Press Release

Salmon Dying from Hot Water in Columbia River

Dammed rivers and climate change create lethal conditions for key species

Kari Birdseye
kbirdseye@nrdc.org, 415.875.8243

Portland, ORNew underwater video footage shows heat-stressed sockeye salmon dying because the Columbia River is too hot. The video shows sockeye with dramatic lesions and fungus, which affects fish subject to thermal stress. 

“Sockeye are dying right now because the Columbia and Snake rivers are too hot,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director, Columbia Riverkeeper. “I’m hopeful this tragedy will inspire our elected leaders to take action to restore our rivers before it is too late.” 

The Columbia River currently exceeds 71 degrees F—much hotter than the legal limit of 68, which scientists set to protect salmon from unsafe temperatures. Some of the sockeye in the video may have been returning to the Snake River, which is also superheated. The dams create unnaturally hot water due to huge stagnant reservoirs, and now climate change is pushing it over the edge.

The video was captured in the Little White Salmon River in the Columbia River Gorge on July 16. Sockeye spawn in mountain lakes up the Snake River or upper Columbia: they do not spawn in this area. 

In 2015, when roughly 250,000 sockeye died in the Columbia and Snake rivers because of hot water, sockeye also sought refuge and died in the Little White Salmon River and nearby tributaries. Scientists predict that fish kills like this will become more common as dams and climate change continue to warm the rivers and likely cause the extinction of Snake River sockeye—unless we address how the dams warm the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Tribal Nations, fishing groups, and conservation organizations have called on the Pacific Northwest congressional delegation to obtain funding to breach the four lower Snake River Dams, which would cool the Snake River and help sockeye return. 

“The sockeye here are dying,” said Don Sampson, Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance. “They are suffocating. You can see they are in lethally hot water. We’re in a salmon crisis and it’s time for Congress to act.”  

“We are losing so much more than a fish,” said Giulia Good Stefani, a senior attorney with NRDC. “Salmon support a way of life for both native and non-native rural communities from the coast to the Northern Rockies. The reservoirs behind the four lower Snake River dams are reaching deadly temperatures, and the time to take action, both ecologically and politically, is right now.”

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Columbia Riverkeeper’s mission is to restore and protect the water quality of the Columbia River and all life connected to it, from the headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. Columbia Riverkeeper is a nonprofit organization with over 16,000 members who live, work, and recreate throughout the Columbia River Basin. www.columbiariverkeeper.org

NRDC (The Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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