Perfect Storm is Brewing

If you haven’t seen the movie “Perfect Storm”, I recommend you rent it, stream it, etc.  It’s a good flick about some commercial fisherman on the eastern seaboard that get caught out at sea when two major storm systems collide.  But this isn’t about the movie.  The storm I’m talking about is coming our way in the form of the current drought and the forming of an El Nino in the Pacific.

Sea surface temperature during an El Niño event.

This link to NOAA Fisheries site has some great information about El Nino conditions that I won’t detail here.  Let’s just suffice to say that it’s bad news for Pacific Salmon and Steelhead.  El Ninos occur pretty regularly.  Warmer water than normal moves up the coasts of South, Central and North America and impact all inhabitants of the Pacific Ocean – from the bottom of the food chain to the top.  The El Nino forming now is expected to be very strong – one of the warmest in the past 50 years.  For Salmon and Steelhead, it means less forage fish (food) and a condensed environment.  Generally salmon and steelhead experience reduced growth and increase mortality during an El Nino.

This is the rotten cherry on top of a crappy ice cream sundae.

Here in the Willamette Valley we started 2015 with a decent run of Wild Winter Steelhead.  Those fish came in, spawned and the survivors (kelts) started heading back to the Pacific Ocean.  As their eggs started incubating, the drought kicked in, the rivers started dropping, leaving many steelhead eggs high and dry, never to hatch.  That was just the start of what is turning out to be a year of bad news when it comes to fish.

Next batter up were the Spring Chinook Salmon.  We had an awesome run of fish this year – over 50,000 come over the falls through June.  The only problem was that those fish ran head on into low, warm water here in the valley and things crashed.  Not a single salmon has passed Willamette Falls since June 30th.  (One smart steelhead actually turned around and went back down the fish ladder and headed back to the ocean). Thousands of them have died in the past couple weeks before ever making it to their natal stream.  You see this die off happen even in a “normal” year, but usually in August, not June.

And finally we come to Summer Steelhead, an introduced species to the Valley.  They didn’t even bother to show up.  Normally we’d see 20,000 -25,000 enter the Willamette Basin – this year – of the 600,000 smolts planted 4 years ago – 2,600 adult fish or so graced us with their presence.  Who knows what happened over the past 4 years of their life-cycle to cause that……

Meanwhile, the ODFW has continued to feed the system with hatchery salmon and steelhead.  Five million or so feeding machines from the Willamette Sub-Basin are headed towards the salt as you read this.  (A good percentage probably won’t survive the Willamette and Columbia portion of their journey though).

So here comes the Little Boy (El Nino) to slam the door on an already rough year for our fish.  Three or four cycles are already out there that will be hit hard.  This years releases will be there soon enough and find things pretty tough. Wild species will take a hit.  They’ve been hanging on by the skin of their teeth as it is.  Competing with the hatchery crowd for space, food and spawning grounds.  Warmer water inland, condensed habitat due to low water, and now an ocean (where they spend the majority of their life) that’s warmer and contains less food.  It don’t look good folks,  It is a perfect storm and it’s going to be a killer.

I liken the situation to musical chairs.  There are 100 participants (90 hatchery raised and 10 wild), but only 99 chairs in a typical year.  The music stops and somebody looses a chair.  Well this year with the Little Boy running the show, there are still 100 participants, but only 25 chairs to choose from when the music stops.  What are the chances that the wild participants will have a seat?  Pretty slim.

It’s time for a shift in the way we manage our fish.  Managing for harvest (of hatchery raised fish) at the expense of wild and native species is bad policy and needs to change.  Supplementation of lost/low runs is one thing and has a place.   But it’s past time to put wild species first.  Only add fish to systems that can support both wild and hatchery fish.  And for crap’s sake, stop throwing more fish at the problem.  We’re flushing money down the toilet and dragging the wild salmon and steelhead along with it.

Let’s face it, we’re going to have fewer fish in the coming years.  That impacts all the major groups – commercial fleets, tribal fleets and sport anglers alike.  None of us will escape the storm unharmed.  But rough times can also bring with them the opportunity to step back and examine the situation closer.

Let’s look at what the “system” can support and go for quality rather than quantity.  If the North Pacific Ocean can only support X number of fish, then let’s manage for 75% of X, leaving some headroom for natural growth.  Then let’s look at each individual river system and figure out what they can support.  If there is a wild run of fish that has the potential to be impacted by hatchery planting, then stop planting fish and let the wild fish have some room to repopulate the system.

I’m not a fisheries biologist and I don’t know what “X” is, but there are some smart folks out there that can figure that out.  I’m just a dumb Idaho farm kid, but even I know that you can’t put 300 cows on 1 acre of grass pasture and expect them all to survive there for the next 4 years.  Your pasture will be bare dirt within a week and all 300 cows will die.

Tight Lines and Keep em Wet!



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