During this scorching summer season of drought and parched earth, the region’s pervasive wildfires have received the bulk of the spotlight.
That focus is appropriate enough given the destructive nature, mind-staggering size and awe-inspiring visuals created by the reckless walls of flames as they incinerate, in some cases, thousand-year-old trees.
However, there is another sad story brewing just beneath the surface of our area rivers, and it is killing the fish.
This drought began long before the rain stopped falling and the mercury in thermometers rose. The drought started in the mountains this winter and now it has finally reached the lowland drainages across the region. Rivers that are typically fed by cold coursing flows of snow and glacial melt are this year barely scraping by on pitiful volumes of sun-warmed surface water.
As a result, some rivers, including stretches of the Columbia River, have been experiencing water temperatures as high as the upper 70s.
The prized fish of the Pacific Northwest are precisely adapted to their environment and they are highly susceptible to even subtle changes. Salmonids in particular become stressed once the water noses above 68 degrees F, and they cease their migrations at 74 degrees.
“A lot of people are concerned about what the conditions this summer and fall will mean for our fish and fisheries,” noted WDFW Drought Coordinator Teresa Scott in an email.
The salmon and sturgeon of our area are not suited to the paltry flows of bathtub-warm water that now plague the region. As a result the fish are increasingly winding up stranded, diseased, or simply washing ashore dead.
“A lot of salmon are getting sick with bacterial and fungal diseases because of the high water temperatures they are experiencing,” explained Scott. “Some migrations have been interrupted because streams are too warm for salmon to enter. In some places, flow is low enough that some fish will have difficulty migrating upstream, even if water temperatures (are) tolerable.”
As part of a concerted effort to help the fish along, a number of regulation changes have already been implemented on rivers across the state. Earlier this month, 30 rivers in Washington, including the Washougal and East Fork Lewis rivers in Southwest Washington, were subjected to closures or regulation adjustments in order to limit controllable pressures on the fish. Oregon simultaneously implemented a similar list of amendments.
One regulation change allows for the harvest of un-clipped chinook on the lower Columbia River. Unclipped salmon are generally required to be released as part of a strategy to increase wild populations of the federally protected fish.
This summer though, the warm water temperatures have inflated mortality rates of caught and released fish to the point that the WDFW deemed it preferable to allow anglers to keep whichever chinook they catch first. The daily limit was subsequently reduced to one chinook per day.
Other regulation changes included the so called “Hoot-Owl” restrictions, which are meant to keep anglers from pulling fish out of the river during the hottest parts of the day. Any river under “Hoot-Owl” rules is closed to fishing from 2 p.m. until midnight.
On the Columbia River, sturgeon retention has been closed down indefinitely after more than 80 oversize sturgeon were found dead and washed ashore upriver from Bonneville Dam. That closure and mass die-off came two weeks ago when the river temperature in the Bonneville Pool was hovering at 73 degrees, nearly 10 degrees above its year-to-date average.
A strong run of Columbia River sockeye salmon is also being punished by the tepid water. About half of the returning fish, which were supposed to number 500,000, have already died, and it is feared that up to 80 percent of the run could ultimately perish short of their spawning grounds. As a result sockeye retention has been closed on the upper Columbia River.
Around that same time, 100 spring chinook were found stranded and dead on the Middle Fork John Day River. Elsewhere, reports have surfaced telling of WDFW employees and concerned citizens bucketing or hand carrying stranded fish upriver of stream blockages in order to prevent imminent deaths.
While the warm water has jackknifed river migrations, it also seems to be drawing fish in from the ocean earlier than normal. Coho in the lower Columbia River began showing up in such large numbers that the WDFW put a moratorium on their harvest until Aug. 1.
“We didn’t expect to see coho salmon arrive in the Columbia River in July, so our initial regulations didn’t specifically preclude catching them,” said Ron Roler, WDFW fishery manager, in a press release.
“Warm water temperatures typically slow salmon migration,” added Roler. “Then again, this isn’t a typical summer for fish management.”
Nobody from the WDFW would comment on the possibility of additional regulation changes on local rivers — including the Chehalis and Cowlitz — so anglers and concerned citizens will need to stay tuned for any impending adjustments to the local fisheries.
Ocean fishing is one area where things seem to be holding steady.
According to Butch Smith, president of the Ilwaco Charter Association, there has been no talk of shuttering ocean fishing. Those fisheries are managed under strict quota regulations and so far the fishing has been “very good.”
“It is a lot different when they get into the rivers,” explained Smith. “Warm water is a big stress factor and then you add all kinds of fishing activity on top of that (and) the fish can't take it.”
Counterintuitively, some local anglers believe that the current river conditions could in fact improve angling success this year, so long as the rivers stay open.
Cameron Black, owner of Gone Catchin’ guide service out of Woodland, said, “Truth be told it’s actually, in some situations, making the fishing insanely better."
According to Black, “Less water for the fish to move in means less area to look to find them in. Some of the restrictions on other rivers have been in response to the fact that it’s just too easy to target them.”
Black anticipates that the rest of the salmon fishing on the lower Columbia River this summer and fall, at least until the serious rains come, will be highly concentrated around the mouths of the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers. Those tributaries are staying relatively cool as they pump high-country sourced water down to the Columbia. When those rivers reach the Columbia, they create a cool pool of water where migrating fish cluster for a breather.
The concentrated fish and subsequent fishing efforts may prove to be a boon for anglers in possession of a 2015 Columbia River license endorsement, but spiked harvest rates and high mortality rates will likely come full circle in four to seven years when the spawn of this year’s returning salmonids would be due to make their own run home from the ocean.
According to Black, the restrictions and closures on Washington’s rivers haven’t had much of an impact on the charter and guide industry so far since most of the affected rivers are relatively small, and thus they are not prime destinations for paying customers.
"The Cowlitz and Columbia are dam-fed, so the chance that they get shut down before we get rain are slim to nil,” said Black, who has spent all of July chartering his boat out in Marine Area 1 because he didn’t want to target chinook in the warm river water.
“That decision kind of bit me in the butt,” once they opened up chinook harvest to unmarked fish, noted Black.
"I think by mid-September if we don't see any rain that there could be some more closures,” added Black. “By then I'd imagine that we'd have some rain, if not we could see some change."
The biggest blip on the angling radar these days is a regulation change set to take place on Aug. 1 near the mouth of the Columbia River.
On that day fishing is set to be extended from the Astoria-Megler Bridge downriver to Buoy 10.
With coho lurching into the Columbia already, and the bulk of coho that captains like Black have encountered, it stands to reason that a large swell of fish are lurking at or near the mouth of the river already.
“Guys fishing above the bridge have been knocking the freaking crap out of them right now,” gushed Black.
“The fish are coming in (from the ocean) and just stopping. They’re pausing.”
A large incoming tide that will push hordes of those precipice fish past the river threshold is expected to coincide with the opening of the lower most stretch of the Columbia River.
“That’s right where we will be,” proclaimed Black. “I have a very strong feeling that when they open that area on Aug. 1 that it’s going to be a slaughter.”
Black’s only concern is that the hot fishing could tax the fishery quota too quickly.
As fishery managers and anglers try to keep pace with the evolving conditions of the local rivers many observers have wondered if this type of weather and the subsequent fisheries management will become part of a new normal for this typically verdant and well irrigated region.
Teresa Scott shares those worriers.
“Clearly, the fate of salmon fishing is tied to the fate of salmon populations. We have several runs of salmon listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, and that alone should be telling us that more needs to be done to improve conditions for salmon.”
Scott then added, “Salmon have survived anomalous climate/weather periods in the past, so while we can expect short-term effects to numbers of returning fish and to fisheries, it would be premature to try to project into the future based on this one drought year.”
Conceding that this year’s conditions may be a harbinger for the future, Scott surmised, “I would not characterize climate change as something to be feared, but rather as something to prepare for and adapt to.”