It’s too early to say for certain, but this year’s warm weather could have a big impact on future salmon runs as well as the animals that rely on the fish for food.
One of these events is a true El Niño — a big one — and brings with it the likelihood of less precipitation and warmer temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.
The other event, the “Blob,” is a warm expanse of water that has persisted off the West Coast for more than a year and only resembles El Niño.
It is an anomaly, a mystery. Formed by a completely different set of circumstances, it has brought about similar results as an El Niño. Scientists believe it could be one reason why Washington has experienced such unusually mild weather since spring 2014. It has certainly warmed the water off the West Coast, driving various ocean species farther north in search of cold water and drawing tropical species to the area.
So there is what everyone knows: The ocean is unusually warm right now and has been for the last two years. When El Niño arrives in full force, the ocean will likely continue to be warm. And warm water is never good for salmon.
Then there are the questions no one can answer yet.
Oregon and Washington are already beginning to see the effects of this big El Niño cycle, though the event itself has yet to arrive in full here in the North Pacific. When the Blob and El Niño meet — as scientists believe they will — what will happen?
And, after this year’s drought, record-breaking heat, massive toxic algal blooms off the West Coast and no snowpack in the mountains, what will life in the ocean look like next year?
Bill Peterson, an oceanographer with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, has a guess: “It’s going to be a nightmare, is what I suspect we’re going to see. … It’s kind of beyond our experience and all we can say is it’s not going to be good.”
Heat up the ocean and many West Coast species begin struggling almost immediately.
Coho salmon, for example, have been “acting strange” this year, said Doug Milward, ocean salmon fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He and others believe the fish are staying out in deeper water, waiting until the very last minute to enter Washington’s river systems where they will spawn. They are waiting for cooler water.
Sockeye, among the first salmon to run from the ocean to rivers and streams, were in trouble early on this season.
In July, more than a quarter million sockeye, approximately half of the 500,000 sockeye expected to return from the ocean, were dead or dying in the Columbia River and its tributaries due to warm water temperatures.
Meanwhile, salmon that were ocean-bound this spring and the ones that will head out next spring will face unknown conditions when they return several years later, but biologists say they are going into conditions that do not favor their survival; warm temperatures mean the salmon’s regular food sources may not be thriving either. The fish leaving next spring, reared in these conditions, may be even worse off. As for fish laid as tiny eggs in stream and river beds this year — no one knows.
Young salmon were certainly in trouble this summer, though. The warm temperatures led to outbreaks of bacterial diseases in hatcheries, killing off hundreds of thousands of young fish in Washington, Oregon and California.
Trouble for orcas?
Beyond salmon, biologists worry what this all could mean for the ocean species that rely on these fish for food.
Orcas often visit the communities near the Columbia River, but this year it seemed like people were spotting them constantly — NOAA wildlife biologist Brad Hanson says the number of sightings are probably not much higher than any other year; people are just paying more attention.
But, he added, salmon are an important part of an orca’s diet, likely one big reason why orcas flock to the region.
“With this year, with the drought occurring coastwide, it certainly is going to have an impact down the road. If not in the next couple of years, certainly in three or four years,” said Hanson, who was the chief scientist for a NOAA killer whale research cruise this spring. “… We are going to enter a period here in the not too distant future where we’re going to have reduced (salmon) run sizes. So the question is: How will the whales respond?”
Orcas must eat continuously. They can’t starve for extended periods of times the way other ocean mammals can, such as gray whales, living off fat reserves.
Orcas eat many kinds of fish, so Hanson and other biologists believe the large mammals could travel elsewhere for food. As the salmon change where and when they travel, the orcas might follow.
Still, Hanson added, if orcas are eating fish other than salmon, as the data suggests, how abundant is this other prey?
“It’s going to be critical for us to monitor that as best we can in the coming years,” he said.
In the meantime, salmon fishing has been strong this summer. The Buoy 10 sport fishery near the mouth of the Columbia River ended with record catch rates, surpassing last year’s total catch within the opening weeks. Commercial fishing on the ocean has been brisk and conditions near shore have been normal, or as normal as the ocean, a shifting, swirling black box, ever is.
“When I look at this, I don’t see the warning signs I saw in the ’90s,” Milward said.
In the early ’90s, it was quickly becoming obvious that they were fishing on a very small pool of fish and that there were issues in the wide world beyond: climate shifts and damaged freshwater habitat.
“It’s been a wonderful fishing year in the ocean where I manage,” Milward said.
But it is in the areas beyond his management where he begins to worry.
From a human point of view, communities in Oregon and Washington had a beautiful spring and summer, the best longtime locals can remember.
For many, though, the summer’s beauty was marred by massive wildfires and drought. And with no snowpack to fuel streams and rivers in Washington and little rain, streams and rivers are running at an all time low. In June, the Washington Department of Ecology reported that the state’s snowpack was at zero percent of normal. Though there was still snow at higher elevations and in the glaciers, rivers and streams did not receive the boost they’d normally get from melting snow high in the mountains.
State and tribal fishery managers went into the summer worried about the effects of low-flow conditions on salmon-bearing streams and rivers in the Columbia Basin, conditions that can hamper fish passage and lead to high water temperatures (adding another stress on fish already stressed from their migration inland from the ocean). High temperatures and low flow can lead to less oxygen and put salmon more at risk of bacterial or fungal infection.
“I mean, those fish in the ocean now have no idea that we had no snowpack in the winter and no rain in the summer,” Milward said. The salmon are headed toward areas where “their native stream looks more like a creek than river.”
Red light, green light
Each year, Peterson and other NOAA scientists gather information that informs how fisheries will be run in the next season. They look at more than a dozen different indicators of ocean and fish health. They look at what is in the water, and they note what is missing. For each indicator, they put a red light or a green light next to it. Just like with traffic signals, green light means go. In the 1998 El Niño, all the indicators were red: Stop! In 2008, everything was green. In years where there’s a mix of red and green, it means, Peterson said, “basically we don’t know what’s going on (in the ocean).”
This year, he and state and federal fishery managers are ready for everything to come back red.
“I’m guessing redder than anything we’ve seen before,” Peterson said.
But the ocean is vast, he added, and scientists’ predications have been wrong before. “This could be an environmental disaster, or a blip on the screen that we forget in a couple of years.”
This year, sockeye — the salmon that had half of its total run wiped out by warm water when returning to the Columbia River and its tributaries — found other places to spawn. They ran up streams they’d never used before, streams where the water was still cold, where their young might survive.
To Peterson, salmon are a metaphor for resiliency.
“If you think about what they’ve put up with for the last 50 years and we still have them,” he said. “… They will find a way.”