Welcome to Save Our wild Salmon’s Hot Water Report 2020, Week 5. This weekly report presents conditions on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers - like water temperatures, status of salmon and steelhead returns and related topics - via graphs, analyses, and stories. The harmful effects on struggling native fish populations caused by federal dams and their reservoirs is now being exacerbated each year due to warming waters and a changing climate.
We’ll hear from scientists, fishers, guides, and salmon and river advocates about the status of returning adult salmon and steelhead and the challenges facing their rivers. We'll also explore opportunities to improve their health and begin to rebuild abundant, resilient populations and the many benefits they deliver to Northwest culture, economy and ecology.
Abundant Snake and Columbia River salmon and steelhead populations have historically delivered irreplaceable cultural, economic, nutritional and ecological benefits to the people and fish and wildlife of the Pacific Northwest. Today, however, these fish are in crisis - thirteen populations in the Basin face extinction - putting jobs and communities and other wildlife populations at risk as well. The region’s critically endangered Southern Resident orca, for example, depend mainly on chinook salmon for their diet. As these populations have decreased in Northwest coastal waters - and especially Snake River spring chinook - the Southern Residents population has dwindled. Just 72 individual whales remain today.
Will you be on the river this summer? Do you have a story or photo you would like to share? Please send them to Oakley Wurzweiler
The Hot Water Report is a joint project of the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition, Washington Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Snake River Waterkeeper, Northwest Steelheaders, Orca Conservancy, Idaho Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife, Pacific Rivers, the Natural Resources Defense Council, American Rivers, and Friends of the Clearwater.
II. READING THE DATA (through August 11)
The daily mean temperature at the forebay (upstream reservoir) of each dam is represented in the solid lines and the 10 year average (2010-2020) for each reservoir is represented by the dashed line of the same color. The dotted line across the top of the graph represents the 68°F survival threshold for salmon and steelhead. These fish begin to suffer harmful effects when water temperatures exceed 68° Fahrenheit. The longer temperatures remain above 68°F and the higher the temperatures rise above 68°F, the more severe these effects, including: increased metabolism (energy expenditure), increased susceptibility to disease, reduced fecundity or reproductive potential, and/or death.
Temperatures in all four lower Snake River reservoirs are currently above 68°F, but have fluctuated more this week than in the previous weeks. The temperatures in the reservoirs are tracking closely to the 10-year average for this time of year. The Lower Granite Dam reservoir has slowly increased this summer and is now above 68°F, whereas the other three reservoirs have spent over three weeks above 68°F - and by a degree or more.
All four lower Columbia River reservoirs continue to exceed 68°F, but have modestly decreased since last week. This week shows a lot of fluctuation in all four reservoirs. The temperatures in these four reservoirs all have been fairly similar to the 10-year average for this time of year - all are within one degree of each other. Based on past summers, we expect these four reservoirs to remain above 68°F for the next several weeks. The severe problem for salmon and steelhead survival and recovery created by hot reservoirs in the lower Columbia and lower Snake rivers has been recognized since at least the 1990s, but federal recovery efforts have consistently failed to address it. The latest federal salmon plan (FEIS and BiOp) - just released on July 31st - repeats these past mistakes.
III. WEEKLY HIGH TEMPERATURES: 8/3-8/11
On the lower Snake River this week, the Ice Harbor Dam registered the highest temperature at 71.42°F - significantly above the level that coldwater fish require. All reservoirs registered above 68°F this week, though their temperatures decreased slightly compared to last week.
On the lower Columbia River, the John Day and the Dalles Dams registered the highest temperatures this week at 71.42°F. All four of the reservoirs on the Columbia River now exceed 68°F by almost 2°F.
Temperature data included in these reports come from the USGS Current Conditions for Washington State. Graphs and tables were assembled by SOS Staff.
IV. The Depletion of Columbia-Snake Basin Pacific Lamprey and Southern Resident Orcas
Like endangered salmon and steelhead populations, Pacific Lamprey are an anadromous species that have struggled since the construction last century of the eight federal dams lower Snake and Columbia rivers. And like salmon and steelhead, lamprey are very important to Native American Tribes for food and other cultural reasons.
Historically, the Columbia Basin has been home to millions of returning adult lamprey each year, but the population has dropped dramatically in recent decades. The federal dams and their reservoirs have played a primary role in their decline. According to reports from the Fish Passage Center, just 75 adult lamprey have been observed in Snake River so far this year, whereas 10,476 lamprey have been counted so far this year at the Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River. 60 years ago, 400,000 adults were recorded at Bonneville Dam.
Dams have played a primary role decimating the lamprey populations in the Columbia River Basin over the past century. Dams and their reservoirs hinder lamprey migration because, like salmon, they travel many miles to the ocean and back. Long considered a “trash species” by non-tribal people, the value and needs of lamprey were ignored when the dams were built. Fish ladders at the dams were designed for salmon and steelhead, without consideration of lamprey.
Native American Tribes in the Columbia Basin have worked hard for years to protect and restore lamprey by improving the river habitat and addressing migratory obstacles. The Pacific lamprey provided an important source of food for many Tribes who prized them for their rich, fatty meat. They were served alongside salmon at tribal feasts and celebrations. Fish, birds and other species also benefit from lamprey as an important food resource. Their steep population declines have harmed human communities as well as many fish and wildlife species across the Pacific Northwest.
Scientists predict that restoring a freely flowing lower Snake River would deliver big survival benefits to imperiled lamprey and help restore abundant, harvestable numbers and allow them to continue to play a critical role in both Tribal culture and marine and freshwater ecosystems.
Critically endangered Southern Resident Orca need more chinook salmon: This week we have a special addition to the Hot Water Report - an interview with Dr. David Bain, a highly regarded Cetacean scientist working with the Orca Conservancy - a non-profit organization - and SOS member organization - based in western Washington State. Southern Resident orcas face extinction today due to a lack of their primary prey - chinook salmon. The Center for Whale Research reports that just 72 individual whales survive today, a few of which are pregnant this summer, making successful births vital. Even Tahlequah (J35), the orca who just two summers ago carried her dead calf around for 17 days, is pregnant again. Dr. Bain and other scientists express the need to give these whales plenty of space to live and forage at this time, in order to increase their ability to reproduce. Dr. Bain’s interview below goes into his knowledge of orca whales as well as some action points that any person can take.
V. Interview with Orca Scientist Dr. David Bain
1. Dr. Bain, can you tell me a little bit about you and your work with orca?
My name is Dr. David Bain and I got my Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1989 and my post-doc at University of California, Davis. I’m now working in a lab in Seattle as the Orca Conservancy’s Chief Scientist and have been working on killer whales since 1978. I was part of the team that drafted Canada’s recovery strategy for resident killer whales under the ‘Species at Risk Act’.
For about the last 10 years, I’ve had more of a focus on repairing habitat and restoration, which involves acquiring land that we use to correct waterways and then restoring vegetation to make it more ecologically functional. I’ve also been doing a lot of environmental education work and I’m involved in a variety of research projects. One of the principal focuses of my research has been the effects of disturbance on killer whales and marine mammals generally. I’ve also done a lot of work on the energetics of killer whales, which is how much food they need and how much energy they expend going through their daily lives, and then that relates to the importance to salmon, keeping them fed. I’ve also worked on toxins, which is one of the three big problems we see with killer whales. The main problem being that they don’t have enough food to eat and with disturbances, it’s hard to find the little bit of food that is available.
I’m also doing work in the Klamath river basin, where we’re looking at different strategies for managing water to recover the endangered coho run there and enhance the chinook run. The Klamath has historically been very important for the Southern Resident whales and as the runs decline, it has been very hard for some residents to ‘make a living’ over the winter. We’re also starting to think about what happens when the dams get removed there, which might happen as soon as next year. That is a pretty exciting prospect.
2. What do you think is the most significant problem facing orca right now?
The largest problem orca are facing is lack of prey. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, we did things like coal mining that destroyed spawning habitat for salmon, then we started building dams so that they couldn’t reach spawning habitat. We also started fisheries in order to catch salmon for canning, which allowed salmon to be distributed worldwide instead of being consumed locally. Subsequently, we had the logging industry destroying habitat and these days you have urban development destroying or denying access to habitat. This has all culminated in harming salmon runs so they’re now 5% of their historic return numbers.
Not only are numbers down 95%, but salmon body sizes are also getting smaller. The second biggest issue for killer whales is noise and the 3rd largest is toxins from pollution and chemical run-off. We’re seeing how this affects killer whales’ lives. The Northern Resident Killer Whales - who deal with fewer of these problems - see around 60% of their neonates (calves) survive, whereas with Southern Residents, we’re down to just 25-30% of their near-term calves surviving, so they're either stillborn or die within 6 months of birth.
3. In 2018, you signed onto a ‘scientists letter’ to Governor Inslee's Orca Task Force that called for, among other things, "permanently restoring the Snake River by removing the lower Snake River dams." Do you still believe this is the best way to help orca? Has the need for solutions like this become more urgent?
I’d say it has become more urgent because the Southern Resident whale population has continued to drop and we need to increase the number of salmon available to whales by at least a factor of 5. And when you look at how we can do that, the lower Snake River is one of the places where we can produce a lot more fish than we have in recent years. There are places along this region's rivers, where removing dams opens up a lot of new habitat, those are some of the home runs we can try to hit. Another big component of recovery is tackling climate change, Killer whales can handle warm water but the species they depend on for food cannot. Salmon need cool water to survive. And this is where habitat restoration, including breaching of the lower Snake River dams becomes paramount.
4. What can people, orca advocates, citizens do help orcas now?
There are anywhere from ten to ten thousand small scales restoration projects that people can help with, whether it’s a toddler moving mulch, senior citizens baking cookies for volunteers, or young folks digging out invasive blackberries - this is important work for those living in coastal areas to engage in.
Another important thing is being politically active. We’ve been talking about the importance of removing the Snake River dams and the obstacle to that is political not ecological. So getting our elected officials to work together to remove the dams in a way that is not harmful to people who currently rely on the services provided by the dams. Dams contribute to transportation so we need a plan that provides alternative transportation. Dams provide some energy so we need alternative energy sources that make up for that.
So instead of just tearing the dams down this needs to be a negotiation with the people who live in the area say, “You know, we understand that there are problems you’re going to face but let’s come up with solutions that allow the dams to come out so whales can have enough to eat and fishing communities can go back to fishing.” We want to make sure everyone still gets to maintain their quality of life. And of course with climate change there’s a lot of little things people can do to curb their carbon and waste footprint.
One thing that some groups have recommended that I don’t support is the boycott of salmon. There are a lot of people in the fishing industry that want to fish in ways that are whale-friendly and by working with the regulators we can find a way to make sure fishermen are catching fish that have already gotten past the whales. Where we have degraded habitat inland, getting more fish up the river doesn’t really help because if you don’t have the spawning habitat and you don’t have the rearing habitat, and you don’t have cool water, you’re not going to have their descendants going back out. As we restore habitat we’ll have more fish for the fishing industry and more fish for the whales. Working with the fishing industry, helping them fish in the right area, is a better solution than a boycott. The problem isn’t that these salmon are being overfished, it’s that their habitat is degraded and the juvenile salmon aren’t making it back down the river.
Links to further information:
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission: Pacific Lamprey
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission: The Lost Fish Film
Fish Passage Center: Lamprey Returns
Sealife Response + Rehab + Research: Pregnant Whales Identified Among the Southern Resident Killer Whales
Past Hot Water Reports are archived here: Hot Water Reports - Compiled