A year that promised a near repeat of last year’s exceptional salmon returns has instead brought catastrophic losses to the Northwest. High river temperatures, caused by low snowpack and a lack of cold-water runoff combined with severe, prolonged hot weather, are punishing the returning fish, especially sockeye and sturgeon. River temperatures are 2 to 4 degrees higher than normal, and at 70-plus degrees Fahrenheit, are stressing salmon and making them more susceptible to disease and predators.
Nearly 400,000 of the 500,000-plus sockeye that swam over Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River may be lost, according to Ritchie Graves at NOAA Fisheries. The crisis has prompted Washington and Oregon state fishery officials to implement an emergency closure to the sockeye fishing season this weekend on the upper Columbia River. In addition, as many as 80-breeding size sturgeon were found dead upstream of Bonneville Dam, also thought to be victims of the high temperatures. As in the case of the sockeye, officials have closed sport fishing for sturgeon above Bonneville—a measure supported by agencies and fishers alike.
Snake River sockeye, a species that has been making a remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction, is of special concern. As of today, 957 sockeye have passed Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River but only 375 have made it all the way to Lower Granite Dam, the most upstream of the four Snake River dams that the fish pass on their journey home.
It’s heartbreaking on so many levels. It’s terrible to read about these fish dying before they can make it home to spawn. It’s devastating to see the many years of hard work and billions of dollars in salmon restoration contributed by northwest electric customers, wasted. Water has been spilled over the dams to speed young salmon to the ocean; habitat has been restored; and passage over the dams has been vastly improved with tremendous results—but then Mother Nature intervened.
The crisis underscores the reality that many factors, including those outside our control such as ocean and river conditions, can undermine our best collective efforts. The plight of the sockeye and the sturgeon demonstrates that while the dams have a significant impact on salmon, they are not the only, or the biggest, factor. There isn’t a lot we can do about Mother Nature. She is, at times, a harsh mistress.
Our Northwest dams, in fact, are helping out with this crisis in a very big way:
- At NOAA Fisheries’ direction, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing cold water from Dworshak Dam to help the Snake River sockeye. The water released is 42 degrees Fahrenheit, providing a boost of cool water for fish in the lower Snake River.
- Fishery managers, with a few exceptions, including Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe, support stopping the spill of hot water over Little Goose Dam and the drafting of colder reservoir water to entice adult sockeye below the dam to move upstream.
- The U.S. is tapping several million acre-feet of colder water from Canadian reservoirs as part of a U.S./Canadian Treaty agreement to help offset high temperatures downstream in the Columbia.
Other aggressive actions are underway:
- The federal hydro system Biological Opinion (the same BiOp that national and local environmental groups, Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe currently are suing over) includes emergency provisions that are allowing the Idaho Department of Game to collect and haul the handful of sockeye below Lower Granite dam, up to the Eagle Fish Hatchery to spawn.
- The U.S. Fish and Service transferred 160,000 salmon from the Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery in central Oregon to Little White Salmon National Hatchery in the Columbia River Gorge, where the youngsters can be held until temperatures cool and the adults can be held until spawning time. This is happening among several other Northwest hatcheries as well.
Desperate times demand desperate measures, and clearly the federal and state fishery management agencies are scrambling to help these fish, which raises the question of why any fishing for sockeye and sturgeon is allowed during this crisis. These catastrophic losses warrant extraordinary protective measures, including further limits on commercial, sport and even tribal fishing.
With Northwest temperatures continuing to soar, let’s hope that further restrictions are indeed considered. We need to give these fish the best possible chance to survive—and to spawn. We need to protect them and the massive investment that Northwest families and businesses have made in their future.