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Warm Waters, Low Rivers Linked to Poor Steelhead Numbers

Factors such as low runoff from snowmelt could be contributing to low steelhead numbers this summer. (Joseph/flickr)
Factors such as low runoff from snowmelt could be contributing to low steelhead numbers this summer. (Joseph/flickr)
August 30, 2016

SEATTLE - The number of steelhead making their way up the Columbia River and into its Northwest tributaries has fallen far below predictions this season. The migration of "A-run" steelhead from the ocean to freshwater is wrapping up through Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River Gorge, and the count is about half of the 10-year average.

Jim Murphy, senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation, said the emerging trend of warmer waters in the Northwest are most likely contributing to the drastic decline in numbers.

"It is likely attributed to the fact that the waters are getting warmer," he said. "Often times the streamflow gets lower at periods of the year when it used to be higher. We're seeing things like snowmelt occurring earlier, ending sooner."

B-run steelhead, which spend a longer time in the ocean before returning to freshwater to spawn, are returning now. However, it is too early to know what numbers will look like for this season.

Bob Rees, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, also said the low numbers are likely from poor water conditions, such as a pocket of unusually warm water that lingered near the Pacific coast last summer, often referred to as "the Blob," and the low amount of runoff from snowmelt. He said keeping an eye on fish such as steelhead in the Northwest can provide a picture of the health of the environment.

"We kind of call them our canary in the coal mine," he said. These are fish that have very broad home ranges, both in fresh water and in salt water, and their health is really an indication about how our environment is faring over time."

Murphy said climate change has a hand in low steelhead counts, and that there is something we can do to help future generations thrive.

"We've got to reduce the carbon pollution emissions that we have and keep the level of warming under control," he added. "We can do that but we have to move very quickly to get off of polluting sources of energy and get clean sources of energy online quickly."

Murphy added that protecting forests and wetlands in the Northwest is important to naturally cooling water sources for the fish.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA