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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

High Temp Mort 2Rain may once again be falling across areas of the Pacific Northwest, but the record-breaking temperature and drought crisis of 2015 must not be forgotten. In the midst of a heat wave, it’s difficult to ignore what’s occurring around you. As sweat rushes from your pores, your metabolism races inefficiently, increasing oxygen demand—much like a fish in hot water.  It’s an uncomfortable experience that leaves you—and the fish—longing for a more hospitable environment. However, as temperature and precipitation “normalize” this October, it may be easy to forget the unprecedented conditions which resulted in the most devastating wildfire season in U.S history and lethal water temperatures for spawning and rearing salmon and trout.

Last July, Wild Fish Conservancy released a report documenting dangerous conditions to salmon and steelhead in the great majority of Pacific Northwest rivers and streams (link to report). Comparing temperatures at 54 USGS water quality monitoring stations to EPA upper temperature-limit criteria, over 98% of the basins analyzed exhibited conditions adverse to successful spawning and incubation, 91% were detrimental to juvenile growth and rearing, 81% impeded adult migration, and 72% demonstrated lethal conditions to most salmon and steelhead. In light of such shocking results, Wild Fish Conservancy initiated a campaign and sign-on letter (link to letter) which called for management restrictions on fishing to reduce physiological damages to stressed fishes in Pacific Northwest watersheds. (When temperatures are high, any method of fishing—utilizing even the safest handling and release procedures—commonly results in delayed mortality.) This campaign and its associated press-release initiated a ripple effect across regional news media outlets that, in part, resulted in much needed fishing restrictions in over 30 rivers and streams throughout Washington.

Despite the achievement of fishing closures and High Temp Mort 1restrictions that benefited resident trout and spawning and rearing salmon, the response of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was too little and too late. Many fisheries remained open in river systems long after temperatures had created physiologically adverse conditions, increasing risks of direct and indirect mortality. Large fish kill events and pre-spawn mortality (image at right shows adult Columbia river sockeye mortality due to high temps) were reported throughout the region. Although the temperature and drought crisis triggered national media attention and temporary fisheries conservation measures, state and federal agencies—to this day—have failed to implement harvest management policies that account for abnormal water quality and quantity events.

As global climate change accelerates in the future, conditions similar to the unprecedented summer of 2015 are likely to become the “new norm”. With temperatures rising and various salmon and trout populations listed under the Endangered Species Act, fisheries managers can no longer afford to continue making the same mistakes. As a new year approaches, Wild Fish Conservancy is initiating a proactive campaign to implement much needed coast-wide temperature and flow criteria to reduce anthropogenic pressures to fishes during times of severe high temperature and low stream flow. In doing so, fisheries managers may no longer be caught off guard with the onset of another temperature and drought crisis.  

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