Climate change is killing Northwest salmon, scientists warn

With summer fast approaching, local environmentalists are sending a warning about the impact severe heat has on salmon in the Northwest.

Conservationists say more needs to be done to address what climate change is doing to these endangered species.

Salmon in the Pacific Northwest have been in trouble for decades. Harvests for Chinook salmon have plunged in Puget Sound, from over 400,000 a year in 1985 to less than 100,000 today.

To say salmon are iconic species in Washington is almost an understatement. Local scientists warn that a warming climate will only continue to make things worse for this species.

"Salmon are a key species in Puget Sound. They’re kind of like the lynchpin in the middle of the food web that we have," said Duwamish Tribe member James Rasmussen, "we have to keep them around."

Rasmussen said protecting salmon is like taking care of family.  

"When you look at all the animals, especially the ones that are from here, they are like my cousins, aunties and uncles," said Rasmussen.

"We have a lot more work to do, we have to think about what the salmon need," said Jacques White.

White is the executive director of Long Live the Kings, a non-profit that focuses on supporting local salmon.  

"I really think that the state needs to sound the alarm on climate and how that’s impacting salmon," said White. 

Long Live the Kings said that human activity and climate change are making the Lake Washington Ship Canal dangerous and hot for salmon trying to pass through. At the Ballard Locks, experts said overheated salmon are easy prey for harbor seals.

"Salmon are cold water species," said White.

White said that when water temps reach 58 degrees or above, the fish start to get stressed. During our heat wave in June of last year, the water in parts of the Lake Washington Ship Canal spiked to above 72 degrees for over a week.  Waters that warm can be a death sentence for salmon.  

"Juvenile and adult salmon can’t survive at that temperature for very long," said White.

Climate change is also expected to make flooding more intense, and environmentalists worry that rising waters could wash away salmon nests, eggs and juveniles in the gravel.

"For salmon, climate change is like a many-headed beast," said research biologist Dr. Correigh Greene.

Greene's research shows that over the last 170 years, recent salmon harvests have been lower when there were big annual swings in temperatures or river flows.  

"So we’ve seen impacts increasing on precipitation, water temperatures, floods, drought and forest fires and sea level rise along shorelines and ocean conditions," said Greene.

For tribal communities like the Duwamish that have relied on salmon for thousands of years, the fight to help these species in a changing climate is deeply personal.

"So when I think about this, I think of this like a family, they’re part of my family," said Rasmussen.

Moving forward, Long Live the Kings said they want the state to pick up the pace in habitat restoration. The organization also said the state should do everything it can to maintain the diversity of salmon populations and salmon runs. White underscored the importance of managing flow levels and water temperatures in rivers to give salmon more chances.

Finally, White said working towards carbon emissions and focusing on green energy at a local and global scale would make a difference.


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