Mapping fish die-offs in warming waters

Help High Country News identify trouble spots for West Coast fish runs.

 

This year’s brutal heat and drought have meant grim news for the West: cataclysmic wildfires in Washington, contaminated drinking water in California, and the disappearance of Lake Mead, to name but a few Mad Max-like symptoms. 

No one, however, has it worse than fish. Fish, as you are perhaps aware, need water, which is exactly what the West doesn’t have. On the Olympic Peninsula, the Washington Department of Ecology has had to pay crews from the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe to dig out channels and construct diversion dams so that salmon can reenter the Dungeness River. In the Russian River this spring, biologists were forced to rescue baby coho blocked from reaching the ocean by low flows. 

Warm water and low flows have spelled disaster for the West's salmon.
US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The water that remains is often too hot to support salmon and trout. In the Columbia River Basin, where salmon grow stressed at 68 degrees and cease migrating at 74, Al Jazeera reported that some tributaries had warmed to 76 degrees by late July, when a quarter-million sockeye perished. The heat wreaks havoc on the juvenile fish rearing in rivers, too — meaning that the worst impacts might not be felt for years, when wiped-out runs fail to return. 

High temperatures also mean more diseases like gill rot, which is as nasty as it sounds. That’s both because stressed-out fish are more susceptible, and because warm waters are more conducive to the spread of pathogens. In the Klamath Basin, elevated temperatures and low flows appear to be at least partly responsible for outbreaks of Ich, a parasite called “the Ebola of salmon.”

Add it all up, and you’ve got fish catastrophes of epic proportions: The near-extinction of the Delta Smelt. Dozens of unprecedented fishing closures in Oregon and Washington. Precipitous declines in California salmon runs. And, of course, the alarming Columbia sockeye die-off. Name a West Coast river, stream or creek, and its finned inhabitants may well be suffering. "We're going to be losing most of our salmon and steelhead if things continue," UC Davis professor emeritus Peter Moyle recently told the LA Times. While Moyle was referring to California's fish, biologists in Oregon and Washington aren't feeling much more confident themselves. 

Making the situation even bleaker is that drought doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Many populations have already been pushed near their breaking points by dams, water withdrawals and habitat loss. Throw in a tablespoon of water shortage, and you have the recipe for ecological peril. 

To document these unfolding crises, we’ve put together an interactive map depicting a few major trouble spots for the West’s fish. Click on the dots for more information about each situation. If we missed any emergencies (and surely we did), notify us in the comments, or on social media, so we can add it to the map. You’re our eyes and ears on the ground, our partners in understanding our changing aquatic ecosystems.

And don’t worry — there’s still time to take up warm-water bass fishing!

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent at High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty