How Treaty Tribes are responding to the drought

Late August rains brought sighs of relief from tribal fisheries managers, particularly on the Olympic Peninsula, cooling stream temperatures and allowing fish to move upriver to spawn.

“It frequently gets hot and dry in September and October, but this unusual freshet of rain in August was just what we needed,” said Frank Geyer, Quileute Natural Resources deputy director. The tribe, along with other tribes and the state, implemented conservative fisheries this summer because of the drought and forecast for lower returns.

“It’s nice that as we move into fall, we can go with our reduced fishing schedule, but not have to talk about any other restrictions,” Geyer said.

By July, with water temperatures above normal ranges, fish disease had spread within crowded ponds in rivers. Temperatures around 70 degrees begin to affect fish behavior and may kill them, and pathogens such as Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (ich) and columnaris (gill rot) thrive in warm water.

Hatchery conditions

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Makah National Fish hatchery chose to euthanize about 80,000 young coho to prevent the spread of furunculosis. The bacterial disease had spread rapidly in the 70-degree Tsoo-yess River and antibiotics didn’t help.

Quileute fishermen encountered sockeye in the Quillayute River with heavy fungus, which is often a sign of ich or gill rot.

“Sockeye are the canary in the coal mine for salmon,” Geyer said. “They need cold water and if it’s too hot for them, it’s not good news for the other salmon species as we move into early fall and a couple more months of this weather pattern.”

Several hatcheries, including Makah and Lummi’s Skookum Creek Hatchery, released juveniles earlier than usual to beat declining flows.

Fish passage

In late July, Quileute fisheries staff, state personnel, a state Department of Corrections chain gang and North Olympic Salmon Coalition volunteers placed sandbags in the Sol Duc River to improve chinook passage by diverting the river’s low flow to the Sol Duc Hatchery pump house.

On the Dungeness River in mid-August, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe installed several diversion dams throughout the river to divert waterflow to the deepest part of the channel to help chinook and pink salmon make their way up stream.

“The diversion dams worked great and we observed fish using them immediately after construction,” said Aaron Brooks, the tribe’s fisheries management biologist. The portable dams were removed in anticipation of the heavy rains in late August.

“The rain was a much needed blessing as it really helped move fish throughout the river,” Brooks said.

Low Flow

On the South Fork Skokomish River in late July, a half-mile of the river ran dry with intermittent pools of water lining the riverbed’s edge.

“The Skokomish River measured at 75 cubic feet per second (cfs), but a lot of the water is going underground, under the gravel bars,” said Skokomish biologist Matt Kowalski.

Surveys will be performed regularly on the South Fork through the rest of the low water season to determine the extent, locations and longevity of dry streambed conditions.

On the Elwha River, flows were considered a critical low at 200 cfs until the rains came in August. As a result, the city of Port Angeles is maintaining water rationing that limits residents to watering outdoors every other day.

“In early September, things are looking pretty good on the river,” said Matt Beirne, the tribe’s environmental quality biologist. “But there is a chance that flows could drop down to that level again if we resume the drought pattern through the fall.”

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