All about Salmon and Steelhead follows or skip down to re-imagining the future.
Wild Snake River salmon and steelhead are keystone species that 130+ other species depend on. 140 miles of their spawning habitat was affected with dam construction on the Snake. They must navigate 8 total dams twice in their anadromous life cycle to successfully reproduce. Salmon fishing has defined the Pacific Northwest, but this integral part of the economy and cultural identity has continued to decline every year these barriers remain.
Find out how salmon and steelhead faired in 2021 by reading our State of the Snake report.
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Since construction of the dams, all of the Snake River basin’s wild salmon and steelhead have been listed as endangered or threatened, and several species have been driven to extinction. The demise of Snake River chinook salmon, preyed upon by iconic endangered Southern Resident Orcas in Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, is also limiting the orcas’ ability to recover and elevating the urgency for action on the lower Snake River.
Climate change is already impacting lower Snake River runs, with much greater impacts on the horizon that include increased sediment loads and higher water temperatures hazardous to salmon, earlier spring run-off and generation of less hydropower.
Serious loss of salmon smolts continues. Despite installation of over $ 700 million worth of hardware at the lower Snake River dams smolt to adult survival ratios for listed species have shown little improvement. Northwest rate payers and tax payers have spent more than $13 billion on salmon recovery measures that haven’t worked for Snake River stocks, and that is money that could otherwise be invested into revitalizing riverside communities and clean, renewable energy that isn’t lethal for fish.
Two-hundred years ago, when Lewis and Clark first traversed the Pacific Northwest, an estimated 10 to 16 million salmon and steelhead entered the Columbia River annually. About 4 million were destined for the Snake River drainage. Now, following dam construction on the Columbia and Snake rivers, there are fewer than 60,000 wild fish returning every year.
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In recorded history salmon populations fell first as a result of unrestricted fishing by European immigrants. Canneries appeared along the Columbia River in the 1860s, and commercial fishers used seines at the mouth of the Columbia River, the doorway through which countless fish needed to pass to return from the ocean. So many fish were caught that draft horses were used to haul the nets from the water. Fish wheels–giant water-powered nets that “wheeled” fish in–were eventually employed, scooping up tens of thousands of fish. But it quickly became evident that salmon were not returning as they once did.
Then came the dream of inland barge transportation and electricity and the prosperity they might bring to the region. Construction of dams on the lower Columbia and lower Snake between the 1930s and 1970s made it harder for young salmon to migrate to and from the ocean. Those that did return faced new challenges migrating to their spawning grounds. The Columbia and Snake rivers were transformed into a series of lakes that confuse migration instincts and make fish more vulnerable to predators.
Wild salmon and steelhead have been reduced by nearly 90 percent in the Columbia River Basin over the past 125 years due to a number of factors, but dam building is chief among them. In particular, construction of the four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state sent populations of upper-basin salmon and steelhead plummeting, and the region’s once-bountiful fishing opportunities have been reduced to isolated seasons on certain rivers–for hatchery-raised fish only. In fact, the region’s abundance of hatcheries were built to specifically offset the huge mortality rates for wild salmon at the dams, and now two-thirds of the Columbia River’s salmon are reared in tanks and raceways.
By 1986 Snake River populations of coho salmon were extinct and sockeye salmon were approaching extinction. By the mid-1990s, all Snake River salmon populations were protected by the Endangered Species Act, and fishing opportunities were practically non existent.
According to economic studies by independent cconomists and state agencies, the lost salmon fishery translates into hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost economic activity for the people of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. A 2005 study by Boise-based Ben Johnson Associates estimated the economic impact of a restored salmon and steelhead fishery to Idaho alone at $544 million per year.
In 2001 the Idaho Department of Fish and Game calculated the direct spending benefit of anglers who bought salmon and steelhead tags in a rare year of decent salmon returns to the state: $46 million, with $10 million of that in the rural riverside town of Riggins, Idaho, alone. Another April 2003 study by Ben Johnson Associates placed direct and indirect angler spending in Idaho during the 2001 fishing season at $89.9 million.
By contrast, a 2002 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers valued “general recreation” on a free-flowing Snake River at a paltry $5.9 million to $31 million. Improved fishing, both in the Snake and its hundreds of miles of wilderness tributaries, was to be worth a maximum of $4.5 million if the four lower Snake River dams were removed. This is yet another example of the federal agency grossly undervaluing one of the direct benefits lower Snake River dam removal would achieve.
The first hatcheries were built to sustain the over-harvest. Early harvest managers eventually dismantled the fish wheels, and salmon runs stabilized at a sizable, albeit reduced level.
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Recent years have seen modest increases in some salmon populations, but these increases have had little effect on listed fish. Most are of hatchery origin and from unlisted salmon populations and are no indication of the health of the Northwest’s most imperiled salmon runs. Salmon fishing seasons, if they happen at all, are a shadow of their former vitality.
Hatchery fish, in many cases, are a big part of wild salmon declines, so this nullifies a lot of the chinook habitat work taxpayers and ratepayers have spent billions on. Obviously, river and stream habitat improvements are critical to wild fish, not so much for hatchery fish. The state is forking over more millions because of the Culvert decision. This legislation would further undermine the benefits derived from culvert removals, not to mention all the other habitat work that has been going on for decades.
re-imagining the future
Breaching will put salmon and steelhead on the road to recovery and provide much needed prey to feed Southern Resident Orcas. Fish will return to thousands of miles of habitat and re-establish a salmon stronghold to help iconic species survive climate change.
If the dams remain in place, it is likely the wild salmon and steelhead will be lost, and no amount of future recovery efforts or money will bring them back.