Cool ocean waters, abundant nutrients provide rosy outlook for Washington salmon

Jan 28, 2022, 6:00 AM
A young fingerling Chinook salmon leaps out of the water. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Scientific markers used to predict the health and productivity of marine species such as juvenile salmon were positive in 2021, the second most favorable since 1998, according to analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Fisheries biologists are cautiously optimistic that those conditions will persist into the near future, supporting the health of juvenile, ocean-run salmon off the coasts of Washington and Oregon.

The report looked at a number of oceanic health markers: atmospheric conditions, water temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, current movement, and biomass of Chinook and Coho salmon, along with food sources such as plankton and small crustaceans. Many of those indicators were more favorable than every year in the last 24, outside of 2008.

“Every once in a while, things are in alignment. … In 2021, everything from water temperatures to phytoplankton, zooplankton, and larval fishes were pointing in the same direction,” Brian Burke, a fishery biologist with NOAA, told MyNorthwest.

Burke attributes those conditions to a strong upwelling in the Pacific along the 45-degree parallel north, a term which refers to atmospheric and ocean conditions that bring cold, nutrient rich water from the deep ocean toward the surface.

“It has a lot of nutrients, so phytoplankton and zooplankton can really thrive because the nutrient base is strong,” Burke added.

Those conditions allow for species such as juvenile Chinook and Coho salmon to thrive while they’re out to sea, close to the surface.

“There’s a lot of food out there,” Burke explained. “For example, one of the primary indicators that we look at is copepod biomass. … In a good year, what we’re looking for is a lot of the larger fattier species, the northern species of copepods. … We see a lot of them up and down the coast, following California. Other researchers have been seen similar things, so it’s looking like a productive year, particularly off [the coast of] Oregon and Washington.”

International coalition purchases mining rights to ‘ecologically sensitive’ Skagit River headwaters

Pacific Ocean conditions along the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico were severe in 2014 and 2015 when an extreme warming persisted, upsetting marine life from whales to plankton. The phenomenon would later be dubbed “the blob” by Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond. Ocean temperatures along Washington state and Oregon have since rebounded to more normal temperatures and could persist into the next year, as indicated by the NOAA report.

“There’s reason for optimism,” Burke offered. “Nothing turns on a dime in a system this big. There tends to be what we call autocorrelation from year to year. I would expect 2022 to be good. Whether it’s better than 2021, worse, or closer to the average, I don’t know. But there’s reason to think it’s not going to be like the blob year. Things don’t necessarily shift that quickly.”

As for whether or not those juvenile salmon supported by the upwelling will mature into a robust salmon population (Chinook salmon have progressively declined in the Puget Sound since 1984 according to the Pacific Salmon Commission, and were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005), Burke is less certain, citing counterbalancing factors which prevent a linear relationship of growth between favorable conditions for juvenile salmon and their maturation.

“You get a large number of predators that come into the area,” Burke clarified.

“This is one of the reasons that Washington off the coast of the Columbia River is so productive,” he continued. “That’s one of the reasons whales come here. It’s the reason seabirds come from all over the place, and Sooty Shearwaters come from New Zealand every year to feed off the Columbia River because it’s such a productive place.”

“With a productive year like 2021, it’s great for growth. But does that growth translate into higher survival? Sometimes you get a lot of predators, … then it could actually be a really bad year for salmon survival. In general, yeah, it’s looking great and probably will be good this year, too. But inside a guarantee, certainly not.”

Local News

(Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)...
Frank Sumrall

Mayor’s search for permanent Police Chief looms over Seattle amid depleting law enforcement numbers

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell recently consulted with a hiring firm as the decision to choose the next Chief of Police heats up.
2 days ago
Seattle Sun...
KIRO 7 News Staff

Sunny skies, warm temperatures forecast for western Washington this weekend

Sunny skies and warm temperatures are forecast for much of western Washington, with some areas expected to reach temps in the 70s.
2 days ago
Student STEM...
Nicole Jennings

From athletes to mathletes: STEM Signing Day shines light on WA scholars

STEM Signing Day gives stellar science, technology, engineering, and math scholars a chance to shine in the same way as high school athletes.
2 days ago
Prison 900x506...
MyNorthwest Staff

Governor Inslee cancels parole determination for triple murderer

Governor Inslee has cancelled an order that granted parole to Timothy Pauley, who had been incarcerated for three counts of first degree murder in 1981.
2 days ago
revive I-5...
MyNorthwest Staff

Revive I-5, Montlake Bridge closure will cause traffic issues this weekend

The sunny forecast will put Seattleites in a great mood this weekend, but the traffic won't thanks to repairs to I-5 and the Montlake Bridge.
2 days ago
Police follow protesters as they move through the city during racial justice protests on November 3...
Hanna Scott

Report on 2020 protests recommends new training for SPD, debunks “mob psychology”

SPD’s approach to the 2020 protests underutilized de-escalation through dialogue and relied on indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
Experience Anacortes

Coastal Christmas Celebration Week in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
Cool ocean waters, abundant nutrients provide rosy outlook for Washington salmon