Fishing hours on Nisqually River will be restricted starting Aug. 20

The state will close afternoon and night fishing on the Nisqually River starting Thursday because river levels and water temperatures are at dangerous levels for salmon survival. The closure, announced Friday morning, will allow fishing from one hour before sunrise to 2 p.m. daily on the river from its mouth to the military tank crossing a mile upstream of the mouth of Muck Creek.

This is the first major stream in the South Sound to see such a closure because of the drought conditions impacting the region. The agency also has closed the Black River from the mouth to Black Lake to fishing after about 50 fish died because of the same combination.

Larry Phillips, district fish biologist, said the closure is one step the state Department of Fish and Wildlife contemplated as it looks to reduce mortality rates for chinook salmon listed on the federal Endangered Species List.

Under agreements with federal fishery managers and tribal co-managers, the state is allowed a specific number of wild chinook deaths in its fisheries.

“We have a preseason mortality expectation based on normal conditions. When conditions are not normal, there is a potential to impact that (mortality rate),” Phillips said. “When we get into conditions when fish are stressed out when their caught, there’s a possibility that mortality rate might be greater than what we had in our preseason plan.”

The goal of the afternoon closure is to stop hooking fish when the river’s water temperature is highest. Fish to be released are better able to withstand the stress of being caught when water temperatures are coolest early in the day.

For anglers, the closure comes at an inopportune time. Nearly 1 million pink salmon are expected to make their way back to the river this month and next.

The shutdown is driven by the unseasonably low water levels and high water temperatures. In the afternoon, temperatures are reaching 68 degrees, which lowers oxygen levels and further stresses salmon, Phillips said.

Low water levels behind Alder Dam is leading to the increased water temperatures.

The level of Alder Lake is at 1,172.4 feet of elevation, well below the maximum of 1,207 feet. Water levels are so low the Sunny Beach Point has been closed since June 22 because the swimming area is dry.

The issue, Phillips said, is where the Nisqually River enters the lake near the town of Elbe.

“The water is literally 1 or 2 inches deep as it travels across the alluvial flood plain to reach the lake,” he said. “The water warms up as it flows across that giant mud flat.”

To keep Nisqually water temperatures cooler, Tacoma Power would have to release more water out of the dam. Flows measured near National this week have been as low as 312 cubic feet per second Wednesday afternoon, almost half the normal flow.

Which leads to a Catch-22.

“If we try to meet the low flow requirements we would run out of water by mid-September,” Phillips said. “If we reach that point, we could only release the same amount of water that’s coming into the lake, which is 200 cubic feet per second.”

The department has been meeting weekly with the power company, Nisqually Indian Tribe and others to discuss the situation and consider options to keep daytime water temperatures at 64 degrees.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640