PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Chinook salmon are swimming in nearly unprecedented numbers this fall through the U.S. Northwest's Columbia River system, a federal official said on Wednesday, even as fish advocates worry about forecasts for unusually hot, dry conditions ahead.
The Bonneville Power Administration has counted 1.2 million Chinook salmon returning to spawn in the Columbia and Snake river systems, which run through Oregon and Washington states, since Aug. 1. It is the second-highest autumn run since fish counts began in 1938, Joel Scruggs, a spokesman for the federal agency, said. The record was set in 2013.
Bonneville Power's tally does not break out how many of the Chinook salmon spawning this fall are from wild populations, some of which are federally protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and how many were hatchery bred, and thus not protected.
"Fall Chinook returns are probably the brightest spot in the salmon story in the Columbia basin today," said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Portland-based Save Our Wild Salmon. "But we can't lose track of the fact that we have 13 stocks of fish in the basin listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act."
Fish species run upstream in seasonally distinct groups, and Bogaard said that spring and summer populations are still likely to struggle next year due to ongoing drought.
Abnormally warm temperatures and low river levels led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fish this past summer. Nearly half of the sockeye salmon that sought to traverse the Columbia River died, as did thousands of spring Chinook.
"All the scientific predictions are that warm weather and hot water events will increase in duration and intensity in the years ahead," Bogaard said.
Scruggs, the Bonneville Power Administration spokesman, attributed the surge in autumn fish populations to favorable ocean conditions, and also to a decades-long effort to improve fish habitat and manage commercial fishing along Columbia and Snake rivers and their tributaries.
"We're thrilled with the run, after the long summer we had. It's a great comeback story," Scruggs said.
(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood in Portland, Oregon; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Diane Craft)