LEWISTON – Ocean conditions have improved and returns of adult fish are pulling out of a yearslong nose dive, but wild salmon and steelhead that return to Washington state and beyond continue to struggle.
The fish face traditional threats like migration mortality and delays caused by hydroelectric dams and degradation of spawning and rearing habitat. But they are also increasingly challenged by climate change. That’s the conclusion of Washington’s State of Salmon in Watersheds report, released earlier this week.
“Salmon face hazards at every phase of their lives,” said Erik Neatherlin, director of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Salmon Recovery Office, in a news release. “Wetter winters and more flooding brought on by climate change, combined with limited habitat for young salmon to eat and grow, are flushing young fish out of their gravel nests before they are big enough to survive. As they travel to the ocean, they face polluted waters, barriers to migration, food web issues and increased predators from birds to fish. In the ocean, global and regional shifts in ocean temperature and acidity is interfering with their ability to find food and avoid predators. On their way home from the ocean, they are met with even more barriers to survival, including hotter streams, risk of disease, blocked rivers, and sea lions and seals trying to eat them. That is why it requires all of us to work together to give salmon any chance of survival.”
The report notes that 10 of the 14 salmon and steelhead species in Washington that are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act continue to decline. It says Snake River spring chinook, Puget Sound chinook, Lake Ozette sockeye, Puget Sound steelhead and upper Columbia River spring chinook are in crisis. Steelhead in the Snake River, and the mid- and upper Columbia River, along with lower Columbia River chinook and Columbia River chum, are “not keeping pace” according to the report.
It’s not all bad news. Coho and steelhead from the lower Columbia River are showing some signs of improvement and Snake River fall chinook and summer run chum from Hood Canal are trending toward recovery goals. Some runs of hatchery fish – like spring, summer and fall chinook and summer steelhead – continue to provide regular fishing opportunities.
But spring chinook that return to places like the Tucannon River are struggling. In 2021, only 25 wild spring chinook and just 50 hatchery chinook returned to the river that spills out of the Blue Mountains. Similarly, only a handful of spring chinook return to Asotin Creek on the other side of the Blues.
Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition based in Seattle, said wild fish advocates have grave concern for the fish.
“I don’t think one can overstate that word about the status and trends for salmon in the Pacific Northwest and the Columbia Snake River system,” he said. “The report properly recognizes already-struggling populations are getting further squeezed by climate and other impacts.”
There is reason for optimism, Bogaard said. He noted that recent legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes significant funding for things like removing culverts and other barriers that impair fish migration, repairing damaged estuary habitats and investing in the country’s hatchery system.
“These fish are amazingly resilient when you give them the rivers and streams they need,” he said. “And we have emerging leadership in the region and in (Washington) D.C. that we haven’t seen before.”
The report is available at stateofsalmon.wa.gov.