NWF Report: How Climate Change is Harming Colorado Fishing

September 5, 2013

 A report by NWF released on September 5, 2013, details how climate change is harming Colorado fishing.  CWF's director emertius, Dennis Buechler, a former US Fish & Wildlife Service, participated in interviews.

BOULDER, CO (SEPT. 5, 2013) - Climate change is the most serious threat to America's freshwater fish and urgent action is needed at all levels to preserve key species and their habitats, according to a new report released today by the National Wildlife Federation. Swimming Upstream: Freshwater Fish in a Warming World<http://www.NWF.org/FishAndClimate> details how climate change is already putting many species of freshwater fish at risk, creating an uncertain future for fishing traditions and risking many jobs sustained by the angling and fish-processing industries. In the Rockies and across the West, drought, early snowmelt, increasing demands on limited water supplies and the aftermath of wildfires - debris and sediment from erosion - are intensifying the stresses on the cold-water fishery and such native fish as cutthroat trout and the endangered silvery minnow.

"Fishing is a real whopper in Colorado's robust outdoor recreation economy with 767,000 anglers contributing over $612 million annually to pursue some 35 species of both warm- and cold-water fish," said David Ellenberger, regional outreach coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation. "By the end of this century, native cutthroat trout are expected to lose an additional 58 percent of their current habitat. Across the country, we already have 147 freshwater fish species listed as threatened or endangered. We don't need more. What we need is leadership to confront climate change."

Freshwater fish are very sensitive to water temperatures and many species can only thrive in cold and cool waters. Temperatures even a few degrees above a species' needed temperature can dramatically increase stress, make them more susceptible to toxins, parasites and disease and can deter growth and threaten survival, especially as more warm water species move into warming waters.

Dennis Buechler, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and Director Emeritus with the Colorado Wildlife Federation stated, "The Colorado Wildlife Federation is very concerned about the cumulative effects of stream diversions, drought, and climate change. We have worked for years with our partners to save the trout fisheries on the Fraser and Colorado rivers. Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District currently divert about 60 percent of the water from the systems and plan to take more. Already, anglers have been asked to not fish when water temperatures are high. As the hot, dry weather persists and more water is drained from the rivers, the situation will only get worse."

Climate change is warming our lakes, rivers and streams causing:

* Habitat loss for many cold-water species;

* Exacerbation of existing stressors, such as habitat loss, polluted water, invasive species and disease;

* Increased competition from warmer-water species. Sportsmen on the front lines of conservation are already seeing changes where they fish:

* More extreme weather events -especially more intense droughts, heat waves and wildfires - can increase fish mortality

* Shorter winters with less snow and ice cover can shift stream flows and water availability in the spring and summer

* More frequent droughts reduce stream flows and kill streamside vegetation which helps to cool streams. Less water during droughts reduces available habitat and the remaining water warms faster, leaving fewer cool or cold-water refuges for fish

Bill Dvorak, an organizer with the National Wildlife Federation and a longtime fishing and rafting guide, said he has seen dramatic weather extremes on the Arkansas and the Gunnison rivers, where he has operated since the early 1980s.

"During droughts, the water temperatures have risen significantly, forcing us to stop fishing altogether or limit operations to the early morning or late evenings. We have seen tremendous fish mortality as the water heats up and oxygen levels drop," said Dvorak. "At the other extreme, we've seen many more flash floods when torrential rains sweep sediment into the rivers, suffocating fish and killing the insects they eat. Obviously, both extremes have had a huge impact on the fish populations as well as the money I make, both in the short and long term.''

Climate change is taking an economic toll. The 27 million Americans who fish every year spend $27 billion annually. On average, each angler fished 17 days and spent an average of $934. The decline in fishing days for coldwater fish could cause a projected annual national economic loss anywhere from $81 million to $6.4 billion by the end of this century, compared to 2009, say experts.

Wildlife managers in some parts of our region are already struggling with climate change impacts such as the stark three-year drought in northern New Mexico that has hampered the recovery efforts of the federallyendangered silvery minnow.

"The Rio Grande Silvery Minnow was once common in the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico and in parts of the Pecos River. But now it's found only in a 175-mile stretch of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and as part of an experimental population established in the Big Bend area in Texas," said Thomas Archdeacon, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist with the New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Albuquerque, NM. "Loss of habitat landed the fish on the Endangered Species List. Drought and growing demands on the river could doom its recovery. Boosting wild populations with hatchery stock and moving fish around as water dries up won't be enough to save the minnow."

Swimming Upstream outlines actions needed to address climate change and ensure a thriving fishing tradition:

* Cut climate-disrupting carbon pollution. Because carbon pollution is driving climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency must continue moving forward with its authority to limit carbon pollution and finalize the first-ever limits on carbon from new and existing power plants by 2016.

* Transition to cleaner, less-polluting energy. Move to more wind, solar, geothermal and sustainable bioenergy.

* Capitalize on and restore natural systems. Enhance nature's ability to absorb and store carbon, preserve and restore habitats like forests and other natural lands. Adapt to enhance the resiliency of freshwater aquatic habitats, as climate change is already occurring.

* Use non-structural, nature-based approaches. Pursue approaches like wetlands restoration and floodplain protection in lieu of reservoirs and manmade structures to minimize impacts on fisheries. Direct development away from sensitive aquatic habitats and climate-vulnerable areas.

Read the report at NWF.org/FishAndClimate<http://www.NWF.org/FishAndClimate>. Get more National Wildlife Federation news at NWF.org/News<http://www.NWF.org/News>.

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