Salmon, Steelhead Getting Barge Ridesby Erik Robinson
The Columbian, August 24, 2000
This summer's warm, dry weather is contributing to lower flows in the Snake River, causing a new problem for imperiled salmon.
Instead of spilling over the tops of dams with the flow of the river, more juvenile salmon and steelhead than ever are being loaded into barges by the thousands, hauled 286 miles downriver and released below Bonneville Dam.
The Fish Passage Center, established by Northwest Power Planning Council to monitor fish counts, released preliminary information this week showing at least 80 percent of juveniles migrating out of the Snake River basin this year had been hauled on barges.
Conservation groups and tribal representatives criticized the government Tuesday for failing to adhere to its own policy of spreading the risk, pointing out that three decades of barging smolts past eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers has failed to reverse the decline of Snake River stocks.
The Northwest Sportfishing Association, along with other conservation organizations, has called for breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River to restore salmon runs.
Though the National Marine Fisheries Service set river-flow targets to help juveniles' trip toward the Pacific Ocean, the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, has only met a fraction of those targets so far this year.
"This is the pray-for-rain recovery plan now," said Liz Hamilton of the sportfishing association.
The Independent Scientific Advisory Board has urged the migration of smolts be split evenly between barging and spilling.
Earl Weber, fisheries scientist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, said the high proportion of barged smolts this year highlights the need to breach the dams. "When they do have the opportunity to enhance instream flows, they don't do it," he said.
Snake River salmon stocks are among the most troubled of all 12 Northwest runs now protected by the Endangered Species Act.
In 1991, Snake River sockeye salmon became the first salmon run listed as endangered in the Northwest. Snake River fall chinook and spring/summer chinook were listed as threatened the following year, and the river's run of wild steelhead have been listed as threatened since 1997.
Chris Ross, an NMFS fisheries biologist Portland, said barging and trucking juvenile fish past the dams was the predominant method of juvenile transportation for decades. That changed with a 1995 biological opinion issued by NMFS.
"You spill more fish to spread the risk, basically," Ross said.
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