State Climatologist on Salmon and Climate Change

State Climatologist Nick Bond remains optimistic that cooperation, resources and growing knowledge can save our icon.


Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond was on the Key Peninsula in September to do one of the things he loves — talk to people about how climate impacts us all. The Longbranch Improvement Club invited him through a program sponsored by Humanities Washington.

Bond moved to Seattle in 1980 to get his Ph.D. in atmospheric science. His research focuses on how climate change impacts marine ecosystems, and he has taught a course on weather analysis at the University of Washington. Describing himself as a “weather geek and generalist,” he jumped at the chance to become the Washington State Climatologist about 10 years ago when the position opened. He said that it gives him the opportunity to learn about the impact of climate over a wide spectrum of issues. Outreach is a big part of his job, including speaking to the public and being a resource for state and local agencies.

Bond chose salmon as his segue into the topic of climate change because “we feel an emotional connection to them. It’s a way to engage folks — what we have already seen and what may be coming.” The title of his talk, “Are Salmon Doomed? Hatching a Plan to Save a Northwest Icon,” reveals his optimism.

“I can give a piece of good news along with the realization that the climate is changing, and we ignore it at our peril,” he said.

"We are learning what really makes a difference and where you get the bang for the buck."

Bond said that there is growing recognition that a healthy environment and human health go hand in hand. For instance, improving parks in inner cities improves the health of city children. “We are not just talking about the health of salmon — we are talking about the health of people as well."

Many factors have led to the decrease in salmon runs, from overfishing to habitat issues to climate change, he said. The fish passage count of chinook at the Bonneville Dam was stable until the 1970s and then fell. Limits were placed on commercial and sports fishing, fisheries began to change practices (such as improving the time of release for migration, trucking juveniles around barriers), and the numbers improved.

“We are not just talking about the health of salmon — we are talking about the health of people as well."

The numbers recently plummeted, this time probably due to warm ocean conditions known as “the blob,” which resulted in poor feeding and lower survival of the young. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported monitoring a similar situation now. Bond said that even with interventions, salmon runs will not recover to historic levels, and that there will be some good years and bad, but he does not predict imminent disaster. Stakeholders — farmers, power companies, fishermen, tourism, tribes and environmentalists — share overlapping interests and are cooperating.

Climate change has resulted in rising water and air temperatures, sea level rise, and ocean acidification, Bond said. In the Pacific Northwest that has meant wetter winters and drier summers, with an impact on salmon habitat. There is increased flooding, and Bond said that while a weak flood can help clean up the river and open up a few additional areas of flow, a major flood can scour a river, wiping out eddies and silting over otherwise healthy gravel beds. Warmer river temperatures lower the oxygen content of the water and increase the energy needs of adult salmon, as well as increasing the number of parasites. Warmer saltwater decreases the nutritional value of copepods, one of the main tiny crustaceans that feed young salmon.

Despite the concerns, Bond sees reason for hope. “We have more information and resources and are learning what really makes a difference and where you get the bang for the buck. We aren’t completely there yet but we are learning, for example that the kinds of habitats that are favorable for coho may be different from the kinds for chum,” he said. “We are learning about that and starting to put what we know into effect. Groups like the Nature Conservancy are buying up critical flood plains that are important nursery grounds for salmon. They may help out with future flood damages plus be a benefit for the salmon.”

Municipalities, state agencies and tribes are coming together to find common ground, he said. Some religious groups have realized that environmental stewardship is part of their mission and want to leave a positive legacy for their children and grandchildren. Bonneville Power has set aside funding to study and improve salmon habitat; in some cases, dams do good, helping to regulate water flow when the snowpack is lower and winter rains are heavier.