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Cascadia’s Wild Salmon React To A Changing Climate

Stretching from Alaska across two provinces of Canada and several states in the northeastern United States, the Cascadia bioregion faces a wide catalogue of the far-reaching impacts of climate change. In response to a number of environmental factors, Cascadia is seeing less wildlife and more wildfires each year.


While some problems impact relatively local communities, others ripple throughout the entire bioregion like a disease in the bloodstream. Combined, these issues are merely symptoms of a larger disease: a warming planet. However, taken individually, small adjustments in human behaviour can have a positive counter-ripple effect that buys endangered species like steelhook and salmon the time and space they need to return to their full glory.


The term "Cascadia" was first applied to the whole geologic region by Bates McKee in his 1972 geology textbook Cascadia: The Geologic Evolution Of The Pacific Northwest. Later, the name was adopted by David McCloskey, a Seattle University sociology professor, to describe this area from the Yukon to Yellowstone as a bioregion.


Today, one of the largest shifts across Cascadia’s ecosystems is the issue of decreasing biodiversity. Warming temperatures and human development directly destabilize the delicate balance of natural patterns of migration and mating for several species in Cascadia. The warmer summer temperatures force migratory species like bears and elk further north across an increasingly obstacle-filled migration corridor.


These warming air temperatures lead directly to warming water temperatures, creating mirrored issues for marine life in rivers, basins, and the surrounding Pacific Ocean. Having to travel further inland to spawn in cool water, the salmon and steelhead populations have declined dramatically, with several species facing the threat of extinction.


Often represented in the media less than their more glamorous counterparts, salmon and steelheads have played a major role in a thriving Cascadia for over 2 million years. The life cycle of these fish depends on their ability to spawn in the headwaters and streams that reach inland from the surrounding Pacific Ocean.


Unfortunately, drought, physical barriers, and rising water temperatures stand in the way of healthy reproduction rates. Beginning at birth, salmon and steelhook eggs must depend on clean, gravelly streambeds inland to hatch properly. The juvenile salmon then depend on calm waters, like summer streams, to grow.


When the young salmon are ready to begin preparing for their journey to the Pacific Ocean, they may spend months in resource-rich estuaries. At last, they travel through rapid waters to the ocean, where they live until they are ready to return to spawning grounds during mating season. This long journey is treacherous, to begin with, but human-made obstacles have made the cycle entirely impossible for many fish.


According to the State of Salmon in California website, major species of salmon and steelhead today are only able to access roughly 65% of their historical spawning range. In some instances, salmon may travel hundreds of miles to return to their birth watersheds only to find the water is too warm. Others that manage to spawn face streambeds polluted with sediments and suffocate their eggs before they can hatch.


The young salmon then face the obstacle of constantly decreasing shelter due mainly to drought, human water consumption, and logging. Although an adult fish may lay up to 10,000 eggs, roughly 10 of these will survive to adulthood, with a survival rate of around one percent. 


The abundance of eggs is in part a survival tactic exhibited by many species in which survival rates are naturally low, but it is important to note that these already low odds cannot compete with constantly increasing obstacles. In a larger sense, climate change and human development have threatened every aspect of the salmon and steelhook lifecycles; however, researchers assert that conservation efforts are not in vain. Many fish populations appear to be at a standstill, with no new salmon or steelhook species joining the endangered species list since 2007.


That being said, population numbers are lower than necessary, and it affects the greater economy and ecosystem of Cascadia. People and animals alike rely heavily on salmon that runs through the streams of the Pacific Northwest for food. Therefore, when numbers are scarce, competition arises. Orca whales in the sea and grizzly bears on land wait for meals that never come and in turn face detrimental population losses of their own.


On land, fishing communities face economic drops as tourists and fishermen have no fish to catch. For this reason, it is critical that Cascadian communities not only preserve their fish populations but also make active efforts to encourage population growth. 


Luckily, there are several organizations in place across Cascadia that are working to restore the habitats that have been destroyed by rising temperatures and human development. Given the multi-faceted nature of the problem, it is important that these organizations approach restoration with the awareness of the greater communities.


For example, the interests of the local economy and restoration efforts often go head-to-head. In particular, ranchers needing land, farmers needing water, and several indigenous tribes depending on salmon as a central part of their century-old economies are all directly impacted by laws regulating resources. As such, organizations that push for policy change like The Nature Conservancy must be careful to partner with local communities before demanding unrealistic standards for fishing and land use.


Around the world, rising air and water temperatures are changing the resources that living things rely on and introducing new challenges to survival. With the widespread and far-reaching impacts that scientists continue to discover today, climate change is a global problem requiring many local, national, and global solutions that respect a sustainable lifestyle for all parties involved.


In the Pacific Northwest, several manifestations of climate change have combined to create an overall more dangerous existence for several species, from people to predators to prey. Fighting a losing battle with increasing support, the future of salmon and steelhead populations is as rocky as most fights for survival in today’s climate, but a greater awareness of the gravity of these battles hold is a sign of hope for all those involved.

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Tags: #cascadia #salmon #endangeredspecies


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