Dead fish

Walking to Westchester Lagoon.

By Headlamp by Zack Fields

I was planning on going berry picking with my 21-month-old daughter Zara, but when I asked her what she wanted to do, she was emphatic: “Fish.” So I loaded the canoe on the car and drove out to Beach Lake in Chugiak, which has been stocked several times this year with some 5,000 rainbow trout and grayling.

About halfway through the short drive, Zara was asleep in her car seat, so I drove down to the water and leisurely unloaded the canoe, PFDs, paddle, and fishing gear. A Chugiak local was walking his dogs in the park, and mentioned that this summer’s relentless heat had wiped out the fish in the lake.

“I would come down here in the morning and see them belly up on the water’s surface, still breathing, barely,” he said, and added that he hadn’t seen any fish caught on the lake since temperatures reached the 90s several weeks ago. He said Mirror Lake’s fish have been wiped out as well.

We enjoy canoeing one way or another, so eventually Zara woke up from her nap and we paddled a circuit around the lake. Beach Lake isn’t particularly deep, but we fished the shady cover near shore, and deeper areas near the middle of the lake. I’ve never had a problem catching rainbows or grayling with a Mepps #1 spoon, but we didn’t get a single strike anywhere.

Zara and I had a similar experience a week or so, when we canoed and fished around Westchester Lagoon. Normally, it would be possible to catch rainbows in the Lagoon, and we’d caught a nice rainbow earlier in the summer for Zara’s first fish. But Westchester was dead fishing, too, or at least we didn’t catch any.

News stories throughout the summer have covered unprecedented salmon die-offs in western Alaska. Salmon have died in massive numbers in Norton Sound and the YK Delta as water temperatures have surged above 70 degrees, which is 10-12 degrees above normal. In the Cook Inlet basin, the Deshka River rose above 80 degrees, wiping out nearly all kings that normally can move upstream to spawn. In a year when the nighttime low temperatures frequently exceed what should be our daily high temps, it isn’t surprising that the heat is affecting fish habitat.

News of salmon deaths in Western Alaska seemed slightly distant to me earlier this summer as Zara and I were playing in the yard, going for bike rides, and walking down to Chester Creek and the Westchester Lagoon to fish. Now that the fish die offs have affected our local lakes as well as commercially important fisheries, it’s hitting closer to home. I’ve followed reports on climate change for many years, and imagine I understand the projected impacts as well as the average lay person. But I never thought my daughter wouldn’t be able to fish in Alaska because the water’s so hot it’s wiping out our local trout and salmon populations. There are bigger issues out there when it comes to the climate crisis — certainly those that affect people’s livelihoods and subsistence — but I also think it’s elemental that a little kid in Alaska should be able to go down to her local stream and reel in a rainbow trout.

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