Drought Could Kill Off Many of the West Coast’s Fish

Fisheries managers are already struggling with low water and disease brought by warmth

Dead chinook salmon
A dead chinook, likely killed by disease, in the Elwha River in Washington Natalie Fobes/CORBIS

As drought dries the West, its residents watch reservoir levels drop, normally snow-capped mountains stay bare, worry about the fate of crops and even smell something funky in their tap water. But some residents don’t have voices to speak up when they start struggling: fish all along the coast. And they're not doing so well.

Salmon, steelhead and smelt face in Washington, Oregon and California face potential extinction, reports Darryl Fears for The Washington Post. Falling water levels as well as warming waters are to blame. Oregon and Washington have closed fishing spots and even relocated fish to cooler sections of rivers.

Fears also wrote a longer story detailing the problems that salmon face in their annual migration inland in the coastal Northwest as the rivers and streams dry up.

Warm water carries disease more easily and stressed fish used to cooler waters succumb to illness sooner. Young fish are especially vulnerable if they don’t swim from their hatching grounds to cool water quickly. “Those fish trying to live in the fresh water for the year are gone, toast,” Teresa Scott, drought coordinator for Washington state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Fears. “We’re having impacts on fish right now, but that won’t be felt until adults don’t show up in future years."

For The Los Angeles Times, Bettina Boxall reports that things don’t look any better in California.

"We're going to be losing most of our salmon and steelhead if things continue," UC Davis professor emeritus Peter Moyle, an expert on California's native fish, told Boxall. "Also in danger are the long-suffering delta smelt, whose numbers have plunged to what he called 'the last of the last,'" Boxall writes.

Cold water releases from dams and chillers at hatcheries are just two examples of ways people are trying to keep the water cool enough, but the problem is so massive it is hard to combat. Many of these fish populations are already struggling and don’t have the resilience they might have helped them ride out the drought conditions in the past.

Unfortunately for the fish, massive droughts may just be the new normal for the region.

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