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Three of a flotilla of boats with anglers aboard congregates on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Chelan River on Thursday, July 8, 2021, a week into the Summer Chinook salmon fishing season. The daily limit is two adult fish. The season is expected to run until October 15.

WENATCHEE — It hasn’t been the worst year for salmon returns. It hasn’t been the best year for salmon returns.

The number of salmon returning has been fairly close to averages, but concern remains about river conditions as the snowpack melts off quickly under high temperatures. The number of returning spring chinook, an endangered species, was higher than expected with about 13,105 adults, compared to 5,525 in 2020, said Greer Maier, Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board science program manager.

It is still below the 10-year average for spring chinook returns, but higher than the last few years, Maier said.

Meanwhile, the summer chinook and sockeye runs, which can be fished, were downgraded with fewer fish returning than forecasted, State Fish Biologist Paul Hoffarth said. About 59,600 summer chinook moved past the mouth of the Columbia River, compared to 77,600 forecasted and 149,600 sockeye, compared to 155,600 forecasted.

“The sockeye is in kind of a moderate run, 150,000 is a pretty good number of fish,” Hoffarth said. “But the elevated water temperatures have everybody spooked.”

It is possible to have sockeye runs of 200,000 plus fish, so 150,000 is considered a moderate run these days, he said. However, warm water temperatures could prevent the fish from spawning or even kill them before they get to the streams where they want to spawn.

“This year we’re seeing some really warm water temperatures that aren’t quite as warm as 2015, but we’re getting there,” Hoffarth said.

In 2015, temperatures in the Columbia River led to thousands of fish dying.

The Upper Columbia summer chinook forecast of 77,600 was 109% of the 10-year average of Chinook returns, so a little better than normal, according to state Department of Fish and Wildlife data.

Salmon runs are improving now that the hot water blob that sat in the ocean off the coast of Washington is gone, Maier said. The blob lasted from 2014 to 2017 and killed juvenile salmon, but now ocean temperatures have cooled. It got so warm that sun fish and barracuda were spotted in the Puget Sound.

“And so a lot of (salmon) died or couldn’t find food (in the ocean) and so the reason we’ve had low returns the last few years is because we’re still sort of working through that group of fish that went out during poor-ocean conditions,” Maier said.

Things are improving for salmon and one of the main reasons is the amount of habitat in streams and rivers connecting to the Columbia, she said. In the last 10 years, there has been a major push towards conservation and restoring habitat.

“Planting trees to keep things cold, trying to capture the water upslope, so it lasts longer and you know obviously working with the irrigation companies to try to enhance their efficiency,” Maier said.

The increased restoration captures snow melt and slows water as it travels through the watershed, she said. It is important to retain cold water in rivers and streams into August and September to keep salmon at all stages of the life cycle healthy.

“They need cold water and they need just water, so the more water that you have and the more that comes from snow, you’re going to get a lot better fish habitat,” Maier said.

Tony Buhr: (509) 664-7123


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