A drought that began in the summer of 2018 continues to leave the lands of Southeast Alaska parched.

Extreme drought conditions in Ketchikan aren’t just impacting human residents. Animal habitats also are influenced by the lack of water.

Bo Meredith is the Area Management Biologist at the Division of Commercial Fisheries. He said if we get another month of no rain, that’s cause for concern. Meredith said the worst thing that can happen is if we get significant amounts of rain for a few days, which fills up the creeks when the humpies arrive. Then the rain stops again.

“At that point there’s a problem,” said Meredith. “Because then you have all these fish in the creeks, the water level slowly drops. If it’s accompanied with high temperature, you have lower oxygen carrying capacity in the water and you’ll end up having die-offs.”

He said if there’s a stream that supports a healthy salmon population year after year, they tend to stay in saltwater until the stream flow increases, then they’ll move upstream. 

“Now last year was a little bit different because we had drought conditions that kind of persisted into mid-October,” said Meredith. “However, what we saw was just stringers of pinks waiting to go up these creeks, and in some cases you had creeks that had stopped flowing entirely, with masses of pink salmon waiting in saltwater. And then we got a few days of rain in August that got everything moving. The fish went up and did their thing.”

According to Meredith, only 3.4 million pinks were caught on their common property fisheries last year. Since statehood, that’s about the 10th worst season, and one of the worst pink salmon returns since the ‘70s. When considering the last and current season, Meredith said he’s a little nervous about next year’s returns—particularly pink salmon which have a two-year cycle.

“The water levels were low, we got some rain just in the nick of time, so to speak, in some of these areas,” said Meredith. “And then it kind of persisted into October, and then compound that with the mid-January through most of February extreme cold conditions that we had with drought conditions—it makes me a bit nervous for the survival of those fish last year.”

Meredith said the color of the bottom of the creek can affect a fish’s ability to flow through the stream.

 “Some systems are more susceptible to that than others,” said Meredith. “If you have a dark bottom that absorbs more heat and light, you can have a complete stream turnover. And if it’s late enough in August, then there’s no new fish moving in, it can be pretty devastating.”

Not only is this bad for fisherman, a big fish die off also causes animals such as birds and bears to look for salmon in other places. Wildlife Management Biologist Ross Dorendorf at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said bears are one of the biggest creatures affected by the drought. He said when salmon aren’t in the streams, bears can end up in your own backyard.

“They’ll go for other sources of food and what they typically end up doing is they will push into town more, looking for easy food sources from people, looking for things like trash or unattended livestock with no electric fences around it—things like that,” said Dorendorf.

Dorendorf said bear activity usually goes up toward the fall, then drops sharply in November when most bears go into hibernation. He said access to food can change their hibernation periods.

“They will have a shorter hibernation overall because they have access to such good food sources if things like trash aren’t secure,” said Dorendorf. “So it’s actually influencing the activity of the animal.”

Senior forecaster Brian Bezenek with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it will probably take several seasons of above normal rain for the area to bounce back from this dry spell and refill reservoirs to previous levels. 

“This has not been something that’s recently happened,” said Bezenek. “It’s been a period of a couple of years where the southern panhandle has been short on precipitation. So it’s been building up for a couple of years to take the Ketchikan and [the] southern panhandle into what we classify as severe or extreme drought.”

And just because there is rain for a few days in a row, that doesn’t mean the drought is over. He said a few days of rain is a temporary solution that soaks into a few inches of the ground.

“And just a couple inches of rain is going to make a small rise in a lot of the lakes, but a lot of the lakes around the area are quite low, and this does have an impact on all the streams across the area,” Bezenek said.