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There May Be Better Days Ahead for Salmon Runs

by Roger Phillips
Idaho Statesman, January 3, 2009

With forces aligning in favor of salmon returns,
now would be a good time for commercial and sport anglers to compromise.

(Roger Phillips) A dead fish to some, a dream to others. This wild chinook completed the life cycle. It was born in an Idaho river, went to the ocean, and returned as an adult to spawn and then die. Remember that catchall phrase "ocean conditions" that seems to get blamed for every poor salmon return? Well, the salmon experts might not have that dog to kick for a while.

Scientists at Oregon State University reported that in 2008 the Pacific Ocean had the best conditions they have seen in more than 50 years.

They also reported that surveys of near-shore waters from Newport, Ore., to LaPush, Wash., showed the highest numbers of juvenile chinook salmon in 11 years of sampling.

That's good news for anyone who cares about salmon and steelhead runs in Idaho. Could it be a harbinger of better days ahead?

I think it's possible. There's an alignment of circumstances that could help us turn the corner in the long-term decline of salmon runs.

There are no indications how long those good ocean conditions will last, but it shows nature is doing her part for salmon runs. Now it's time for us to do our part.

If you've been following the salmon and steelhead politics in the Columbia/Snake system, it's turned into the Northwest's version of the Cold War.

On one side are the environmentalists, Indian tribes, lawyers and judges who have pitted themselves against the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration.

Meanwhile, the federal government has stonewalled any meaningful salmon recovery efforts while at the same time throwing billions of dollars on dubious "fixes" while cranking up the propaganda machine and suggesting that dams are part of the natural river system.

But there may be signs of a thaw in the Columbia Cold War.


I don't know how the Obama administration will deal with salmon, but I am willing to bet it will be more open to an overhaul of the dam system than the Bush administration was.

Incoming Sen. Jim Risch also replaces Larry Craig this month. There's been a gradual attrition of congressmen like Craig who seemed to consider salmon a nuisance and never hesitated to use their clout to block any meaningful reforms of the Columbia/Snake River dams.

Across the river in Oregon, incoming Sen. Jeff Merkely replaces outgoing Gordon Smith, who also had a poor record for protecting or enhancing salmon runs.

Risch said he's interested in working on salmon issues the way he successfully resolved the stalemate over roadless lands. That debate had simmered since the Carter administration, and coincidentally, protecting roadless lands will preserve most of Idaho's best spawning and rearing waters for wild salmon and steelhead.


Another study by Oregon State University scientists showed similar survival rates of juvenile salmon between the Columbia River and Canada's Fraser River, an undammed river in British Columbia that produces huge salmon runs.

That doesn't mean dams are off the hook. There's ample evidence that they damage young fish.

A University of Idaho study showed barging young fish downstream hurts their ability to make it back to their natal streams as adults.

But we've also had strong salmon and steelhead runs with the dams in place, and this year is expected to be one of them.

While most credible scientists agree that breaching the four lower Snake dams would benefit salmon, the chances of it happening are slim at best as America moves toward clean, renewable energy. Regardless of whether you like dams, that's exactly what hydropower provides.

The challenge is how to manage the dams in a way that makes them less harmful to salmon and steelhead.

With the X-factor of ocean conditions temporarily off the table, it's a good time to manipulate river passage and flows to see if we can improve juvenile survival and adult returns.


I think there's been a lot of meaningful improvements that have helped fish runs, from screening irrigation ditches deep in Idaho's interior to protecting coastal streams that harbor healthy wild fish runs.

We didn't get into this problem overnight, nor will we get out of it quickly. But more can always be done.


The first salmon hatchery was built on the Columbia River in 1877, according to the book "Return to the River." That means hatcheries have had 131 years to prove themselves as a viable option in maintaining salmon runs, and they still haven't done it.

Hatcheries are good at providing fish for anglers to catch, but they will never be a substitute for healthy wild fish runs.

Hatcheries should not be abandoned, but the sooner we realize that self-sustaining wild runs are the best long-term solution, the better off we will be.


It makes no sense to protect streams, improve fish passage in rivers and require catch-and-release sport fishing for wild salmon and steelhead, then allow endangered wild fish to get caught in gill nets.

Oregon has a proposal to move most gill-netters in the Lower Columbia to sites where they target hatchery fish and where wild fish rarely stray. It's a good compromise that allows people to continue to commercially harvest salmon, but doesn't harm wild runs.

It's a trickier thing to do upstream with tribal gill-netting, but saving fish from gill nets downstream so they can be caught upstream doesn't make much sense.

To stretch the Cold War metaphor, now's a good time for a detentebetween commercial and sport anglers.

Recovering salmon runs and then arguing over who gets how much is a better strategy than fighting over who gets a few fish and who get none.

Roger Phillips
There May Be Better Days Ahead for Salmon Runs
Idaho Statesman, January 3, 2009

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