This unfortunate "fish out of water" story is being written by climate change.

By Mike Pomranz
July 16, 2021
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Abnormally warm temperatures and drought have plagued the Pacific Northwest this summer, and as water temperatures have risen, salmon have been feeling the heat. So increasingly, the industry has been resorting to moving the fish around on dry land — trucking young salmon to and from hatcheries in lieu of letting them swim through potentially deadly waters on their own.

A few weeks ago, a team of scientists chose to truck about 350,000 Chinook salmon from the Warm Springs River in Oregon to the Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery in Washington, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We don't want to move fish unless it becomes absolutely necessary," Bob Turik, one of the scientists, told the paper.

Wild Salmon
Credit: Supercaliphotolistic/Getty Images

But further south, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) had already made a similar decision back in April, announcing a proactive measure to help hatchery-raised juvenile Chinook salmon bypass 50 to 100 miles of waterways by trucking millions of the fish from the Central Valley to the San Pablo Bay, about 20 percent more salmon than have been moved in the past.

"CDFW is utilizing lessons learned from the past 15 or more years of salmon releases and the last drought to maximize release success," Jason Julienne, the North Central Region hatchery supervisor, stated. "Trucking young salmon to downstream release sites has proven to be one of the best ways to increase survival to the ocean during dry conditions."

And that wasn't all of the department's intervention. On Tuesday, CDFW announced another successful transfer: trucking 1.1 million juvenile Chinook salmon 122 miles from the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery in Siskiyou County to the Trinity River Hatchery — described by the department as an "unprecedented relocation" and "the first time CDFW has not released salmon into the Klamath River" since the hatchery was built in 1962.

"It's extremely challenging to raise cold water fish species in a drought," Mark Clifford, the hatchery environmental scientist for CDFW's Northern Region, stated. "The reality is most of these fish would have died if we released them into the river. We need to maintain the integrity of the fall run on the Klamath River and we especially can't afford to lose this generation of fish."

These kinds of tales are being repeated across the region: For instance, in the Sacramento River, the National Marine Fisheries Service has recently warned that the fatality rate for juvenile Chinook could get as high as 100 percent this year, according to the Sacramento Bee.

And Chinook isn't the only species of salmon to be affected. The Idaho Fish and Game agency has also been trucking Sockeye salmon from the Lower Granite dam to hatcheries this year, according to the New York Times.

Of course, human intervention is a large part of the American salmon industry. Hatcheries are manmade. The dams we've built (and then sometimes removed or plan to remove) affect the waterways. Water can be released to keep river temperatures down — though that's something that gets harder in a drought. And even trucking fish from place to place isn't new — even if it appears it's being utilized more often.

However, the growing concern seems to be that the global effect of climate change could be significant enough to undermine all of these relatively smaller efforts. "It's an extreme set of cascading climate events pushing us into this crisis situation," Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications, education, and outreach for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Eater on Wednesday. All the trucks in the world won't help salmon avoid that.