the film
Commentaries and editorials

Don't Get Too Smug Over this Year's Fish Flood

by Jeff Curtis, Guest Columnist
Special to The Times, Seattle Times - November 6, 2001

Some traditional foes of wild fish advocates believe this year's record runs of Columbia-Snake basin salmon and steelhead to be a defeat to our cause.

"We've turned the corner," they would say. "The rivers are once again crowded with fish and all of the doomsayers making noise about dams, policy reforms and looming extinctions were just flat wrong."

But this year's flood of fish actually provides a boost to the cause of lasting wild fish recovery, and highlights the importance of what is needed to get us there. More fish in the rivers means something good happened along the way in the young salmon's journey from its natal stream out to the ocean, up the coast as far as the Gulf of Alaska, and all the way back.

In the case of this year's class of fish, nearly everything did go right, including an anomalous convergence of good water years speeding the young fishes' trip to saltwater and helping them over dams, and a shift in the conditions of the Pacific Ocean that provided ideal traveling and rearing conditions for salmon and steelhead. In addition, water was spilled over the dams to help the juvenile fish pass those obstacles.

We can learn from years like these to pinpoint what went right and to better understand what it will take to recover the great runs of the past. But unfortunately, we're likely on the verge of learning a hard lesson about what happens when things go wrong.

This past spring, as adult salmon and steelhead poured into the basin in record-high numbers, they passed record lows of juvenile fish struggling to get out. The spring migration of 2001 went down as the deadliest on record and by large margins since fish managers first began inserting electro-trackers into the smolts to gauge their survival.

The migration was shaping up to be dangerous enough for future salmon and steelhead runs as winter wound down. Near-record-low snowpack and rain resulted in equally low runoff, so the deck was stacked against the smolts even as they prepared to swim seaward. The federal government mandated minimum requirements for flow in the rivers as well as spilling water over federal dams to keep un-barged fish out of the turbines and deadly bypass systems. These measures are critical to salmon and steelhead survival, and the burden for meeting them rests with the Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration, which operate the dams.

Unfortunately, the BPA and the Corps, citing empty coffers and a power emergency (since passed), chose to forgo spill and flow, instead opting to run the hydro system to maximize flow of revenue to their tills. The result was that river-flow targets were never met, with most not even neared, and the pittance of spill that did occur did so mostly too late. In fact, spill was never even attempted at the lower Snake River dams.

Data compiled by the Fish Passage Center, which monitors those electro-tagged fish as they pass sensors at the dams, have survival rates for juvenile steelhead ranging between 10-20 percent making it through the dams alive. Spring/summer chinook juveniles showed a 20- to less-than-60-percent survival rate. Both rates, but especially those for steelhead, are fractions of historical averages. Fish biologists warn that the damage we will see once these migrants begin returning in two to four years could be devastating.

This all brings us back to what happens when a spring migration goes right: the record returns of 2001. Some pundits are using them as an excuse to cast aside the concerns of fish advocates. "The fish are back and the worst is over," some have said. Others have even suggested that it's time to return to policies like those of the BPA this spring that ask not what we should be doing for our rivers, but what our rivers should be doing for us.

To do so ignores the lessons of mistakes made in the past, and ensures their impacts will be felt long into the future, perhaps forever. That would be a defeat for everyone.

Jeff Curtis is Western conservation director of Trout Unlimited in Portland, Oregon.
Don't Get Too Smug Over this Year's Fish Flood
Seattle Times, November 6, 2001

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation