North Jetty fishermen

A fisherman prepares to cast into the pool between North Jetty and Jetty “A”, a popular spot when fishing seasons are open — which they now are not.

In an ordinary time, this year’s predictions of continuing poor salmon returns would get more attention. With the coronavirus pandemic going on, some environmental and conservation priorities are being shoved to one side. But even while dealing with our own life-and-death issues, we can’t let salmon runs go extinct.

Salmon news isn’t quite as bleak as it could be. An April 7 report to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council Fish and Wildlife Committee (www.nwcouncil.org/sites/default/files/2020_04_f3.pdf) includes predicted upticks in return numbers for some Columbia/Snake runs. Overall, 2020 predictions are for a total of just over 1 million salmon and steelhead, up from about 730,000 in 2019.

More often than not in recent years, preseason predictions have failed to pan out. But even if 2020’s slightly better returns do actually happen, the year will be among the worse four in the past 20 years. As recently as 2014, it seemed possible the salmon crisis might be easing, with Chinook showing particular strength. Since then, it has been down, down, down. Coho are really struggling. Only about 211,000 returned to the Columbia last year and 145,000 are predicted this year. Just 23,500 hatchery coho were retained by Buoy 10 fishermen last year, along with 11,200 Chinook.

Nor is the Pacific salmon problem very likely to improve in the near future. The authoritative Columbia Basin Bulletin headlined a story last week, “I don’t see it getting better any time soon,” referring to a federal scientist’s review of warm offshore waters and their impacts on salmon. “Conditions in the ocean have not been good for several years — 2020 returns are expected to be less than the 10-year mean,” Brian Burke, NOAA research fishery biologist, said.

A warmer Pacific Ocean is, in important ways, a less nutritious home for salmon and many other species. Eight ocean conditions monitored by NOAA were rated poor over the course of 2019 and seven were only fair. The only thing doing well in the ocean during this recent monitoring were copepods — a group of tiny crustaceans that live in the water column, and which serve as a vital foundation of the food chain.

Beyond natural cycles like Pacific Decadal Oscillation and El Niño, oceans are soaking much of the heat and the carbon dioxide humans are emitting into the atmosphere. Confronted with the need for a concerted global response to climate change, our region feels close to powerless.

What we can control

Ongoing research and close monitoring of conditions are always wise. NOAA’s Burke urged the council, as we often have, to improve efforts to understand what’s happening to salmon in the ocean since it’s “where salmon spend most of their life, they gain most of their adult size, adult abundance is largely determined, each species behaves differently, and we understand the least.” It’s especially important to gain a better understanding of everything that eats salmon out in the ocean, something Burke calls “a major data gap.”

Although we think of salmon splitting their time between fresh and saltwater, only for sockeye is the time about equal. Spring Chinook spend about 60% of their lives in the ocean, coho about 65%, pink about 80%, fall Chinook about 85% and chum about 90%. This imbalance means we can do many things right in terms of estuary and river health, and yet still fail to restore salmon.

While “we can’t manage the ocean,” Burke stressed factors that we can control or influence. Predator abundance is one of them, and includes recent enlargement of efforts to manage sea lion populations that are well above historic norms. Beyond this, three factors clearly improve ocean survival and return rates: the size of fish hatcheries produce, how many they release and how releases are timed. (Young salmon do better in the ocean when they are larger and depart the river earlier in the spring.) These smarter rearing practices cost money but are achievable.

It’s also better understood now that healthy salmon runs are highly dependent on healthy stocks of ocean forage fish like herring, sardines, smelt, mackerel and anchovies. We have tended to over harvest these species when they are abundant and otherwise ignore them. We can do far better.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife closed all recreational fisheries on March 25, including Columbia River salmon and steelhead fishing, to discourage travel during the covid-19 emergency. Depending on the length of the closure, it may provide some additional insight into the role of fishing in larger-scale questions about salmon population health.

The covid-19 crisis will eventually end. The salmon crisis is far from over.

See Burke’s PowerPoint slides at https://www.nwcouncil.org/sites/default/files/2020_04_f2.pdf.

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