Global warming could deal big blow to salmon

By Hal Bernton

The Seattle Times

Global warming is expected to further weaken wild chinook salmon populations by changing the temperatures and flows of major river systems, according to a study published Thursday by the National Academy of Sciences.

Warmer waters in the summer and early fall are expected to cause more disease, stress and die-offs, while rain-swollen rivers in warmer winter months could flush out salmon eggs from spawning gravel.

The study, by federal and University of Washington scientists, offers a sobering perspective on the challenges that climate change creates for the multibillion-dollar regional effort to restore wild salmon runs.

Many of the restoration planners use models that do not account for warmer temperatures that are expected to shrink the size of the annual snowpack and alter run-off patterns.

Thus, they may generate “misleading predictions of the relative benefits of different recovery strategies,” the study states.

The study focused on the effects of global warming on the chinook populations of Washington’s Snohomish River basin. The researchers concluded that by 2050 wild chinook populations would decline by 20 percent to 40 percent in the Snohomish. The range of decline depends on which of two computer models was used in the analysis.

Researchers expect the chinook declines would be similar in other Western Washington and Oregon drainages, though they noted that some salmon could perhaps learn to alter their migration timing to improve survival rates.

The study did not attempt to assess the effects of climate change on other salmon species, or salmon that spawn in the Columbia River basin. But global warming also is expected to make life more difficult for those fish.

“These hydrological changes are not going to be good for any [salmon] species,” said Mary Ruckelshaus, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries scientist who was one of seven co-authors of the study.

Global warming is expected to cause the biggest problems for salmon that spawn in the more remote, higher-elevation river basins, according to the study. Salmon eggs in those areas would be among the most vulnerable to sudden surges in winter flows triggered by high-elevation rains. As spawning survival rates there decline, salmon may concentrate more in the mid- to lower reaches of the rivers, according to the study.

Though the authors questioned the accuracy of salmon-recovery plans that did not account for global warming, they still found plenty of value in restoration efforts. In the Snohomish basin, a full-scale restoration that would include tree planting, dike removal and other efforts could reduce the climate-induced chinook decline to only 5 percent by 2050, according to one computer forecast model. In the other model, the restoration efforts were forecast to result in a 19 percent gain in spawning populations.

“That was the encouraging and surprising result for us,” Ruckelshaus said. “The restoration plans — if they are carried out — can make a difference.”

Bob Lohn, the regional administrator for NOAA fisheries, said the study underscored the need to focus on restoration efforts.

“Let there be no mistake, we’re in this for the long haul,” Lohn said.

Environmentalists already have been citing climate change as a big threat to salmon, and the study could give them new ammunition in their efforts to boost runs by removing Snake River dams.

“I wish that they would take a look at the snowpack availability out of the Rockies, and see how that affects the probability that we can reverse the salmon’s decline without removing the dams,” said Jim Martin, a former Oregon state fishery official who is conservation director of the Berkeley Conservation Institute.

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