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NW Fish Survival Tested By Warm Waters And Low Stream Flows

July 22, 2015

The fishing aisle at Swain’s General Store is well-stocked with tackle for catching salmon and trout on nearby rivers.

But something is missing among the tidy rows of lures, floats, line and ornately-tied flies: customers.

“You can see that not much has moved off the shelf,” says Wally Butler as he walks down the river-fishing aisle. Butler works at Swain’s and has lived in Port Angeles all his life. “Normally these would be almost empty...and they’re still pretty full so it’s affected us a lot. Nobody’s been fishing.”

Butler estimates that sales of fishing gear are down 50 percent. Drought is the reason why.

Rivers of the Olympic Peninsula have hit record low flows and record high temperatures -- just as other tributaries have throughout the West. Those conditions are creating such a hardship for salmon and trout that Washington and Oregon have imposed special fishing restrictions on many of their rivers.

Butler acknowledges that the fish might need a break.

“You almost feel sorry for the fish because there is no water,” Butler says. “You almost gotta let 'em have their chance to reproduce or there won’t be any fish.”  

Tribes and wild fish groups share Butler’s sentiments. River temperatures throughout the Northwest are entering lethal territory for salmon. The fish become stressed once river temperatures reach the 60s. When they exceed the 70s, temperatures can be lethal.

"You almost feel sorry for the fish because there is no water."

“When these fish are very hot they become lethargic and they don’t reach as large sizes as they would in more cool conditions,” says Adrian Tuohy, a biologist with the Wild Fish Conservancy. The group analyzed water temperature data from the U.S. Geological Survey earlier this month on 54 rivers in Washington, Oregon and California. Thirty-nine of the rivers were at temperatures that can be lethal to salmon and trout.

"When these fish are very hot they become lethargic and they don't reach large sizes as they would in more cool conditions. Their metabolic rates are so high that they just can't grow as fast," Tuohy says. "Warmer waters contain less oxygen and provide conditions for fish diseases like gill rot to thrive. So as the water levels drop and fish crowd into smaller and smaller pools, the results can be deadly."

Limiting Fishing When Waters Are Warmest

The departments of fish and wildlife in Oregon and Washington  have closed some rivers to fishing and restricted fishing after 2 p.m. on other tributaries to take the pressure off the fish during the hottest times of day.

But Tuohy says more can be done. His group is pushing for closures of all fishing in rivers that exceed 64 degrees.

“We’re going to see a lot of fish that are lost -- if not directly, indirectly -- through this heat crisis,” Tuohy says. “So we need to allow as many (wild) fish as possible to move upstream to spawn and give rise to a new generation to make up for the multiple generations that are suffering the consequences of the current conditions.”

More than 100 chinook salmon died this month in the Middle Fork John Day River when temperatures there exceeded 70 degrees. Dead fish have also been found in Oregon’s Willamette and Deschutes rivers.

In southeastern Washington, sockeye salmon have been trapped and removed from a lethally warm stretch of the lower Snake River so they could be trucked to cooler waters in Idaho. Dead sturgeon up to 7 feet long have been seen in the Columbia River near Washington’s Tri-Cities.

Clearing the Way for ‘Stressed Out’ Salmon

Chris Burns is doing what he can to prevent fish kills on the Dungeness River near Sequim, Washington. Burns, a natural resources technician with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, thinks like a fish as he walks the river’s ankle-deep water. He’s on the lookout for obstacles, dry spots and low-flow areas that could make it hard for salmon to get up the Dungeness to spawn.

“This is really low. Really low,” he remarks under his breath has he sloshes over slippery rocks to look for stranded fish.

The river’s flow is less than a third of what it normally would be at this time of year. Burns agrees that fishing should be closed in the river, especially for the endangered chinook salmon that spawn here.

Burns pauses and peers into one waist-deep pool in a shady bend in the river - probably the deepest and coolest patch of water around - and spots a large female chinook salmon and eight or nine pink salmon.

“They’re just holding here, waiting for dark,” he said. “In the coming weeks thousands of fish are going to show up. They’ll wiggle their way up but they’re going to need some help.”

When Swimming Holes Are Bad For Fish

Burns has picked out nine spots in the river where he worries that fish could be blocked in their upstream migration. The tribe will work with the state to channel the river using water bladders and small removable dams so that fish can have enough water to pass.

“Our plan is to start at the lower part of the river and work our way up, improving passage as we go,” Burns explains as he kicks out a rock and log dam that recreational river users made to create a swimming hole. “That’s just enough to stop a fish. On a normal year they’d leap over it; not when it’s this low,” he says.

Burns and others say that during low summer flows people are tempted to block off sections of rivers so they can swim but that’s bad news for stressed-out salmon.

Burns is looking for volunteers to help remove small man-made dams and channel the Dungeness River for fish.

He says, “We’re up against a pretty big task here getting this river opened up.”

Correction. July 22, 2015: An earlier version of this story misquoted biologist Adrian Tuohy's explanation of how warm water affects trout and salmon. Tuohy said the metabolic rates of trout and salmon are so high they can't grow as fast and that affects their survival rates in the ocean.

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Chris Burns, natural resources technician with Washington’s Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, stands in the Dungeness River. Flows are roughly one-third of normal, prompting fears that salmon won’t be able to make it upstream to spawn.

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/EarthFix