Salmon and Climate Change: Fish are cooking but not on the grill

At a community gathering in Portland, Bill Bradbury, former Oregon Secretary of State, served up a big dish of reasons why we in the Northwest and around the world should take note. Climate change is heating up the planet, the oceans and rivers. If you are concerned about salmon and climate change in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a chance our fish will cook before making it to your grill.

Bill Bradbury talking about salmon and climate change and changes in the Northwest

Prior to serving as Secretary of State for nine years, Bradbury worked in the Oregon Legislature for fourteen years. He is now one of two representatives from Oregon appointed to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Bradbury has been active in environmental protection throughout his career  – among other things directing a non-profit For the Sake of the Salmon. He was one the first cohorts to receive Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leader‘s training in 2006. Since then he’s presented on climate change issues and solutions on more than 400 occasions.

I’m usually not fond of scare tactics around the topic of climate change but Bradbury’s presentation, sponsored by 350PDX and Renew Oregon, delivered just the right amount of reality shock mixed with hope.

“Maybe there is a planet…where rainstorms are not getting bigger but not here – not this planet. There might also be a place where flash floods are not getting bigger, but not here,” said Bradbury.

Around the world in 2015, global heat waves from the changing climate were responsible fort taking 2300 lives in India, and 1200 in Pakistan. In July 2015, Iran’s heat index reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The EU heat wave in 2015 led to water rationing in 140 cities. More than 50,000 deaths were connected to the 2010 heat wave and wildfires in Moscow.

A drought between 2006 and 2010 turned Syria into a desert. The wave of Syrian and other climate refugees is not expected to slow anytime soon.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels hit 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in 2014 leading to an average global temperature rise of 0.8 degree Celsius at the equator (translating to 12 degrees Fahrenheit at the pole). There is no doubt that this global temperature rise – though it may seem insignificant at a local level – is beginning to cause unpredictable consequences on a global level.

As global temperatures increase, oceans release more moisture in the skies. Our global humidity has increased four percent contributing to more ferocious coastal storms. Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 was one of the strongest typhoons in recorded history.

In Oregon, glacial snowpack is disappearing each year at an alarming rate. Approximately 61 percent of White River Glacier has disappeared (glaciers in the Northwest supply water to thousands of acres of croplands in this region). The Willamette Valley is expected to increase 6 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2080, leading to major health issues and millions of dollars in damages to roads, crops, and industry.

Seafood, Salmon and Climate Change

In the Northwest, salmon and climate change don’t agree with each other. Fish are cooking but not on the grill. The Columbia River – the largest river in the Pacific Northwest separating Oregon and Washington – is getting hotter than salmon can tolerate. Last year, 50 percent of the Sockeye salmon run died because the river reached 68 to 71 degrees Fahrenheit.

salmon and climate change - rivers are heating up

Willapa Bay, Washington is the epicenter of oyster production in the Northwest (according to Bradbury it’s valued at more than $100 million). Due to ocean acidification, caused by increased absorption of human generated carbon dioxide in the oceans, wild Pacific oyster reproduction is rapidly declining causing some businesses to relocate. Millions of oyster larvae have died over the past decade and the problem is expected to get worse.

Well you may be thinking after hearing all this (as I was for a brief moment) that enough is enough. Now that we know there is a problem, what can we do about it?

There is Always Hope

At the Paris climate conference (Cop21) in December, 186 countries (representing 98 percent of the global emissions) reached a global climate agreement for the first time. “As a result of the Paris climate conference, we have a common goal,” said Bradbury. The agreement establishes a global action plan for climate mitigation (for example through emission reductions and transition from fossil fuels to clean energy) that will limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

In the U.S., coal-fired power plants have been declining with a steady wave of coal plant retirements between 2005 and 2014. In the past 10 years, coal has fallen from 51 percent share of U.S. power generation to 39 percent while wind generation nearly doubled in just a four-year period (between 2010 and 2014).

One afternoon in July 2015, Germany set a new record by generating 78 percent of electricity from renewables. Recently Denmark reported a record-breaking year for wind power in 2015, supplying 42 percent of the Dane’s electricity consumption.

“Enough solar energy reaches earth every hour to meet the power needs of the entire world for a full year,” said Bradbury. It appears the world is beginning to make use of this power with increasing solar installations from small to large. A pay-as-you go system is taking off in Africa bringing affordable solar power to more than 150,000 homes. The world’s largest solar park is under construction in Pakistan, which will produce 1000 megawatts (enough to power 320,000 homes). The largest solar steam plant in the world now resides in the Mojave Desert on the border of Nevada and California, powering 140,000 homes.

While investments and job growth in renewable energy have outpaced those of fossil fuels in the past several years, Bradbury noted that conservation will also play a major role. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Draft Seventh Power Plan expects to meet energy growth in the region primarily through conservation without building any new power plants.

Local groups such as Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), Climate Solutions, Renew Oregon,, and Oregon Climate have been working on climate issues and clean energy solutions. The group is working on the Healthy Climate Bill that would enforce existing carbon legislation (established in 2007) through a required cap on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and market-based solutions.

Mount Hood lends perspective about salmon and climate change

Oregon’s current legislation adopted goals to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. However, there are no enforceable mechanisms to achieve these goals and Oregon is not currently on track.

In addition to enforcing current legislation, the Healthy Climate Bill would enact market mechanisms such as a cap on emissions, establishing a carbon price, and implementing incentives to reduce emissions through investments in energy conservation, renewable programs (like community solar), and green transportation.

Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions come primarily from transport (36 percent), electricity (23 percent), and industry (20 percent), with remaining in natural gas, agriculture, waste, and other. The bill would focus on solutions to curb emission in these primary areas with a focus on clean technologies, job creation, and helping economically disadvantaged communities (including rural, people of color, and low-income communities) who may be disproportionally impacted by climate change.

An Oregon native, I moved away for a period of years but returned home eventually missing the sea air, dripping green forests, mountains, and icy cold rivers. I instinctively know which way is home yet I hope the river will remain cool enough to let the salmon complete their journey.

Author: Kathryn Thomsen

Founder of Hundredgivers, a nonprofit supporting and accelerating sustainability initiatives benefiting local and global communities. Kathryn is a social entrepreneur, consultant, researcher, writer and urban farmer. She collaborates with individuals, organizations, and businesses to develop climate change solutions, clean energy, and sustainability strategies and programs.

2 Replies to "Salmon and Climate Change: Fish are cooking but not on the grill"

  • To Restore Hope, Focus on Climate Change Solutions Now
    April 5, 2017 (6:32 am)

    […] the Northwest, we’re seeing declining snow pack, warming rivers, and dwindling salmon runs. In California after five years of debilitating drought, the state is experiencing one of the […]

  • Time is Running Out and the Carbon Clock is Ticking Away
    December 19, 2016 (11:41 pm)

    […] There are many organizations such as the Climate Reality Project working on solutions at the local level and training leaders to spread the word. I attended a talk with one of these leaders, Bill Bradbury, last year to understand how global warming is affecting us in the Pacific Northwest and what we can do about it. […]

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