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Commentaries and editorials

Fish and Dams

by John McKern
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 11, 2003

This is in response to Mr. Masonis' response in The CBB (4/4/2003).

I too would like to thank the CBB for publicizing this debate. It has shown that Mr. Masonis and American Rivers are aware of many of the facts governing the abundance of Columbia River salmon.

However, it is incongruous that American Rivers would take the stand ".that removing the lower Snake River dams is necessary to recover healthy, self-sustaining salmon and steelhead populations." in one paragraph, and quote Battelle and USGS findings that ".over 97 percent of the existing suitable fall chinook habitat in the Snake basin is upstream of Idaho Power's Hells Canyon Dam, which presently blocks upstream passage.." The lower Snake River supported little fall chinook spawning before dams because it was too warm most summers.

Given these two facts, it seems that the major step of removing the dams would do little to increase a healthy, self-sustaining fall chinook population. The Corps' removal of the old Washington Water Power dam from the Clearwater River at Lewiston has already restored more fall chinook habitat than would be provided by removing the four lower Snake River dams. The most significant loss from that dam removal was Potlatch Corporation's loss of a log storage area that was no longer needed because the big log drives (which also devastated salmon habitat, eggs, fry, and fingerlings) ended with the closure of Dworshak Dam. Dworshak Dam provides cool water that makes the lower Snake River more suitable for fall chinook spawning and rearing than before the dams were constructed.

Mr. Masonis agrees that the ocean is the primary driver in salmon survival. He says, "But so what? We have no control over ocean conditions or regional weather.." I disagree that we have no control over what happens in the ocean. One of the first steps is to determine where the various stocks go in the ocean. British Columbia researchers have been doing this for a number of years. They have found that populations from streams without dams have crashed because they go to areas of low productivity in the ocean or areas where harvest is too high for weak stocks (like the Snake River fall chinook). With such information, our salmon managers could regulate fisheries to protect weak stocks.

Furthermore, if weak stocks go to localized areas to rear (and the BC researchers have evidence to support this theory), it may be possible to protect or perhaps even fertilize those areas to increase productivity. For example, if Salmon River spring chinook rear in a given fjord along the B.C. coast, and international agreement could be struck to limit herring harvest in that fjord. On the other hand, if wild chinook from the Salmon River are accompanied by large numbers of hatchery chinook, the sheer numbers may overwhelm the food source in a limited rearing area. If Mr. Masonis would like more information on this subject, I am sure Dr. David Welch of the BC Department of Fisheries and Oceans would be glad to share his information.

Concerning steelhead, Dr. Welch has found that Vancouver Island steelhead migrating west to the Pacific have good survival while those migrating east (off the same mountain) into the Straight of Georgia and into the Pacific have poor survival. Even though they come from the same geographic area, their survival is very different. I would hope that Dr. Li would confer with Dr. Welch concerning the differences between John Day and Grand Ronde spring chinook ocean survival. It is convenient to rationalize that passage over three versus eight is the cause, but there are no dams in the streams studied by Dr. Welch.

Mr. Masonis generalizes about dam supporters implying that I fit that generality. I have never considered myself a dam supporter. The dams we are discussing were authorized before I was born, and construction was mostly complete by the time I graduated from college and joined the Corps as a fishery biologist. I made a commitment when I took the job to advise the Corps what I thought was best for fish. In the long run, I believe that adherence to my environmental ethic earned me more respect as a fishery expert within and outside the Corps than I would have earned as a "dam supporter."

Mr. Masonis points out that the gadgets, gizmos, and tweaks at the dams can gain little more to increase fish survival. I have pointed out many times before that most of the fish passage problems at the dams, particularly the lower Snake River dams, have been corrected by those gadgets, gizmos, and tweaks. In other words, most of the fish problems at those dams have been fixed. It makes no sense to me, for American Rivers to take the stand ".that removing the lower Snake River dams is necessary to recover healthy, self-sustaining salmon and steelhead populations.." Why would you remove that part of the problem that is most fixed? The dams are no longer the limiting factor. According to the teachings of Aldo Leopold, it is time to identify the next limiting factor and try to correct that problem. To me, that is the question of ocean survival.

John McKern, Fish Passage Solutions
Fish and Dams
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 11, 2003

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