As the Northwest drought creates low flows and high temperatures in the region’s rivers, migrating salmon are getting some aid.
A record run of 1.3 million pink salmon is forecast to return to the Olympic Peninsula’s Dungeness River, a waterway running at record low flows that make it difficult for the fish to push upstream to spawn.
Their plight has prompted humans to lend a hand.
In an effort that began Monday, crews have been wading in the Dungeness and rearranging rocks to deepen channels to help the pinks — and hundreds of chinooks — make their way through the river.
“This is a run forecast like we’ve never seen in a year when the river is like we’ve never seen,” said Aaron Brooks, a biologist with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. The tribe has helped organize the salmon aid effort with help from the state Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Washington Conservation Corps.
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The work requires a lot of muscle power.
Salmon hold in the deeper pools. So crews, clad in rubber waders, spent long hours last week under a hot sun using shovels and bare hands to move rocks about, deepening the shallow spots.
The Dungeness River work, which is funded with a $74,430 grant from the state Department of Ecology, is part of a broader push across the state to assist salmon and steelhead. A fierce drought caused by both a low winter snowpack and a dearth of spring and summer rains has created difficult freshwater conditions for the fish.
Other efforts around the state include harnessing the canals of the Kittitas Reclamation District to transport water to fish-bearing streams that were running dry. After disease broke out in warm water at the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers joined with state and tribal officials to truck 250,000 still-healthy fingerlings to cooler waters at the Colville Confederated Tribes’ Chief Joseph hatchery.
The Dungeness River runs for more than 30 miles from sources in the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In some areas, the water has been only ankle-deep.
The shallow passage creates the most serious problems for the larger and scarcer chinook, also known as king salmon, which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
By far the biggest numbers of salmon are the smaller pinks. Biologists have been concerned that they could stack up in the lower river and try to spawn there, rather than making it upstream to cooler waters.
“We’re trying to centralize the flows so that they have a bit more water to get up,” said Brooks, the tribal fishery biologist. ”You’ve got to play with it until it looks right.”
Sometimes, the crews’ labors have had a quick payoff.
In one shallow spot improved this past week, dozens of salmon sped up through the passage as soon as it was formed, Brooks said.
The progress of the salmon will be monitored in the days ahead, and more work can be done if fish don’t make headway up the river.
Biologists are now questioning whether the pink run will meet the big preseason forecasts because the initial numbers entering the river are falling short of expectations.
“They could be staying out because of the low flows,” said Randy Cooper, a state Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist.
Elsewhere in the region, strong runs of salmon are pushing into rivers.
That’s produced some fishing hot spots where chinook are gathering, such as near the mouth of the Columbia River. But other areas, such as Olympic National Park, have been closed for recreational fishing to protect fish stressed by the heat and low flows.
Sockeye have faced some of the biggest challenges reaching spawning grounds as they struggle to pass through the warm waters of the Columbia and its tributaries.
More than 510,000 sockeye, for example, made it past Bonneville Dam on the Lower Columbia, the third-largest run since the dam was built. About 350,000 of those fish were bound for the Okanogan River on the way to spawn in Canada.
But many of those sockeye have perished in warm waters.
Jeff Fryer, a biologist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, estimates that, in a best-case scenario, only about 60,000 will make it to the Canadian spawning grounds.
“Realistically, you could be looking at pretty bleak times on the (sockeye) spawning grounds,” Fryer said. “It’s a tough migration for these fish, and this year it was a lot tougher.”
An estimated 45,000 sockeye that spawn in North Central Washington were able to reach Lake Wenatchee. But the sport fishery had to be shut down when state biologists found that wild chinook, protected under the Endangered Species Act, were being caught by fishermen.
These chinook were holding in the cool lake water rather than heading up to the streams where they normally spawn.
“The tributaries were just too warm,” said Jeff Korth, a state Department of Fish & Wildlife regional fish manager. “They (the chinook) are determined to survive.”