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Save Our Wild Salmon

March 15, 2019

By Garfield, Harvey, Greg Williams of PFMC and Dr. Nick Tolimieri

Chinook.SalmonCoastal waters are cooling and attracting higher value, more fat-rich food -- a good sign for salmon, steelhead and ocean predators, such as Orcas -- after several years of unusually warm conditions (2014 – 2016), when the warm water “blob” dominated coastal conditions, according to a report released last week by NOAA Fisheries.

However, ocean conditions are still mixed.

The good news is that copepods off Newport, Ore. are mostly of cool-water, lipid rich species; krill lengths off Northern California have increased, an indicator of available forage for salmon and other species; anchovy numbers are on the rise; and several indicators of juvenile and adult salmon survival increased slightly off the Northwest Coast, especially for coho salmon, which are expected this year at average numbers after several years of low returns, according to the report.

The less than good news is there was still some evidence of unfavorable conditions during 2019: there is warmer than average subsurface water in the southern portion of the California Current; there is strong hypoxia (lack of oxygen) on the shelf in the northern areas; and pyrosomes (sea cucumbers) that moved north in high numbers during The Blob remain abundant in the northern and central waters.

Although the report forecasts low returns of chinook salmon to the Columbia River in 2019 (these are the last survivors that entered the ocean during the warm years and are now returning to the basin to spawn), there is a potential for higher returns in coming years as salmon in the ocean are now benefitting from the improved conditions.

Researchers found some of the highest numbers of juvenile coho they had ever seen off the coast, following the steep decline in marine temperatures in 2014 – 2017, leading to, perhaps, better future coho runs. Juvenile chinook salmon catches were near normal, according to the report.

The annual report given each year to the Pacific Fishery Management Council is a product of scientists from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and its Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif.

Climate, oceanographic and streamflow indicators were near average in 2018, “though indices suggest weakening circulation and emerging mild El Nino conditions,” the report says. Ocean conditions have yet to fully return to the stable cold water pattern scientists saw prior to 2014.

“We’re coming off of some really bad conditions and returning to more normal conditions,” Dr. Toby Garfield, director of the Environmental Research Division at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and co-editor of the report, said on an informational conference Friday. “Although there is this potential to return to more normal conditions, we’re concerned that a change back to warmer conditions could occur sooner than would allow for species recovery.”

For this year – 2019 – the report calls for a 65 percent chance of a weak El Nino at least through spring, average coho returns and below average chinook salmon returns, and extensive hypoxia and acidified bottom waters over the shelf off Washington and Oregon.

“Is this the new normal or will we return to the conditions we saw prior to 2014?” Garfield asked about the current mixed results and uncertainty.

The report also noted an increase of 27.4 percent in West Coast fishery landings from 2016 to 2017, with revenues increasing by 12.3 percent. Most of the increase was driven by Pacific hake, Dungeness crab and market squid.

There was also a higher number and growth of sea lions along the coast and some seabirds, a result of more food along the Pacific coast.

Echoing Garfield’s comments, Chris Harvey, ecologist at the Northwest Science Center, and co-editor of the report, said “This is a time of transition in the California Current Ecosystem, and the ocean and marine life reflect that. What we don’t know yet is where the transition will take us – whether the system will stabilize, or keep changing.”

“The annual report tracks a series of species, and climate and ocean conditions, as barometers of ocean health and productivity and also draws on economic indicators that reflect the state of West Coast communities,” NOAA Fisheries said in a blog by the agency’s Michael Milstein.

It also supports NOAA Fisheries’ shift toward ecosystem-based management, which considers interactions throughout the marine food web rather than focusing on a single species.

“Pulling all the indicators together into a picture of how the ecosystem is changing can also give us clues about what to expect going forward,” Garfield added.

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