Drought may hurt future salmon runs

The Associated Press

YAKIMA — Good water years in the late 1990s likely mean good migratory fish runs in state rivers next year.

"Things are looking really favorable for a lot of different species in a lot of different watersheds," Doug Williams, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Olympia, said Friday.

In the Yakima River Basin, biologists are anticipating a large return of spring chinook salmon in 2002, which would be the third consecutive year.

"There is no question the last two runs are the result of some really good water years in the mid- to late 1990s," said Jeff Thomas, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service here.

The chum run in the Puget Sound area looks potentially strong for next year, based on the numbers of 3-year-olds, or chum jacks, returning this year, Williams said. Most chum return from the Pacific Ocean at age 4.

"We had really good freshwater survival conditions in 1998 and 1999 just about everywhere in Western Washington — fairly mild winters without a lot of flooding, plenty of water, a lot of excellent habitat and a lot of good conditions for fish to grow up in," Williams said.

The number of juvenile fish, or smolts, migrating to the Pacific in 1998 and 1999 was high, and they found good marine conditions — a lot of food and few of the predators that are sometimes drawn by ocean currents pushing warm water north.

In the Columbia River Basin, "the big question is always water over the dams — how much water do we have to flush smolts over the dams?" Williams said.

Again, there were good water years in Eastern Washington, beginning in 1995.

"If you can get the fish down the river and into those favorable ocean survival conditions, that would indicate we should have decent returns on everything — chinook, coho and steelhead," Williams said.

In the Yakima River, about 21,000 adult spring chinook crossed the Prosser Dam this year, headed upstream to spawn. It was the largest return run since the 1950s. Last year, the run topped 19,000 adults.

Most of the chinook returning this year were hatched in early 1998.

But there is concern that should the drought of 2001 persist, it could affect future fish runs.

The Yakima basin had drought from 1992 through 1994, and the number of salmon nests counted by biologists dropped to 221 in 1995, the fewest since the counts began in 1981.

Preliminary statistics from the Yakama Nation show the number of nests this year dropped to 4,179 from 4,723 last year, and low water flows and higher river temperatures are probably to blame, said John Easterbrooks, a regional fish program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife here.

The conditions probably increased the rate of fish deaths that occurred before spawning, he said.

"Warm water delays the onset of spawning and causes the metabolic rate to be higher, and they use up their energy supplies faster. It also worsens disease problems," Easterbrooks said.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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