By Karen Graham     Jul 27, 2015 in Environment
Over a quarter-million sockeye salmon, returning from the ocean to spawn, are either dead or dying in the Columbia River and its tributaries due to warming water temperatures.
Federal and state fisheries biologists say the hotter water, said to be five to six degrees warmer than usual, is wiping out at least half of the expected 500,000 of the cold-water species.
The Associated Press quoted Ritchie Graves of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We had a really big migration of sockeye. The thing that really hurts is we're going to lose a majority of those fish." Graves said up to 80 percent of the population could be lost.
It is an environmental crisis in the making, and it is something bigger than just the warmer waters of the Columbia River system. The evidence is a stark reminder of just how badly conditions have deteriorated in the Pacific Northwest.
The dead and dying salmon are supposed to be deep into the drainages of North Central Washington, the Okanagan region of British Columbia or Redfish Lake in central Idaho, Mary Peters, a microbiologist who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the Seattle Times.
Very little snowpack to provide meltwater
In April of this year, the snowpack in western Washington was 90 percent below normal, and statewide, the snow level was 71 percent below normal while Oregon received less than 25 percent of its expected snowfall for the year.
Amy Snover, the director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, told Public Radio International, “When people ask me about this year and whether this is global warming I say, well, global warming looks like this and I also say we’ll see a lot more of these, more frequently, as we go forward."
Northwest salmon are the losers in this environmental crisis. They headed upriver to spawn at a time when little snowpack in the mountains created little meltwater at a time of year when searing heat raised the temperatures of the water in the creeks, rivers, and streams.
The salmon also had to contend with warming coastal ocean waters. The warmer waters have a diminished food supply for young salmon making their way from freshwater rivers into the Pacific Ocean. It doesn't bode well for future salmon runs.
“My guess is that this is going to be one of the poorest years for salmon (ocean) survival” said Bill Peterson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries scientist based in Newport, Ore. “Things do not look good.”
Most of the Columbia River sockeye salmon are headed for Canda, but they must first pass through the Okanogan River. The only problem with that is the 76-degree temperatures recorded in the Okanogan River the last several weeks. The heated water creates a thermal barrier, stopping salmon migration. Right now, about 170,000 salmon are congregating at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan Rivers, just milling around.
Don Campton, a spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service says fish congregating in confined areas trying to find cool water makes them a target for pathogens. "When temperatures get warm, it does stress the fish out and they become susceptible to disease," he says. The red blotches covering many of the fish are evidence of bacterial infection.
Fisheries management teams are releasing water from selected reservoirs in an attempt to cool the waters in the rivers. An emergency declaration was issued in Idaho earlier this month that allowed state fisheries officials to capture endangered Snake River sockeye destined for central Idaho and take them to a hatchery to recover in cooler water. "Right now it's grim for adult sockeye," said Russ Kiefer of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, according to the Associated Press.
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