A disturbing new video is highlighting the devastating effect of recent heat waves on Pacific Northwest salmon, which are suffering from lesions and fungus due to rising water temperatures, according to a nonprofit organization working to protect the waterways.
The underwater video shared by Columbia Riverkeeper on Tuesday shows multiple sockeye salmon with large welts and open sores swimming in Washington state’s Little White Salmon River near the Columbia River Gorge on July 16.
“Sockeye are dying right now because the Columbia and Snake rivers are too hot,” Brett VandenHeuvel, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement that blamed thermal stress for the condition of the fish. “I’m hopeful this tragedy will inspire our elected leaders to take action to restore our rivers before it is too late.”
Temperatures in the Columbia River, which originates in Canada and forms part of the Washington-Oregon border, have well exceeded 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which salmon face an increased risk of stress, disease and mortality, according to Columbia Riverkeeper.
“This is a decades-long issue for Oregon, Washington and the Columbia River tribes,” Michelle Dennehy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife told HuffPost in response to the video. “We do have some mortality every year, but we’re expecting it to be worse this year because we have the record drought and the heat.”
Sockeye salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and Oregon, among other states, has been working to improve the fishes’ migratory passage and to identify and protect cool-water fish refuges. The state also recently imposed emergency fishing restrictions for certain river areas after 2 p.m. when high temperatures make the fish particularly vulnerable to stress, said Dennehy.
Oregon, Washington and the Nez Perce Tribe also recently requested that a reservoir in northern Idaho release cold water to help lower temperatures in the Snake River, which runs through Idaho and along the border with Oregon before flowing into Washington. Cold water was released in June to help salmon and steelhead trout ― several weeks ahead of schedule due to extreme heat ― but the federal government declined to do it again, reasoning that it would lead to unsafe boating conditions, Idaho’s Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported.
“The state of Oregon has long said that the federal government is failing fish by not providing adequate fish protections in the federally managed river, and that includes adequate water and cool water,” Dennehy said, warning that it’s not just today’s fish at risk, but future generations.
That’s because sockeye salmon already face numerous risks while attempting to spawn in freshwater streams, rivers and lakes after migrating inland from the ocean.
Adult salmon lay their eggs in these waterways, and one to three years later, the young fish, called smolt, attempt to migrate out to the ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Smolt may never make it to the ocean due to high temperatures and poor habitat conditions along the way,” said Dennehy. “Poor migratory conditions associated with temperature can also cause returning salmon and steelhead to die before they can reach spawning areas, which will impact the next generation of salmon.”
The federal government is failing fish by not providing adequate fish protections in the federally managed river, and that includes adequate water and cool water.
Michelle Dennehy, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
The fish in the video were in an area where they do not spawn, according to Columbia Riverkeeper, suggesting that they had yet to reach the destination where they lay their eggs.
“They can’t even make it to their home, to spawn, to reproduce,” Don Sampson of the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance said in a separate video shared by the Columbia Riverkeeper. “They’re suffocating. They’re weakened.”
Sampson criticized local dams for slowing the flow of water and creating stagnant reservoirs that can overheat. The larger surface area of the water that’s exposed to the sun raises water temperatures as much as 5.7 degrees, according to a 2020 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, which examined the effects of dams on the Snake and Columbia river systems in the Washington state area.
“Regulating water temperature is a huge issue,” said Dennehy. “Unfortunately, with climate change, we are expecting these droughts and heat waves to become more frequent and deadly to fish.”
Unusually warm temperatures have already been blamed for mass salmon deaths and illness.
Earlier this month, salmon in Northern California were reportedly dying from rising water temperatures that threatened the entire local population. In 2015, about 90% of sockeye salmon that entered the Columbia River died from a combination of low water and extended extreme heat that hadn’t been seen since at least the 1950s, The Associated Press reported.
This year’s heat waves have also been particularly brutal, with one marine biologist estimating that 1 billion sea creatures recently cooked to death off Canada’s coast.
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