Glaciers Help Explain Suffering Salmon Populations

The Nooksack Indians, who live in northwest Washington near the border of Canada, are fighting to save local salmon populations through a variety of innovative measures. Several species of salmon reside in the Nooksack River, which is comprised of three main forks that drain a large portion of the Cascade Range into Bellingham Bay. The salmon of the Nooksack are struggling as waters in the river warm. In response, the Nooksack Indians have turned to local glaciers to help understand and resolve the otherwise unrestricted impacts of climate change.

Map of Nooksack River. Photo Credit: AmericanRivers.org
Map of Nooksack River. (Source: AmericanRivers.org)

The waters of the Nooksack River have long housed several salmon species that have provided tribes like the Nooksack with sustenance and financial support. In recognition of the importance of fishing for Native American communities, fishing rights were granted to the local tribes through the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. However, these fishing rights are threatened by the dwindling salmon populations struggling to keep up with the changing climate.

The endangerment of the local salmon populations aren’t just an economic loss for the Nooksack Indians, but a culturally significant loss as well. Oliver Grah, Water Resources Program Manager for the tribe, points out, “The Nooksack Indian Tribe is place-based. That is, tribal members are supposed to stay and live on or near their reservation.” Once the river ecosystems reach a specific tipping point, the salmon populations will begin to die off and the impacts on local tribes will be deeply felt.

In an effort to avert worrisome climate projections, the Nooksack Indian Tribe has been proactively implementing adaptive infrastructure and closely monitoring nearby glaciers crucial to healthy salmon numbers. It’s through thoughtful and long-term adaptation and monitoring plans that the Nooksack Tribe seeks to ease the environmental stressors that may critically alter salmon habitats.

Mountain Glacier, Photo Credit: Oliver Grah
Mountain glacier. (Source: Oliver Grah)

Pacific Northwest salmon populations fare best in periods having “high precipitation, deep mountain snowpack, cool air and water temperatures, cool coastal ocean temperatures, and abundant north-to-south ‘upwelling’ winds in spring and summer,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The Nooksack River relies heavily on the glacial runoff from both Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan located near the U.S.-Canada border. Summer glacial melt has historically helped keep rivers cool and ideal for salmon, according to Northern Arizona University. However, as places like Washington continue to see above average temperatures, the glacial snowpack has started to suffer. When the glaciers suffer, the salmon suffer.

Scientists working on mountain glacier, photo credit: Oliver Grah
Scientists working on mountain glacier. (Source: Oliver Grah)

With the current temperature trends, salmon populations will slowly wane to extinction in the Nooksack river, according to Grah. Grah states, “Ultimately, loss of glacier melt due to glacier recession will result in reduced stream flows and increased temperatures late in the summer when salmon are most vulnerable.”

Different salmon species breed during the late summer and early fall, according to the National Park Service. This process begins in freshwater when a salmon egg nest becomes fertilized and remains embedded in the river bottom during the winter months. In the spring, eggs hatch and remain close to the nest for several months. Once the salmon have matured and grown in size, they begin to migrate towards the ocean. Depending on salmon breed, the migration can take anywhere from 0-2 years. Once the salmon reach the mouth of the river, they feed to increase their size and chance of survival in the ocean. Salmon can remain in the ocean for up to 8 years before migrating back to their native streams for reproduction. But this entire process relies on a consistent habitat in the salmon’s native river. The Nooksack Tribe recognizes the importance of trying to maintain this original ecosystem despite challenges posed by climate change and reduced glacial runoff.

Scientist Oliver Grah collecting field data (Source: Oliver Grah)
Scientist Oliver Grah collecting project data (Source: Oliver Grah)

In an attempt to reduce vulnerability, the Nooksack’s adaptation measures have sought to create a landscape that will help cool the river. These efforts include lining the rivers with trees to shade exposed waters from abundant sunlight. Additionally, the tribe has been creating log jams, which will help provide sites of colder water for the fish. This habitat restoration program, with its emphasis on the effects of climate change, offers “a good chance that the tribe can improve the chance of salmon survival in the face of climate change,” according to Grah.

Photo Credit: Oliver Grah
River data collection. (Source: Oliver Grah)

While these adaptation efforts won’t specifically address the issue of glacial recession, they will help to maintain the local river ecosystem. The Nooksack have also worked to set up a local glacier monitoring program, recognizing the importance of glaciers on the health of the salmon.

Grah, a leading glacier expert, is part of the team monitoring the local glaciers in northwest Washington for the tribe. Most of the glacier runoff that empties into the Nooksack river comes from the glaciers located on Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. According to the University of Oregon’s Tribal Climate Project, “On Mt. Baker alone, at least eight glaciers feed the watershed. There are approximately 148 glaciers, glacierets, and perennial snowfields with a combined area of 40,828,294 m2 (15.76 mi2 ) that drain into the Nooksack River.”

Changes in Washington climate patterns have the ability to drastically impact the glacial landscape of the Northern Cascades. Given the magnitude of the runoff into the Nooksack River, slight deviations from the norm could mean massive changes for the river.

In an attempt to try and quantify these potential changes, the Nooksack tribe has been consistently recording snow depth, melt rates, stream temperatures and runoff. This field data is used to create scientific models that help show the speed and severity of glacial melt. These models take the field data and visually demonstrate the interconnections of different variables, identifying current and future climate trends. Monitoring and striving for healthy glaciers will ensure the Nooksack Tribe can continue to embrace its deep-rooted history in the Pacific Northwest.

With the combined adaptation and research efforts, the Nooksack Tribe understands the importance of being prepared and well-informed. Through collaborations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nooksack Tribe remains focused on preserving historical aspects of their culture for future generations. It’s this awareness and environmental dedication expressed by the Nooksack Tribe that exemplifies how to mindfully manage the impacts of climate change in order to preserve aspects of all culture, not just one’s own.

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