Report drought related damage
and impacts to fish, wildlife and habitat.

Impacts on Fish and Wildlife

Drought's impacts on salmon and other fish

Drought can harm salmon and other fish populations at several points of their life cycles:

Juvenile fish

  • Downstream migration of juvenile salmon in the spring is linked to the surge in stream flows created by runoff from melting snow in the mountains. With most mountain snow packs already gone, there could be changes in the migration patterns of young fish attempting to reach saltwater to continue their life cycle.
  • Juvenile salmon, trout and other fish species in smaller streams could become stranded in isolated pools if low stream flows continue across the state.
  • Warmer-than-normal stream temperatures and low dissolved-oxygen levels in isolated pools can be lethal to fish, and juvenile fish trapped in small pools are susceptible to predators such as birds and raccoons.
  • Warm water temperatures also increase predation on juvenile salmon and steelhead by warm water fish species, such as northern pike minnow and smallmouth bass.

Adult fish

  • Adult salmon could have difficulties reaching upstream spawning grounds if river flows remain below normal.
  • Some salmon species spawn in channel margins, side channels, and smaller tributaries. If those areas are unavailable because of low flows, some fish would have to spawn in mainstem waters, where salmon nests – known as redds – could be lost when flows drop. In the fall, redds in the mainstem also would be more susceptible to bed scour resulting from high water or flooding.
  • Warm water temperatures can increase the likelihood of outbreaks of certain diseases in adult fish populations, especially fungal and bacterial diseases, possibly leading to fish kills or reduced reproductive success.

Drought's impact on fish hatchery operations

  • Poor water quality, high temperatures and reduced water supplies could result in an increase in fish disease, treatment costs and mortalities at fish hatcheries.
  • A lack of water would require some facilities to pump water from deep wells, adding significant costs to operations.
  • Early releases of juvenile salmon and trout – plus additional stress related to handling, trucking and relocating those fish – will increase mortalities.
  • Structures that allow adult salmon and steelhead to return to hatcheries may have to be modified to provide passage to the facilities.

Drought's impact on wildlife populations

  • While the severity of the impacts of drought on wildlife populations will vary from area to area, less water generally equates to reduced productivity for all species of wildlife, including ducks and geese, upland birds, elk and deer.
  • Small, shallow ponds could dry up, affecting aquatic wildlife and reducing habitat for waterfowl.
  • Dry conditions reduce wildlife forage for deer, elk and black bears, potentially pushing animals closer to humans and creating conflicts. Those conflicts include not only a potential threat to public safety, but also an increase in damage claims against the state by agricultural producers due to wildlife foraging on irrigated crops.

Drought's impact on recreational fishing and hunting opportunities

  • Fishing in rivers could be restricted if stream flows are low enough to create obvious passage problems for fish. Salmon and other fish species can become isolated and stressed by high water temperatures and low flows, making them more vulnerable to increased fishing pressure or illegal fishing activity.
  • Access to some freshwater fishing areas could be restricted if lake and river levels recede to a point where boat ramps are unusable.
  • Access to hunting areas could be restricted because of fire danger.
  • Lower wildlife productivity can mean fewer game animals available for harvest in future hunting seasons.
  • Instream flows and water depth may be insufficient on some popular rivers to provide whitewater rafting, kayaking, or canoeing. Some streams may be so shallow that rocks become exposed to the extent that the stream cannot be safely navigated, and some streams may have insufficient flow for any navigation.
Thumbnail of poster that says Let 'em Pass! Rock Dams Block FishHow you can help

Information on water conservation is available on the Washington Department of Ecology's webpage.

Precautionary measures for fishing during the drought

  • Always check WDFW’s emergency fishing rules webpage before heading out.
  • Fish in the morning, when water temperatures are cooler.
  • Use barbless hooks to release fish quickly.
  • Use good judgement. If water conditions are unfavorable – hot temperatures, low water flow –fish elsewhere.  
  • Land fish quickly and avoid extensive handling of fish.
  • Keep fish fully submerged when releasing back to the water.