Recently released salmon forecasts show encouraging signs of progress in 2022 for Washington’s populations in dire need of recovery.
Some runs won’t be as bountiful, but greatly improved ocean conditions mean numbers could be better for fish that are expected to return over the next two to three years. Many salmon returns remain well below 10-year averages and Yakima Basin Fish and Wildlife Board executive director Alex Conley and Yakama Nation Fisheries data manager Bill Bosch said that despite great progress in In terms of habitat restoration, it is difficult to alleviate harsh climatic conditions.
“We’ve had some tough ocean years,” said Alex Conley, executive director of the Yakima Basin Fish and Wildlife Board. “We had tough migration years for adults and smolts in the Columbia and Yakima.”
He will keep a particularly close eye on struggling populations of spring chinook and summer rainbow trout, the outgoing rainbow trout that is included in the state’s salmon forecast. The 2021 returns showed the lowest rainbow trout returns ever recorded in the Columbia and Snake rivers, according to Marisa Litz of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The agency announced its predictions at last Friday’s kick-off meeting for the North of Falcon process used to determine salmon seasons. Tribal co-managers across the state are working with wildlife department officials to hold several town hall meetings — all via Zoom — before adopting official seasons in April
Nearly 200,000 spring chinook are expected to cross the Columbia River in 2022, up from just over 150,000 a year ago. Forecasts call for nearly 100,000 summer rainbow trout for the Columbia, better than a 40% increase from 2021.
The number of spring chinook in Yakima is expected to increase from 2,882 to 4,700. Still, Bosch said that was a far cry from 23,000 in 2001, or even 7,000 in 2017.
“Anything over 10,000 is a pretty exciting comeback,” Bosch said. “Anything over 5,000 would be fine.”
There’s reason to believe it could happen soon, thanks in large part to improving conditions in the ocean, where an area of noxious hot water known as ‘the gout’ appears to have dissipated. . According to indicators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ocean conditions this year are the second best since monitoring began two years ago.
Of course, freshwater conditions also play a vital role, and another winter with average to above average snowfall should provide benefits for future yields. Since the devastating winter drought of 2014-2015, Bosch said river conditions have remained relatively good for outgoing young salmon and rainbow trout, or smolts.
Other challenges may await the fish when they return, especially with droughts and rising temperatures caused by climate change. According to Yakama Nation fisheries biologist Andrew Matala, last summer’s record heat wave in the Pacific Northwest created an early thermal barrier to the Yakima River, limiting the summer run of sockeye salmon to less than 100 fish.
He said when the water is too warm for sockeye salmon to travel up the Yakima River and eventually be transported to their spawning grounds at Cle Elum Lake, they often wait for the river to cool or go to spawn in other tributaries. Disruptions to this normal schedule can have serious consequences for salmon seeking to complete their life cycle by laying eggs in small holes they dig called spawning grounds.
“The other thing that happens is they perish,” Matala said. “They’re running out of energy reserves that are supposed to be spent going upstream and digging spawns in their spawning grounds.”
Similar to the spring forecast for chinook, the wildlife department is predicting a run of nearly 200,000 sockeye, up from not quite 152,000. Matala said it’s nearly impossible to accurately predict how many fish there will be. destined for the Yakima River because they are genetically identical to the Okanogan and Wenatchee stocks.
Fall chinook returns don’t look as promising a year after the actual return of 239,300 ‘upstream bright’ fish returning to areas of the Columbia River above Bonneville Dam fell about 115,000 from forecasts . This year’s projection is even lower at 230,000, well below the 10-year average.
The coho forecast for the Columbia shows a different story, up more than 150,000 from last year’s return to nearly 1 million. That would be double the 10-year average and the biggest streak since 2014, though still well below numbers seen just two decades ago.
Despite this year’s good news and promising near-term future prospects, Bosch warned that variability could be significant if conditions change. Droughts in the mountains and more El Nino years to warm ocean temperatures could be hard to mitigate as the state and tribes work to create more opportunities for fish and for fishing.
The final speaker at last week’s meeting, Margen Carlson, director of the WDFW habitat program, warned that rising freshwater temperatures and Washington’s growing population, among other factors, mean that it will take more resources and a fundamentally different approach to truly change the trajectory of salmon recovery. Department Director Kelly Susewind said until then, Washingtonians can expect restrictions on fishing in the state.
“The reality is that we will reverse the fishing when we reverse the recovery,” Susewind said during the meeting. “We will continue to take every opportunity we can. We must put conservation first.