Record low flows in coastal rivers have set off alarm bells for state officials and led the National Park Service and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to close some recreational fishing indefinitely.
Chinook, coho and fall chum salmon, steelhead, cutthroat and bull trout should be migrating upriver to their spawning grounds but are instead being held up in the lower river systems, said James Losee, regional program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The low water levels make it more difficult for fish to make the journey.
“Our best guess is that in places like the Quillayute River we’ve got greater than 3,000 Chinook salmon in the lower river when they should be migrating them to the upper system,” he said.
The National Park Service announced it would halt all recreational fishing as of Thursday on the Ozette, Bogachiel, South Fork Calawah, Sol Duc, North Fork Sol Duc, Dickey, Quillayute, Hoh, South Fork Hoh, Queets, Salmon and Quinault rivers.
The Cedar, Goodman, Kalaloch and Mosquito creeks within Olympic National Park are also closed.
As of Saturday, fishing for salmon and all game fish was closed until further notice in most coastal rivers and tributaries, the department of Fish and Wildlife announced.
The announcement comes as the region has seen above average temperatures and low rainfall. Seattle has seen only 0.48 inches of rain from July to September, while the average for that period is 3.16 inches, making this the driest that stretch has been on record.
September is typically the low point for stream flows, said National Weather Service hydrologist Brent Bauer. That coupled with “almost no” rain in the summer and an abnormally dry start to October have depleted Western Washington’s freshwater systems.
In Washington state, 15% of the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge stations were at record lows Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, about 12.5% were at “much below normal.”
At the end of summer, “rivers are running out of gas,” said Jeff Marti, the state Department of Ecology’s statewide drought coordinator.
And the region may not see rain for the next week or more, Bauer said.
The peak of Chinook spawning season is coming up in the next two weeks. They need to find the spawning grounds as soon as possible, otherwise “these fish are going to find places to spawn, whether it’s ideal or not,” Losee said.
If the rain doesn’t show up until mid-November, he said, that could be really concerning for the long-term success of wild salmon on the coast.
“A lot of folks are worried about their fishery and they should be, it’s important to folks,” Losee said. “But there’s this bigger environmental challenge that I think we’re going to be facing for years to come.”