The Lack of Snow in the Olympic Mountains Could be Terrible News for Salmon

As has been well documented over the past few months, the winter of 2014-15 is shaping up to give the mountains of the west one of their worst snowpacks in recent memory. While many look at the lack of snow this year and are concerned about the economic impact on ski areas and the increase of wildfire danger over the summer, the environmental impact of years like this has the potential to be far more devastating. On March 13th, 2015, Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought for three regions of Washington State, including the Olympic Peninsula, which is sitting at just 7% of normal snowpack.

Reports came trickling out of British Columbia, Canada earlier this week, highlighting the lack of snow and the impact it will have on the future of salmon in the region.  With headlines in newspapers reading “B.C.’s low snow pack could affect salmon run in summer,” and quotes from wildlife experts saying they haven’t seen a snowpack this low in 37 years. The low snowpack translates into lower water levels and warmer water temperatures, with a possible death sentence to the young salmon growing up in local creeks, streams and rivers.

This issue is not just limited to out Canada. On the Olympic Peninsula, where salmon have been part of life since the first person set foot in the region, the lack of snowpack is having a similar impact on the region’s salmon population.

Seth Elsen, the Communications Manager at the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, had some great insight when I asked him for his expert assessment on how the low snowpack in the Olympic Mountains will impact the salmon population in the coming years.

His responses need to be read and shared:

“Looking out at the Olympics each day, it is amazing just how low the snow pack is this year. While we enjoy the warm weather and an earlier start to the hiking season, it could spell trouble to some of our salmon and steelhead populations on Peninsula rivers.

When we have low stream flows, the water is likely going to get warmer, holding less oxygen. Low flows also can mean less rearing space, meaning fewer smolts. Additionally, some of the food sources for juvenile salmon may dwindle as a result of the higher temperatures.

To give an idea on just how big of an impact these things are on our fish, you can look back to 2001 in the Columbia River. Many juvenile salmon were stranded by low flow and never made it out to the ocean. As a result, anglers didn’t have a chance to fish for spring Chinook in 2005, and for a few years after.

We may have good returns this year to rivers throughout the state, but we could really start to see the impacts on salmon in 3,4,5 years, when the offspring from 2015 spawning should be returning.

Here’s to hoping for a chain of big snow storms in the mountains over the next month.”

On February 26th and 27th, the Olympic Mountains saw over two feet of snow fall in mountains over 5,500 feet. Many around the snow-starved Pacific Northwest celebrated the event, but the region’s snowpack is still far below average. The weather forecast shows temperatures increasing as the month of March starts, which could deplete the recent snowfall by week’s end. If that is the case, it is time to really start worrying about our salmon, the region’s future and admit that climate change, no matter how big or small, will impact every facet of our lives.

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By Doug and Mathias on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State

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