A fisherman’s how-to guide for recovering Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead.
Recently the White House Council on Environmental Quality held a listening session on the future of the Columbia River system and the long-term recovery of its salmon and steelhead populations with the fishing and conservation communities. I’ll ask you to look past politics for a moment because the meeting was an important and especially welcome sign to all sportsmen and -women who love to fish for spring, summer and fall Chinook, coho, sockeye and A-and B- run steelhead – and from Buoy 10 to the Hanford Reach to Hells Canyon and beyond. It was also critical to ensuring the abundance of our beloved runs and the opportunity to fish for them for generations to come. What the CEQ was signaling is that the administration gets it: Salmon and steelhead are an important natural resource in the Northwest – and recovering them is an issue of national importance.
Finally! It now seems like we are all on the same page and moving in the right direction, but I need your help to keep the momentum going. So let’s delve into what’s at stake and what it’s going to take. It involves some math and science, but I’m here to walk you through it.
FOR STARTERS, MOST Northwest salmon and steelhead anglers know that the Columbia River was historically the most productive salmon habitat in the world. The abundance is legendary, noted in the journals of Lewis and Clark and captured in historic photos that send the mind reeling. Some old hands in the hoglines still remember when adult returns were regularly measured in the millions – not mere thousands.
But those returns of yore are no longer, and what’s more, time is running out. Salmon populations are edging toward extinction, according to the Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries Department’s latest finding, a study released last spring. In fact, the alarm is sounding loudly and many would describe it as Code Red. Wild spring Chinook and steelhead populations in the Columbia and Snake River Basins are cratering, nearing a critical threshold of extinction. Without some big and urgent changes, nearly 80 percent of Snake River Basin spring/summer Chinook appear to be on the path to functional (quasi) extinction in the next four years.
Even as the system’s salmon and steelhead continue to draw anglers from across the region, the country and around the globe for a chance to catch these legendary fish, it’s important to get familiar with the science pointing to what’s killing them and the clear solutions to save them.
LET’S START WITH the numbers. As any angler knows, smolts need to outmigrate to the Pacific, then return to spawn in their natal streams. For Idaho salmon, there are eight dams and eight reservoirs to navigate on the way out to the Pacific. Ninety-eight percent of smolts don’t survive that journey out to and back from the ocean to spawn. While many will point to a single dam and note that the salmon have successfully passed through, it is the cumulative negative impacts on these long-migrating fish that matters. They need to get out to the ocean – and back again. This is a key part of the calculus and it bears repeating: cumulative negative impacts inflicted on salmon and steelhead by eight dams and eight reservoirs.
To rebuild abundant populations, we need average smolt-to-adult-return ratios, or SARs, of 4 percent for wild stocks returning to Columbia and Snake River tributaries. It important to note that SARs are the only metric that matters.
The science is clear: the lower Snake River is particularly problematic. As you can imagine, warming and slowing the water is a big problem for coldwater fish. It’s also making them more vulnerable to native and non-native predators. All told, it’s reducing SARs to less than 1 percent. The fish are not replacing themselves, and this is the path to extinction.
We are living the impacts in real time. Season after season, what have we witnessed but emergency closures and the diminishing number of days we have to fish. It’s creating too much competition for too few fish. It’s wreaking havoc for fishing guides trying to keep their businesses afloat. And it’s killing riverside economies – the hotels and restaurants, tackle shops, manufacturers and other businesses that rely on fishing.
THERE’S ANOTHER RUB. With climate change, the impacts on coldwater fish are accelerating. Dams on the lower Snake River are heating the waters downstream in the mainstem Columbia River. As a result, upriver-bound fish are trapped. We saw it in 2015, when over a quarter of a million sockeye boiled to death, and we saw other salmon and steelhead seeking coldwater refuges such as at Drano Lake.
Last summer, the Northwest was gripped by a devastating heat dome, and salmon felt the heat too. Nearly 70 percent of endangered Snake River sockeye died in superheated Columbia and lower Snake reservoirs. And the fabled B-run steelhead returns were the lowest ever recorded.
When the runs are bad, people point to ocean conditions. When runs are good, people point to ocean conditions. But one thing is clear: Salmon are born in and return to rivers. In fact, spring Chinook and steelhead spend nearly half of their lifecycles in freshwater, so relying on the occasional upcycle of good ocean years while neglecting the consistently high and ongoing mortalities caused by dams in our rivers is not sound policy. Rather, it is a recipe for extinction. Are we going to passively sit back and let the last fish swim into oblivion?
Scientists agree that removing the four lower Snake River dams would keep this stretch of river cool enough for fish, even in very hot years. It would also help restore the pace of the outmigration, and improve the chances for smolts, rather than allow them to languish in the shallows as food for predators in hot, slow-moving waters. By focusing on the dams, we can focus what humans can actually control immediately – the freshwater system.
Improving river conditions by restoring the lower Snake will significantly improve smolt outmigration survival and enable salmon and steelhead adults to return in greater numbers to existing habitat and the more than 5,000 miles of historic habitat in Oregon, Idaho and Washington that is currently rendered nearly barren due to too many large, hot reservoirs for salmon to navigate. More than half of this once-highly productive habitat is blocked and 70 percent of it is in Idaho.
Imagine if more of those fish could get to those reaches to spawn and their progeny to rear in these pristine, protected high-altitude habitats. It would transform our fishing opportunities. It would also reinvigorate the riverside communities that depend on them. Most important, it would ensure our kids, and our kids’ kids, get a chance to chase these world-renowned fish.
UPRIVER AND DOWNRIVER, the impacts of the dams and their reservoirs are far reaching. The salmon we love to fish in the Northwest are a keystone species upon which more than 130 plants and animals – including orcas – depend on to thrive. Our fisheries are also constrained by their low numbers. We need to turn this situation around to ensure equitable harvest among sport anglers, and tribal and commercial fisherman and -women across three states before it’s too late. The science is showing the way: We need to restore the Snake River by taking out the four lower Snake River dams and ensure maximum spill at the lower four Columbia River dams.
In February 2021 we reached an important inflection point in a long-simmering debate. With the leadership of Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, we’re finally acknowledging it’s past time to reimagine what true salmon recovery will require. So far, recovery has been driven by a concerted effort to protect other industries, keeping the current infrastructure and a deadly status quo intact. Scientists are united in their message: We have to reverse this mindset and work starting from what will make the biggest impact for fish. This requires big changes to infrastructure in combination with a set of investments to meet the needs of industry and people. Innovation and funding can deliver green energy, transport goods and irrigate crops, but salmon cannot survive our current system.
Representative Simpson put forward a comprehensive, visionary framework (Northwest Sportsman, March 2021) that would not only restore Northwest salmon, but modernize essential energy and infrastructure in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, diversify local economies and strengthen communities, all of which will create tens of thousands of good jobs.
Let me repeat: create tens of thousands of good jobs.
Simpson’s groundbreaking proposal not only sparked fresh energy into the salmon-dam debate, but offers great prospects for strengthening the entire Northwest. Ask anyone who weathered the economic decline in the small riverside communities dependent on healthy salmon runs. Simpson – a Republican who has garnered bipartisan support for his plan, which is a critical key for me – electrified the region with an idea that offers a promising alternative to the uncertainty, disruption and loss caused by the region’s inability to make progress on salmon recovery.
Not long after Rep. Simpson’s announcement, Washington’s senior US Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee planted their own stake in the ground. In a joint statement they recognized the crisis facing Snake River fish, committed to address it and placed dam removal squarely on the table for consideration.
Fast forward to October 2021: Inslee and Murray issued a new statement outlining next steps in the process they announced last spring. They are working together now with the assistance of a consultant to identify options for replacing the dams’ services as a key step toward developing an action plan for Snake River salmon and Northwest communities by or before July 2022. A draft report expected this spring is likely to be followed by a public input process.
Also last October, the Biden Administration agreed to pause the long-running litigation over salmon and dams to begin settlement talks with the Nez Perce Tribe, state of Oregon, and conservation and fishing plaintiffs. Their goal: develop a long-term plan to protect imperiled salmon in the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Their timeline for concluding these discussions: the same as the Murray/Inslee process – July 2022.
We all want to rebuild and make better fishing in the Northwest so that it’s great again for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren, and generations well beyond. Now is the time and the opportunity to think big. We can never forget fish need a river. It’s time to take out these four costly federal dams and restore this historic river and its imperiled salmon and steelhead runs.
IMAGINE REPLAYING 2001 over again, when the Columbia River spring Chinook run jumped to over half a million springers and we sportees fished through most of April below Bonneville – nearly 200,000 angler trips in a few weeks. I swear I ground ruts into the interstate making flame runs to fish ’em. But this won’t happen again unless anglers lean in with the tribes and conservation organizations that are seeking solutions for the fish and infrastructure updates and transportation solutions so farmers can get their crops to market. I’m a Coug; one of my old roommates works the harvest on his family’s massive farm outside Pullman, so I appreciate the wholistic approach.
And let’s not forget that breaching the four lower Snake River dams could also create a brand-new mainstem spawning area for fall Chinook not far from the Hanford Reach, home to some of the most productive wild salmon waters left in the Lower 48. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the free-flowing waters of the Hanford Reach produce an ocean abundance of over 1 million fall Chinook annually. Just imagine another spawning cradle nearby – that would supercharge fish production.
The choice is simple. Think big about our legacy for our kids and grandkids. Salmon matter. This is our chance. Now, let’s get busy contacting our elected officials in Congress to push for smarter salmon solutions!
29 Easy Ways To Get Involved
Let’s seize this once-in-a-lifetime moment and keep pounding on our elected officials.