The drought's latest victims: Hundreds of thousands of salmon are dying in the northwest

High water temperatures are leaving fish vulnerable to disease


Published July 29, 2015 7:49PM (EDT)

Sockeye salmon        (AP/Barry Sweet)
Sockeye salmon (AP/Barry Sweet)

The great Western drought is now killing salmon by the hundreds of thousands. Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have reported that almost half of the 500,000 sockeye salmon migrating up the Columbia River to their spawning grounds have already died. Hot air and low snowpacks have combined to increase the temperature of the Columbia's water, exhausting the salmon and making them more susceptible to infection. A scene described by The Seattle Times is pretty heartbreaking,

At Bonneville Dam last week, water temperatures were more than 72 degrees, nearly 5 degrees higher than the 10-year average for this time period.

So, rather than pushing forward, these sockeye made a last-ditch effort to escape the warm water. They veered off the Columbia to swim into a short inlet that leads to the mouth of the Little White Salmon River, which is fed by glacier melt and provides cool water.

Some still are chrome silver, though suffering from a bacterial disease. Others have backs covered with a mottled white fungus. All are expected to die here — hundreds of miles short of their spawning grounds.

This die-off is especially tragic as years of restoration efforts on the Columbia have been steadily increasing numbers from lows that put many species of Northwest salmon on the Federal Endangered Species list. Last year 614,180 sockeye had swum up the river by mid-September, a post-1960 record.

The disaster isn't limited to the Columbia. Earlier this month Oregon hatcheries began evacuating their salmon north to Washington and Idaho. Ritchie Graves, an official with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, told the Idaho Statesman that, “With climate change, there’s going to be winners and losers... With sockeye it’s going to be a challenge." If salmon numbers collapse the consequences could be dire for species that depend upon them for food, such as the iconic Orca whale.

What can we do to help endangered salmon and other fish? Continue the discussion in the comments below.