NOAA Fisheries is on the cutting edge of climate-change research when it comes to salmon.
THIS has been an awful year so far for salmon in the Columbia River. Very hot weather in June pushed both the mainstem Columbia and the tributaries that feed it to temperatures they usually do not reach until August. Sockeye salmon that typically return to cool runoff from melting snow in June and July instead hit dangerously warm water, and we lost many of them.
Then comes Pat Ford’s guest opinion column in The Seattle Times [“Dead salmon, climate change and Northwest dams,” Opinion, Aug. 2], trying to turn the disappointing loss of so many salmon into a referendum on climate change and, in particular, to claim that NOAA Fisheries is somehow ignoring climate change when it comes to Columbia River salmon and steelhead. Our studies, analyses and actions on the ground demonstrate that his claims are unfounded.
In fact, NOAA Fisheries stands on the cutting edge of climate-change research when it comes to salmon, as people should expect. Our scientists are providing highly sophisticated tools to analyze and predict how the Northwest climate is changing and how it’s affecting salmon throughout their life cycle. With many regional partners, we are now aggressively implementing strategies to help Northwest salmon withstand the increasing volatility we expect to come with climate change.
These strategies are outlined in the federal program to protect salmon affected by hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers through 2018, and they demonstrate a comprehensive approach:
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• We are pursuing adaptable, responsive strategies. Salmon managers from states, tribes and federal agencies confer with dam operators regularly during the salmon migration and can respond quickly to problems or challenges. This year they released cold water from upstream reservoirs weeks earlier than usual to help cool the rivers and temporarily adjusted powerhouse and spill operations at some Snake River dams to help struggling sockeye make it upstream. We will work with other agencies to consider further improvements. We know that climate change, combined with natural variability, may bring increased volatility, and we must be prepared to adjust operations when necessary. We are.
• We track the latest science. Every year we review the latest science on climate change and salmon, weighing what it means for Northwest fish. Although science cannot tell us precisely what to expect from year to year, many predictions suggest reduced river flows and warmer water temperatures. This year, we saw that in rivers with and without dams. We’re doing just what the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Independent Scientific Advisory Board advised to boost the resilience of salmon to such conditions, including many of the same habitat improvements Pat Ford so summarily dismisses. For instance, the Bonneville Power Administration and other partners are leasing and purchasing cold water from irrigators to keep it in salmon streams that might otherwise have none.
• We give salmon the benefit of the doubt. Climate change will affect fish not only in rivers and streams but in the ocean, where salmon spend most of their lives. We planned for this by assuming an unusually warm ocean dominated by El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, two climate patterns that bode poorly for salmon. The federal program calls for dam and habitat improvements to boost fish survival an extra 11 to 44 percent, depending on the species, to offset the anticipated poor survival in the ocean. Ocean conditions have recently proved better than we assumed, demonstrating that we took an especially cautious approach. In an uncertain future, that is a good thing for fish.
We focus on what works. Biologists examine habitat and other improvements to pinpoint those most effective at addressing rising water temperatures and increasing the resilience of salmon populations to climate change. For example, protecting wetlands and floodplains helps provide cool refuge for fish and store water to offset declining summer flows we anticipate with climate change. Re-opening streams that had been blocked to salmon clears the way for fish to reach higher, cooler elevations where they are more likely to spawn successfully. We and our partners will continue, and even expand, those strategies we know are working.
We must consistently look for ways to better protect salmon as science helps us understand how our climate is changing...”
This has been a very tough year, but we cannot predict the long-term effects of climate change based on one year alone. We must consistently look for ways to better protect salmon as science helps us understand how our climate is changing and how the ecology of the system responds to those changes. We cannot do this alone: landowners, irrigators, tribes, states, power producers, federal agencies, conservation groups and others must all pull together to support salmon during tough years like this one. We’re all in this together, and we invite Pat Ford to join us.