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NW Fish Survival Tested By Warm Waters And Low Stream Flows

Ashley Ahearn

River levels around the Northwest are dropping as the drought continues - and the water’s getting warmer.
That’s a problem for salmon. Wildlife managers in Washington and Oregon have limited fishing to certain times of day and closed some rivers altogether. But some say that’s not enough to help struggling fish.

It’s really quiet in the fishing gear aisle at Swain’s General Store in Port Angeles.

Wally Butler: "Nobody’s been fishing."

Wally Butler works here and has lived (and fished) on the Olympic Peninsula all his life.

Wally Butler: "Never seen a year where it’s been this dry....Nothing like it used to be."

The rivers here are lower than anyone can remember. Most people are sticking to the ocean to catch salmon. So, the shelves of lures, floats and flyfishing supplies are full.

Wally Butler: "You can see they’re packed. Not much has moved off the shelf. So it’s affected us a lot."

Butler says sales of fishing gear are down 50%, which is hard, but…

Wally Butler: "You almost feel sorry for the fish because there is no water. You almost gotta let ‘em have their chance to reproduce or there won’t be any fish."

When water temperatures go above 60 degrees, salmon start to get stressed, lethargic and susceptible to disease. Some rivers are already seeing temperatures in the mid-70s, and fish kills have been reported in Oregon.

The Wild Fish Conservancy in Washington looked at federal temperature data from 54 rivers on the west coast, and got some disturbing results. Adrian Tuohy is a biologist with the group.

Adrian Tuohy: "We found that the majority of the rivers and streams that we analyzed in WA, OR and CA have reached temperatures that are lethal to salmon. We’re talking 72% of the rivers and streams that we analyzed."

The Wild Fish Conservancy says fishing should be closed in all rivers that go above 64 degrees.

Adrian Tuohy: "We’re going to see a lot of fish that are lost, if not directly, indirectly, through this heat crisis. So we need to allow as many fish as possible to move upstream."

Ahearn on tape: "I’m crossing the Dungeness River and it is about ankle deep right now. You can see all the scuzzy rocks, very low flow, and Chris Burns looking for fish."
Chris Burns: “Yeah, they’ll be able to come up around this shallow riffle below here and make it through this spot, hopefully."

Chris Burns is with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe here on the Olympic Peninsula. He’s mapped out this river and ID’d almost a dozen spots - like this one - where the water is getting too low for fish to pass on their way upstream to spawn.

We come to a spot where people blocked the river with rocks and logs to make a small swimming hole.

Chris Burns: “That’s just enough to stop a fish”

Burns starts kicking the mini dam down.

We keep moving upriver, looking for salmon.

Chris Burns: "There’s some fish right there. See that grayish blue patch?
Ahearn on tape: "Oh yeah, totally see them like shadows under there."
Chris Burns: "Yeah."

About a dozen salmon are huddled in a pocket of chest-deep water - it’s the deepest stretch of the river we’ve seen so far. Two bald eagles swoop nearby, probably anticipating an easy meal.

Chris Burns: "There’s a chinook in there too. See that big one in the middle, going up. I just saw it move next to the rocks here, move out. They’re just holding, waiting for dark to continue on upstream."

These salmon haven’t made it very far upriver. If flows continue to drop, they may get stuck here.

And they’re the early arrivals - more than a million pink salmon are expected to clog this shrinking river, and others, in the coming weeks.

Chris Burns and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe will be working with the state to move rocks and debris so fish can get through. He says the fish can use all the help they can get right now.