Salmon may live underwater, but they are not immune to damage from the flooding that has inundated Whatcom County in recent days, according to local salmon experts and advocates.
“Salmon are adapted to high flows, and it’s actually a pretty important part of their life cycle,” said James Helfield, an associate professor at Western Washington University who studies Pacific salmon and trout habitat. “That said, this was a pretty big storm. We don’t usually get this much flooding.”
The Nooksack Indian Tribe, which conducts extensive salmon habitat restoration work, is also worried about the impacts of flooding on the fish. The scope of the flood has yet to be measured exactly, but provisional data shows that it was one of the top three on record for the North and Middle Forks and the Nooksack River at Ferndale, said Treva Coe, habitat program manager for the Nooksack Indian Tribe’s Natural and Cultural Resources Department. That’s not great news for salmon: Years with high annual peak flows are associated with low survival, Coe told The Bellingham Herald in an email.
As the climate of the Pacific Northwest changes, fueled by humans burning fossil fuels, the region is seeing more short, intense storms rather than the gentle, constant rain more common in past decades, Helfield said. Flooding is also intensified by human development in watersheds, which interferes with how water naturally moves across the land. “We have changed the watershed drastically, and the climate is changing,” Helfield said. “What we consider a 100-year flood based on past data, we really have to start adjusting those probabilities.”