With elevated water temperatures and depressed stream flows already taking a significant toll of the North Fork’s early-returning native chinook salmon before they can spawn, personal use fishing in most Nooksack basin stream reaches has been suspended by a fish and wildlife department emergency order posted Thursday, Aug 27.
Physiological stress and diseases brought on by drought-driven stream conditions are causing these die-offs and fishery managers are concerned the same fate will befall the South Fork’s later arriving native kings.
With the snowpack gone and little rainfall to date this summer the South Fork’s flow has dropped just half of its historic daily average volume and its water temperature at Saxon Bridge has climbed to the mid-60s.
Wild kings running now may not even be able to enter and move up the lower South Fork just above Deming because riffles are too shallow for the big bodied salmon to negotiate. Also in water temperatures above about 60 degrees aquatic adapted bacteria species such as Flavobactrium, Staphylococus and Renibacterium flourish and infect fish.
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Chinook are quite vulnerable to the Flavo- and Reni- bacteria, especially the latter which attacks their kidneys. Upon entering freshwater these adult salmon must constantly excrete water so impaired or failed renal function can lead quickly to death.
The basin’s wild pink salmon also are succumbing to low flow conditions and higher water temperatures finding their North and Middle Fork tributary spawning streams either dry or at flows too low even for these diminutive salmon to ascend. Forced to stay in the main channels they often find gravels and rocks there too large for them to dig effective redds or spawning nests in.
Pink eggs in shallow mainstem redds are the first to be washed out during high fall and winter flow events.
Gill parasite loads on humpies also can skyrocket as the fish pass through lower basin reaches and by the time they reach spawning areas their gill (respiratory) function can be highly impaired.
North Fork chinook spawning is normally over by early September, while pinks will toil to reproduce through the end of September. True South Fork’s kings, at current population levels, typically spawn for about a month from the first week in September through the first week in October.
Coho will begin running the river in earnest in late September followed closely by chum salmon and they too can be hindered by low flow volumes that occur with regularity in October and early November.
Not to be overlooked are the impacts of drought conditions on the standing crop of juvenile chinook, steelhead, coho, cutthroat and bull trout as well as other native non-game species of fish all currently struggling to find homes and food in the dwindling aquatic space of streams, sloughs, creeks, ponds and lakes.
Coupled with poor spawning success of this year’s adult runs, the die-off of freshwater rearing juveniles will reduce wild salmon and trout abundance and depress returns two- to five- years out.
No sunset date or effective duration has been set for this emergency suspension of personal use fishing in the Nooksack, it goes ‘until further notice.’
A procession of rainstorms could alleviate adverse drought impacts quickly, but without relief these conditions might last well into the fall.
The next drought dilemma shoe that could drop is the lower Samish River as fall chinook become increasingly desperate in their urge to enter this Skagit County stream. As of Saturday, Aug. 29, it was flowing at just 25 cubic feet per second. Flows at and below 22 c.f.s. hamper fish recruitment to the holding capacity of the state hatchery’s trap pond.
More streams around the state were closed this week including the Sauk River basin above the Suiattle River and the lower sections of its two forks which were shut down Thursday, Aug. 27.
On a daily basis, angler attention should be fixed on the fish and wildlife department’s regulations web portal at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations/ for changes in fishing rules (either reopenings or more closings).
WHAT’S STAYING OPEN HERE
All small county streams are closed to hook and line fishing unless otherwise designated for salmon and/or gamefish (trout and spiny rays).
For now these flowing water reaches in western Whatcom County are available to personal use anglers:
▪ the Nooksack River mainstem downstream from Lummi Nation boundary upstream to Slater Road bridge.
▪ the North Fork upstream from Nooksack Falls.
▪ the Middle Fork upstream from the City of Bellingham Diversion Dam.
All of the Nooksack basins so-called anadromous reaches (accessible by sea-run salmon and trout) are closed as is the entire previously closed South Fork, even the reach on the southeast side of the Twin Sisters Range.
COUGAR CHANGES DENIED
Revisions to cougar management guidelines raising harvest rates in selected zones of the state for coming year’s hunts, made in April by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, were upheld by the panel in a 7-1 vote Friday, Aug. 21.
Commissioners rejected a petition by several environmental groups to scrub increases they made in allowable cougar harvest quotas in 14 areas of the state where wolves have established packs. The panel did direct department staff to do further assessment of cougar harvest guidelines and report back in early 2016 (March) at the start of season-setting deliberations.
Commissioner Miranda Wecker who proposed raising allowable annual harvest ranges to 17-21 percent in those areas last April said the increases were necessary to provide relief to rural communities now beset by multiple predator species (cougars, wolves and even grizzlies and black bear). Previous cougar harvest ranges in the affected zones ranged from 12-16 percent of each areas estimated total population.
Department of Fish and Wildlife cougar specialists estimate there are now about 3,600 cougars in Washington and they rate the population as healthy. In 2014 hunters killed 163 of the big cats.
Under the new elevated allowable harvest rate guidelines, biologists estimate that between 15 and 30 more animals could be taken in the current season structure.
Cougar hunting is managed in 50 different zones around the state. Harvest ranges are set in 45 of those discrete areas to ensure stable, biologically viable populations are maintained. In the five remaining zones, harvests are managed on an in-season basis.
In the real-time management system, all successful cougar hunters must report their kills within 72 hours and submit them quickly thereafter for pelt sealing (marking as lawful harvest) and biological sampling (tooth and tissue taken) for gender and age determination as well as critical genetic analysis.
Details on the coming early general cougar hunting season, which starts Tuesday, Sept. 1, are found on page 68 of the 2015 Big Game Hunting Seasons and Regulations pamphlet available on-line or at any hunting and fishing license dealer.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald’s outdoors correspondent, since 1983, has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that appears Sundays. Contact him through the Herald Sports Department.
This week’s Skagit hatchery and flow info:
Baker Lake Hatchery (Baker sockeye): 29,384 sockeye trapped & transferred (20,821 to Baker Lake, as of Aug. 29; 6,301 to hatchery). Same week total in 2014 – 6,297 adult sockeye to hatchery.
LAKE LEVEL – Upper Baker Reservoir
Recent: As of Saturday, Aug. 30, the reservoir surface was at 720.38 feet above sea level, dropping 1.5 feet in past week with daily power generation.
Forecast: No prediction for this gauge. Full pool is 727.77 feet above sea level.
ALSO COMING UP
The first of September is a welcome bench mark for many hunters. Seasons of the gun or bow coming into being immediately with the turn of the monthly calendar page include:
▪ forest grouse (until December)
▪ mourning dove (until Sept. 30)
▪ resident dark geese (selected areas during first half of month)
▪ small game (rabbit, raccoon, fox and bobcat) (until March)
▪ cougar (early hunt throughout the state)
▪ early archery deer (black-tailed, white-tailed and mules in selected areas)
▪ and remaining black bear management zones
On the September horizon (opening later in the month) are hunts for band-tailed pigeon, early archery elk (selected areas), early high buck (a modern firearms production also in selected areas) and special set-aside dates for youth bird hunting (a weekend) and seniors pheasant hunting (five mid-week days).