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Commentaries and editorials

Snake River Fish Recovery

by Rob Masonis
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 18, 2003

This is my reply to Mr. McKern's column last week.

There is nothing "incongruous" about American Rivers's position that removal of the lower Snake River dams would expand greatly mainstem spawning habitat for Snake River fall chinook. Though Idaho Power's Hells Canyon dams block the vast majority of historic fall chinook spawning habitat in the Snake, it does not follow that providing access to that habitat is the only way to recover fall chinook.

The question isn't whether the lower Snake River was historically the primary spawning ground for fall chinook, but whether it would likely be utilized for spawning by fall chinook if it were restored to riverine conditions. The answer from the scientists who have studied the issue is "yes," particularly in the reach above Little Goose dam. Indeed, they concluded that removing the lower Snake dams is the action with the greatest potential to restore fall chinook. (Removing the lower Snake River dams has the additional major benefit of substantially reducing mortality associated with passage through the hydropower system, which, as the biological opinion makes clear, is a major problem.) That said, American Rivers invites Mr. McKern to join us in advocating passage at Idaho Power's Hells Canyon dams during the relicensing process currently taking place.

Certainly, managing ocean harvest to protect weak stocks is a prudent and appropriate measure, and we have made significant progress toward that end in the last decade. But there is no evidence that improved ocean harvest management could substantially boost survival of all Snake River salmon and steelhead populations. Unlike fall chinook, which are harvested in ocean fisheries, there is little ocean harvest of spring/summer chinook, steelhead or sockeye, a fact acknowledged in the 2000 Biological Opinion.

The data collected by Dr. Li refute Mr. McKern's suggestion that ocean conditions are responsible for the difference in abundance of spring chinook in the Grande Ronde and John Day systems. In particular, Dr. Li's research revealed that from the early 1950s (when redd counts began) to the installation of the last of the lower Snake River dams in the mid-1970s, the number of redds in the Wenaha, a Grand Ronde tributary, was always higher than in the North Fork John Day. Since Lower Granite dam was completed, the opposite has been true. To suggest that this phenomenon is due to a sudden and lasting change in ocean survival and not the Snake River dams is not credible.

Similarly, there is no scientific evidence supporting ocean fertilization as an effective restoration tool. Spring/summer chinook, sockeye and steelhead range widely in the ocean; therefore fertilizing the ocean at scales sufficient to boost marine survival for all imperiled salmon and steelhead stocks would be an enormous undertaking that would make the cost of dam removal pale in comparison.

Mr. McKern's postion that the lower Snake River dams have been "fixed" and "are no longer the limiting factor" reflects a flawed, but nonetheless popular, diagnosis of the problem (a point I have made and explained previously). Juvenile mortality at the dams is only one aspect of a much bigger problem the dams create. The four lower Snake River dams have converted 140 miles of complex riverine habitat into a series of lakes that have degraded water quality, eliminated cool water refugia, reduced turbidity during the migration season, enabled predators to proliferate, drastically altered the food web, and prolonged migration.

These degraded conditions take a heavy toll on all Snake River salmon and steelhead populations, as evidenced by their persistently low smolt-to-adult return ratios (SARs) -- which is true for both in-river migrants and transported juveniles. While the lower Columbia River has been similarly transformed, populations that pass three or four lower Columbia dams exhibit much higher SARs than Snake River fish. This indicates that the additive effect of the four lower Snake River dams is suppressing Snake River populations.

The body of scientific evidence that has been amassed supports our position that the enormous loss of riverine habitat in the Snake River, coupled with the passage impediments created by the dams themselves, is preventing the recovery of Snake River stocks. A successful recovery strategy must be focused on restoring riverine habitat. The current emphasis on absurdly expensive dam retrofits that at best will result in only minor improvements in passage survival at the dams is a strategy doomed to fail -- and fail at great ratepayer and taxpayer expense.

To be sure, there are economic costs associated with removing the lower Snake River dams, but it is an action that would be effective. Moreover, the economic costs can be mitigated through a well-devised transition plan, and dam removal would also provide new economic opportunities and benefits for many communities. Sadly, there has been little political will in the region to pursue such a plan.

An objective assessment of the current federal salmon "recovery" plan leads to one of two conclusions: first, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the current "non-breach" plan is not intended to recover healthy, self-sustaining Snake River salmon and steelhead populations (in fact, the federal government has admitted as much in its legal briefs in our challenge to the 2000 biological opinion), or, second, if there is such an intent, the approach is deeply flawed. In either case, the current plan will not achieve the recovery goal agreed to by the governors of the four Pacific Northwest states and will not meet our treaty obligations to Columbia Basin tribes.

Rob Masonis, NW regional director American Rivers
Snake River Fish Recovery
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 18, 2003

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