Spring Chinook salmon

Spring Chinook salmon.

North Pacific Ocean conditions for salmon in 2021 were among the best in more than two decades. That bodes well for juvenile salmon that entered the ocean last year.

On top of that, salmon managers are predicting 15- to 30-percent boosts in 2022 returns for most Columbia River spring Chinook, summer Chinook, and sockeye runs—with some exceptions.

On Dec. 20, NOAA Fisheries released a detailed summary of ocean indicators which includes its "stoplight" chart. The chart ranks 16 ecosystem indicators, and gives each a good, fair or poor rating. For the first time since 2008, none of the indicators ranked poor. Additionally, 12 of the 16 indicators were considered good, and only four were fair.

The indicators include climate, physical and biological measurements ranging from numbers of salmon caught in ocean surveys to sea surface temperatures and the biomass of northern copepods.

When combined and ranked against other years, the 2021 conditions were the second best in the last 24 years, Brian Burke, research fisheries biologist for NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told NW Fishletter. The chart shows only three other years since 1998 when none of the indicators received a poor ranking—2002, 2008 and 2012.

"Across the board, all of the researchers working in the ocean are saying, 'Wow, this is a really great year.' It's way better than it's been, and even down into California," he said. "I think we're all excited—it all seems to be really good."

Burke said the good news started last spring, with a strong upwelling of cold, salty water with high chlorophyll concentrations. That resulted in a higher-than-average biomass of cold-water northern copepods and fewer warm-water southern copepods.

Additionally, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Oceanic Niño Index both signaled cooler ocean temperatures. "The PDO is one of the lowest we've seen in the past 30 or 40 years," he said.

But Burke pointed out that not all the indicators are equally important to salmon. In addition, he said, as climate change begins to play a larger role, some indicators will likely "decouple" from their impact on salmon returns. He also cautioned that the stoplight chart is mostly about species lower on the food chain—which should help salmon, but not if their predators are also doing well.

For many species of salmon, the improvements will not immediately result in higher returns. For some, it may require multiple years of good ocean conditions to translate into significantly better returns. But fish managers are already predicting a boost in at least some Columbia Basin salmon runs in 2022.

On Dec. 13, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife released an early forecast by co-managers of the 2022 spring Chinook, summer Chinook and sockeye returns to the Columbia Basin. If the spring Chinook numbers are close, it will be the best return since 2016, Ryan Lothrop, WDFW's Columbia River fishery manager, told NW Fishletter. "It is definitely good news," he added.

The 2022 forecast shows 197,000 total spring Chinook returning to the mouth of the Columbia River, comprised of 122,900 heading to tributaries above Bonneville Dam, and 74,100 below Bonneville Dam. That's an additional 44,000 spring Chinook compared to the 152,675 that returned in 2021.

For summer Chinook, an estimated 57,500 salmon are projected to return to the upper Columbia Basin in 2022, a slight increase over the 2021 actual returns of 56,800 fish. Fall Chinook returns should also be similar to or greater than the returns in 2021, which totaled roughly 461,000 fish.

For Columbia Basin sockeye, salmon managers forecast a total of 198,700 returning fish, compared to the 151,765 fish that returned in 2021. The forecast includes 200 Snake River sockeye returning in 2022. The 2021 preseason forecast of Snake River sockeye was for 700 sockeye, and actual returns to the mouth of the Columbia River were 890 adults.

The extremely low forecast for Snake River sockeye—which are listed under the Endangered Species Act—is concerning. "Our sockeye struggles continue," Jonathan Ebel, fish biologist for Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told NW Fishletter. Adults experienced a massive die-off in 2015 from warm water, and most juveniles raised in the Springfield Hatchery and released in Redfish Lake Creek from 2015 through 2017 died on their way to the ocean before hatchery managers corrected a problem with water chemistry. By 2019, IDFG thought the issue was resolved.

Ebel said he's not sure what factors were used to create the 2022 forecast for Snake River sockeye, but despite improved juvenile survival rates to Bonneville Dam, returns continue to be poor. "At this point, we're continuing to evaluate why we're still seeing these really low ocean survivals," he said. Ebel also pointed out that forecasts are more uncertain when run sizes are low.

Lothrop said he's also not sure why the Snake River sockeye forecast is so low.

In general, he said, some of the models used to create these early forecasts incorporate NOAA's ocean indicators and others don't. He said much of the forecast is based on sibling regression—or how many jacks (immature males that return a year earlier than most of their siblings) came back in 2021. A variety of other inputs are used, including recent returns, analysis of model performance and environmental variables.

Fish co-managers are able to produce a forecast this early for species like Columbia River spring Chinook because—with the exception of the Willamette River run—so few are caught in the ocean, Lothrop said. They use an average ocean harvest to produce the estimates, he added.

Forecasts for other species in the Columbia Basin—including steelhead, coho and fall Chinook—come out after the Pacific Fishery Management Council considers the ocean harvest from Canadian and Alaskan catches. Sockeye, spring Chinook and summer Chinook forecasts will be recalculated in the coming spring.

Lothrop said aside from the 2022 forecasts, the summary from NOAA on ocean conditions is good news for everyone. "It's a good sign. Hopefully, it's not short-lived," he added.

Burke said while NOAA's stoplight chart indicates good ocean conditions in many categories after eight years with either fair or poor conditions, it won't necessarily mean better salmon returns.

"My only hesitation is people will put too much weight on this, and we just never really know what's going to happen," he said.

Still, nothing in the ocean changes quickly, so conditions in 2022 aren't likely to be drastically different from 2021. "I don't know if it'll be this good [in 2022], but it probably won't be horrible," he said.

The indicators in the stoplight chart bring another bit of positive news, showing that the ocean has largely recovered from "the Blob"—a major marine North Pacific Ocean heat wave that lasted from 2014 to 2016, Burke said.

Still, he explained, every organism responds to changing conditions in a different time frame. "Zooplankton—one of the reasons the chart is so green—they're doing great," Burke said. But salmon could be experiencing more predators or other negative factors not related to the great conditions for zooplankton, he noted.

"I wouldn't say everything's back to normal," Burke said. "But several things that were anomalous [during the Blob years] look the way they did 10 years ago," he added.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.