the film
Commentaries and editorials

Summer Spills and the Politics
of Salmon Extinction

by Jim Martin
Opinion, The Oregonian, April 2, 2004

Wayne Thompson suggests in his March 26 opinion piece ("End costly spills and pay anglers not to catch salmon") that it's simply cheaper and more sensible to end summer spill at Columbia River dams and pay fishermen not to fish. He says it never made sense to let fishermen catch endangered species anyway. This comment highlights the central issue: Why not let the fish go extinct or become museum pieces and maximize revenues from the hydroelectric system? The summer spill campaign is a textbook example of how salmon became endangered in the first place.

For 100 years we struggled to find the right balance between exploitation and protection/restoration of natural resources. We created the Endangered Species Act, the Northwest Power Act and other laws because citizens demanded a sustainable balance. The Northwest Power Act states hydropower and salmon deserve "equitable treatment." We all desire a robust economy but only while sustaining resources vital to our children's future.

The plight of wild salmon results from thousands of small political and economic decisions, each seemingly sensible at the time. We built dams and destroyed habitat in the name of economics and progress. ("And don't worry, you fishermen and tribes, the hatcheries will always be there to keep you whole!") Today, the victims of this economic trade-off, which created disastrous effects to tribal cultures and coastal fishing communities, are treated like mere problems to be shut down or paid off.

The fact is fishermen and tribes aren't targeting endangered species. By fishing for remaining healthy salmon runs and hatchery fish, they support families and communities and add $3 billion annually to the Northwest tourist economy. Each year, tribal and non-tribal fishermen forgo tens of thousands of fish when stringent limits on weaker stocks are reached.

For example, the limit on Snake River spring chinook is 17 percent (15 percent for tribes and 2 percent for others). The dams kill 30 percent or more adults before they reach spawning grounds. This is after dams killed millions of juveniles on the way downstream.

Mortality of Juvenile Salmon during Downstream Migration through Hydrosystem Corridor
Source: National Marine Fisheries Service, December 21, 2000
(more data at dampool.htm)
Juvenile Salmon Average (1994-1999)
Direct Mortality Fall Chinook Spring Chinook Steelhead
Columbia/Snake Dams
(8 dams)
12% 20% 17%
Columbia/Snake Reservoirs
(8 reservoirs)
81% 40% 41%
Lower Snake River
(4 dams & 4 reservoirs)
72% 30% 29%
Columbia River
(4 dams & 4 reservoirs)
21% 30% 29%
Columbia/Snake Rivers
(8 dams & 8 reservoirs)
93% 60% 58%
Indirect Mortality ? ? ?

Fall chinook harvest limits are 32.25 percent (24 percent for tribes and 8.25 percent for others). When limits are reached, all fishing is closed, wasting hundreds of thousands of harvestable fish that would otherwise be available to support fishing families and communities.

The annual value of the hydroelectric system exceeds $3 billion. Canceling summer spill could theoretically produce an extra $77 million (a 2.5 percent annual increase). The trade-off would be 20,000 to 50,000 fewer upriver bright chinook and 20 to 50 fewer endangered Snake River fall chinook. The Bonneville Power Administration suggests vague "offsets" that might produce handfuls of chinook here and there to partially compensate. Scientists criticize these offsets as optimistic and speculative.

Ratepayers have suffered huge costs caused by the Washington state nuclear power blunder, fraudulent utility manipulation and the BPA itself, selling more power than can be produced in drought. Citizens still support a balanced energy/salmon plan. Improving hydro-system management and reducing costs is good but not if fish and fishermen have to bear the additional burden.

A federal judge has already sent the federal salmon plan back to the drawing board as being inadequate. Previous federal plans have been rejected also as illegal and inadequate.

Looking back, we can see how wild salmon got into this sorry state. In the past, we could perhaps plead ignorance. But no longer. If we choose to put more strain on the fish and the fishermen to produce more hydro dollars, it will be with full knowledge of the risks. If we add another cut to the thousand already inflicted, it will be purposeful.

The politics of extinction and broken promises, once relics of the history books, are alive and well in the Northwest. Teachers can show children how the Atlantic salmon of the East Coast went extinct . . . by simply reading to them recent headlines and editorials from The Oregonian.

bluefish does the math for your convenience: BPA estimates that eliminating summer spill would provide 1.15 - 1.49 million Megawatt*hours (MWh) of "surplus" electricity to sell (typically to California) at an estimated average price of $32/MWh (yielding $37 - $46 million). Prices of course will vary with time of day and electricity market conditions. BPA estimates that elimination of summer spill could potentially provide a 2% electricity rate reduction.

Jim Martin of Mulino is retired chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and a board member of the National Wildlife Federation.
Summer Spills and the Politics of Salmon Extinction
The Oregonian, April 2, 2004

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