Trout in Trouble—Lessons from the West

During the past year, I worked on a report Trout in Trouble: The Impacts of Global Warming on Trout in the Interior West with a conservation colleague at Montana Trout Unlimited, looking at global warming impacts on western states and the affect on trout. Needless to say, it’s not good news for the trout. Many species are already feeling the lethal grip of warmer air temperatures and for trout, hotter days means warmer water, less oxygen, and no where to go. 

It’s no secret we’re facing more extreme weather events across the country, but in the west, the hotter weather will mean life or death for many species, including trout. Just last year, one of the best dry fishing spots in the West, the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park experienced the largest trout fish kill in the park’s 135-year history. More than 1,000 fish were killed when the hot air temperatures heated the river water temperatures, dissolving much of the oxygen in the water necessary to fish survival.  

The good news is that we know how to avert most of these damages by reducing the emissions that cause global warming. But the longer we wait, the more painful – and expensive – the consequences will be.  Fortunately, global warming is about opportunities – not just risks.  A study we put out in May showed that meeting global warming pollution reduction targets would reduce oil imports, increase clean energy production, and lead to dramatically more fuel-efficient vehicles. The study also found that reaching the targets can be done with minimal cost to our energy system prices, less than one half of 1 percent.  Our findings were backed up by a  Department of Energy report issued in April, which says we can cut U.S. global warming pollution to the levels required by proposed federal legislation, while continuing robust economic growth and containing energy costs.  

Western states aren’t waiting for Congress to act. To date, seven (MT, UT, NM, AZ, CA, OR, WA) have signed on to the Western Climate Initiative, which calls for cutting emissions in the region 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, to begin with. But these states need to commit themselves to hitting these targets not just signing a piece of paper that makes them look green. The WCI states must also agree to reducing global warming pollution at least 80 percent below current levels by 2050. Otherwise, the impacts of global warming will just continue to get worse. 

Our trout report shows that Western fish aren’t the only ones being hit by global warming. The anglers and recreational tourists who support the billion dollar recreational fishing industry and many westerns towns are also being hurt. Some states are already taking steps to protect their fishing industry and that means closing down sections of the river when it gets too hot. This method is designed to protect the fish, but every day sections of a river are closed affects local tourism. 

In addition to passing federal climate change legislation and respecting fishing closures, there are precautionary measures we can take today to protect trout populations this year and years to come: 

  • Conserving water by installing low flow and water efficiency appliances in your home.
  • Fishing only in early morning when temperatures are cooler, limit the length of time you play a fish, use barbless hooks, minimize the fish’s exposure to the air, and release the fish as quickly as possible.
  • Fish high-elevation streams and lakes that remain cool in the summer.