LEWISTON – Much-improved conditions off the Oregon coast may signal a reprieve for Snake River and Columbia River salmon and steelhead that have endured a string of lean years in the northern Pacific Ocean.
According to scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2021 posted the second-best ocean condition score across a 24-year dataset and was the best year on record in one key category – the density of northern copepods. The tiny, energy-rich organisms are packed with lipids and, when abundant, can cause an explosion of growth for dozens of species.
“It’s those lipids that are really important for the energy at the base of the food chain,” said Jennifer Fisher, a scientist at the NOAA’s Northwest Science Center who tracks ocean conditions off the coast of Newport, Oregon. “It just translates up the food chain.”
That should mean when juvenile salmon and steelhead flushed out of the Columbia River and into the ocean last spring and summer, they found plenty to eat. The good ocean conditions – which include cold water and abundant upwelling – often lead to higher than average survival for salmon and steelhead during their time in salt water, and thus higher freshwater returns.
If the improved conditions produce a survival bump, it should first be reflected later this year with the return of jack spring chinook, coho salmon and A-run steelhead that spend just one year in salt water. But the bigger payoff could be in 2023 when adult spring and fall chinook salmon and B-run steelhead return home after two or more years at sea.
That is what happened after 2008, the best ocean condition year on record. More than 300,000 steelhead and 88,000 jack spring chinook were counted at Lower Granite Dam in 2009 and adult spring chinook returned in abundant numbers in 2010.
“There is certainly some optimism all along the West Coast and in the Columbia basin given the conditions we are seeing out in the ocean,” said Lance Hebdon, fisheries bureau chief for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston. “We hit the bottom a year or two ago and we may have a little breathing room in the future. The proof will be in adult returns.”
For David Johnson, director of the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management, the change in ocean fortunes couldn’t have been better timed. Last year, the tribe found 42% of wild Snake River spring chinook populations and 19% of wild steelhead are tipping toward extinction.
“It is really a blessing that the ocean is looking like it does,” Johnson said. “We are just really happy about that.”
He wants the region to move swiftly so fisheries managers can take advantage of expected higher returns of wild spring and summer chinook salmon from places like the middle and south forks of the Salmon River. Johnson and the tribe has advocated for taking a portion of those fish – protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act – and placing them in an emergency hatchery program. Under the tribe’s plan, the hatchery would be located in the lower Columbia River so the fish would not have to contend with dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
“I feel like we have to race to get something done knowing there is going to be a downturn, that the climate is changing and we have to deal with that,” he said. “Having more fish back certainly kind of puts us in a different place relative to harvest. There may be some semblance of a fishery. But relative to the wild populations we have been so concerned about, I think this is a sign we’ve got to get off our duff and get going and do what we can while we have some fish on hand.”
Fisher said how long the good conditions will last is anybody’s guess. In decades past, ocean conditions have been cyclical and fairly reliable but they have become more erratic of late, possibly a symptom of climate change.
Johnson fears a return of poor conditions that started with a marine heat wave known as The Blob in 2014. The warm water hammered salmon and steelhead runs up and down the West Coast. Starting then and continuing into the following six or so years, Fisher said southern copepods that are smaller and lower in lipids dominated coastal waters. Returns of salmon and steelhead were largely below average and in some years were dismal.
“Fingers crossed,” Fisher said, that “maybe we are going into a longer (good ocean) cycle or maybe we have broken a warm cycle and may now get a few years of decent ocean conditions.”
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