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Biologists: Don't be Fooled by Windfall

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, March 8, 2001

Wild runs still in trouble

One of the largest returns of hatchery chinook will be headed for the Snake River and its tributaries this spring. Wild runs of spring chinook also will also see an increase this year. But fisheries biologists are quick to point out the good times are not expected to last and wild runs are still in serious trouble.

Biologists are expecting about 15,000 to 21,000 wild spring chinook to return above Lower Granite Dam this year. But they say that's nothing compared to the truly good times that existed prior to construction of the lower Snake River dams.

Back then, an average of about 60,000 wild fish made the return each year and that was after a heavy harvest of fish all along the way.

"We are still at only half or less of what would potentially be considered recovery," said Sharon Kiefer, anadromous fish manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise.

Kiefer said the higher than normal runs of last year and what should be a good return this year have to be sustained over time for the runs to be considered recovered.

"Recovery is not a single high point in time. Recovery is a high point that is sustained through time and quite frankly, given this year's poor out-migration conditions, we don't expect to see a high point continue."

Biologist fear the salmon and steelhead smolts leaving the Snake River Basin this spring will face harsh conditions and many may not make it.

In 1994, a similarly bad water year, as many as a third of the juvenile fish died before reaching Lower Granite Dam, where they can be loaded on barges and shipped to the Columbia River estuary.

Not only will this year's young fish face potentially brutal migration conditions, there are fewer of them to begin with because of a poor return of adult chinook salmon in 1999.

Steve Pettit, Idaho Fish and Game juvenile migration specialist at Lewiston, said it's likely fish leaving Idaho's waters this spring were produced by the worst run since the last Ice Age.

"One will only have to wait until the adult returns start coming back from this year's migration to be reminded how grave the situation is for the salmon stocks in the Snake River."

Kiefer said next year may see an average return of chinook, perhaps enough hatchery fish to have a fishing season. But in 2003, when this year's surviving smolts return as adults, the numbers will plummet.

"We are already thinking in 2003, we will see a considerable drop."

Herb Pollard, a fisheries biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service at Boise, said even though returns of wild fish are expected to be up slightly this year, the distribution of those fish tells another story.

There will still be places like Marsh Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and other index streams where biologist worry too few fish will return to carry on the runs. No fish returned to Marsh Creek in 1999. Another poor year could doom the streams.

Pollard said the Imnaha River, a tributary of the Snake River in Oregon, is the only river likely to have enough wild fish to meet return rates that could lead to recovery, if sustained over time.

"That may be the only place that the pre-season prediction would say, if you could do this for a generation you could achieve something close to recovery."

Pettit added that Wednesday's beautiful weather will just make the situation worse, should it continue.

"The more days we have that are trying to establish new record temperatures for the day aren't helping.

"So every wild fish counts. Once the spring chinook fishery begins, anglers should be cautioned to treat the few wild fish they encounter, especially over there on the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers, with extreme caution."

Eric Barker
Biologists: Don't be Fooled by Windfall
Lewiston Tribune, March 8, 2001

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