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Scientists see improved ocean conditions for young salmon

The Blob brought warm-water animals to coastal waters, including a veritable invasion of pyrosomes. Research scientists shovel up pyrosomes by the thousands caught in the net of their research vessel off the Northwest coast in 2018. (NOAA Fisheries)
The Blob brought warm-water animals to coastal waters, including a veritable invasion of pyrosomes. Research scientists shovel up pyrosomes by the thousands caught in the net of their research vessel off the Northwest coast in 2018. (NOAA Fisheries)
Seattle Times

Ocean conditions are improving for salmon entering the ocean this year, several years after The Blob, an unusually warm water event that began forming in 2014, scientists announced Friday.

Research surveys in 2018 confirmed tiny animals that stoke the food chain were nice and fatty. Anchovies, an important forage fish, were increasing in number. Sea lion pups were numerous and growing well, and fish-eating sea birds going strong.

However, subsurface sea temperatures were still warmer than average in some areas. Pyrosomes, a warm-water animal that is not supposed to be in Northwest waters, were still numerous.

Forecasts for chinook salmon in 2019 also were for below-average salmon returns to the Columbia River. Extensive ocean acidification and poorly oxygenated waters off both Washington and Oregon also were predicted for this year.

“We are seeing several signs of recovery, but not all of them. We are not quite out of the woods yet,” said Chris Harvey, research biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center of Seattle, in a conference call with reporters.

Conditions for salmon abundance in general, while improving, are still mixed, and the outlook guarded.

Salmon begin their life in freshwater but must fatten and grow at sea before returning to their natal streams. Conditions in the sea greatly affect how many salmon come back for fishermen and killer whales alike.

Lack of food is the single biggest threat to the survival of endangered southern resident killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.

Poor ocean conditions that depress salmon survival have added to the whales’ troubles.

The Blob, a so-called marine heat wave without modern precedent, began forming off the West Coast in late 2014 and over the next several years killed an uncounted number of animals as marine food webs were depleted. It was the most extreme event in at least 20 years in terms of disruption of the ocean food chain, formation of harmful algal blooms and deaths of species.

The heat wave also brought animals to coastal waters not usually seen, including pompano, a tropical species, and pyrosomes, also called sea pickles. Those creatures of warm water arrived off the Oregon and Washington coast in such numbers they fouled fishing gear, and startled scientists pulling them up in survey nets by the thousands.

While conditions are better for salmon heading out to sea this year, that won’t help killer whales already looking thin this season. That is because fish returning to Washington waters are still straggling back from the poor years of ocean conditions from The Blob. Returns of some runs to the Columbia River are forecast in 2019 to be at about half of their 10-year average.

The 4-year-old chinook that southern residents particularly target are forecast to be scarce nearly everywhere across the whales’ vast migratory range from Washington waters into British Columbia.

It’s going to be a tough time for whales such as J17, a matriarch of her clan already so thin she is not predicted to last the year. That is particularly concerning because she helps provision two generations of her family by sharing food and leading them to fish, particularly in poor years.

“We don’t know what is going to happen if we lose J17, we lose her knowledge and experience,” said Michael Weiss, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Exeter in the UK and a field biologist with the Center for Whale Research who is studying the whales’ prey sharing and other social dynamics.

Losing J17 could imperil her son J44 in particular. Male whales are much more likely to die if they lose their mothers because of the close family bonds and support they get from their mothers and other older female whales in their family. Orca families stay together for life.

Scientists were not offering much encouragement regarding better salmon returns for southern residents, based on what they are seeing in the ocean. “Perhaps a little in the years to come; we would have to really wait and see,” said Harvey, of the science center.

A lot of uncertainty remains about just what normal even means anymore, scientists said, for ocean conditions or salmon and other animals in the interconnected web of life.

“One concern we have is whether the next big marine heat wave will come really soon, and not leave time for salmon and other animals to recover,” said Jameal Samhouri, marine ecologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “That is something we are really watching out for. Is this the new normal?”

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