the film
Commentaries and editorials

Fish Biologists Agree on Breaching

by Kirk Schroeder
The Oregonian, February 28, 2000

In 1973, I began my career as a fish biologist when I took a summer job in Idaho. That year I was also introduced to the wondrous world of the salmon, the definitive species of my newly adopted region. Among the sights I was privileged to witness was that of sockeye salmon spawning along the shores of Idaho's Redfish Lake. After a life in the ocean, these bright red salmon had endured a 900 mile passage through the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon rivers, finally turning into Redfish Creek and up to the lake where their amazing cycle was about to be completed. One cycle completed, another begun; as it had been for centuries.

Just 25 years later I was disheartened to witness the sight of the total population of Redfish Lake sockeye swimming out their lives inside plastic saltwater tanks. Their numbers had declined so drastically they could no longer complete their life cycle in the wild. Instead, these offspring of the three sockeye salmon (two males and a female) that had made it back to Redfish Lake were being held in captivity in a desperate attempt to bring the run back from the brink of extinction.

Unfortunately, witnessing the collapse of an entire run of salmon or of other native fish species in the span of less than three decades is not unique among those in my profession.

This shared experience and the shared knowledge of fishery science led members of the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society to pass a resolution (without opposition) stating that the lower Snake River dams will need to be breached if the public wishes to make a serious effort to restore Snake River salmonids. I supported this resolution because returning the lower Snake River to a free-flowing condition is the one biological measure that has the greatest chance of restoring these runs.

Breaching the lower Snake River dams does not guarantee that these salmon runs will be restored, or even saved. We may be too late for some of the runs. However, fishery scientists in the Pacific Northwest have become increasingly convinced these runs will not be restored to sustainable levels if the dams remain. Breaching the dams must be accompanied by changes in the way we use habitat, and in the way we manage hatcheries and harvest. Together these actions will increase the likelihood of recovering Snake River salmon and steelhead, but only if they happen soon.

Scientists will not be able to provide the public with an easy solution for restoring salmon. Science has provided some tools to help the public reach a decision, by outlining a range of alternatives along with their associated risks and costs. A magic solution that insures large runs of salmon at little cost or risk is not waiting to be discovered with additional information and more study.

The salmon cannot wait. Waiting for certainty on this issue guarantees delay and inaction, and inevitably the loss of salmon runs. Historian Thomas Berry has written: "No age lives unto itself. Each age has only what it receives from the prior generation." What then will we leave for our descendants?

Kirk Schroeder of Philomath is a fisheries research biologist and served as president of the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.
Fish Biologists Agree on Breaching
The Oregonian, February 28, 2000

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation