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Defining the Problem
US Army Corp of Engineers, February 2002
(Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report / EIS)

Snake River Chinook Salmon in-river Survival 1964-2010. The decline of salmon and steelhead in Pacific Northwest rivers is a complex problem. It is not possible to point to one specific cause. The situation currently facing the salmon has been years in the making. The problem stems from a variety of interrelated sources that regional scientists are working hard to evaluate and understand. Historically, the runs have been affected by
  • overfishing,
  • poor ocean conditions,
  • reduced spawning grounds,
  • dams and reservoirs, and
  • general habitat degradation.
Several of these conditions continue today, along with
  • predation,
  • estuary destruction,
  • and competition from hatchery fish
  • and non-native fish.

Although many of these causes are known and the region has worked to correct some of them, the outstanding causes and their collective effect has resulted in the continued decline of some Columbia-Snake River Basin salmon and steelhead populations.

  • Under the Endangered Species Act, NMFS listed the Snake River sockeye salmon as endangered in 1991.
  • In 1992, Snake River spring/summer chinook and Snake River fall chinook salmon were listed as threatened.
  • In 1997, lower Snake River steelhead were listed as threatened.
  • By 1999, NMFS had place another nine anadromous fish species throughout the Columbia River Basin on the Endangered Species List.
Defining the problem (and finding potential solutions) necessarily involves looking at the overall regional salmon decline and at causes above and beyond the four lower Snake River dams.

Government Accounting Office
(GAO-02-612 Salmon & Steelhead Recovery Efforts)

The Columbia River Basin is North America's fourth largest, draining about 258,000 square miles and extending predominantly through the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana and into Canada. It contains over 250 reservoirs and about 150 hydroelectric projects, including 18 dams on the Columbia River and its primary tributary, the Snake River. The Columbia River Basin provides habitat for many species including steelhead and four species of salmon: Chinook, Chum, Coho, and Sockeye.

One of the most prominent features of the Columbia River Basin is its population of anadromous fish, such as salmon and steelhead, which are born in freshwater streams, live there for 1 to 2 years, migrate to the ocean to mature for 2 to 5 years, and then return to the freshwater streams to spawn.

Salmon and steelhead face numerous obstacles in their efforts to complete their life cycle. For example, to migrate past dams, juvenile fish must either go through the dams' turbines, go over the dams' spillways, use the installed juvenile bypass systems, or be transported around the dams in trucks and barges. Each passage alternative has associated risks and contributes to the mortality of juvenile fish.

To return upstream to spawn, adults must locate and use the fish ladders provided at the dams. Once adults make it past the dams, they often have to spawn in habitat adversely affected by farming, mining, cattle grazing, logging, road construction, and industrial pollution.

Reservoirs formed behind the dams cause problems for both juvenile and adult passage because they slow water flows, alter river temperatures, and provide habitat for predators, all of which may result in increase mortality. Other impacts, such as ocean conditions and snow pack levels, also affect both juvenile and adult mortality. For example, an abundant snow pack aids juvenile passage to the ocean by increasing water flows as it melts.

Given the geographic range and historical importance of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, local governments, industries and private citizens are concerned about the species' recovery. For example, some Indian tribes living in the basin consider salmon to be part of their spiritual and cultural identity, and fishing is still the preferred livelihood of many tribal members. Treaties between individual tribes and the federal government acknowledge the importance of salmon and steelhead to the tribes and guarantee tribes certain fishing rights.

Efforts to increase salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia River Basin began as early as 1877 with the construction of the first fish hatchery. Now, states, tribes, and the federal government operate a series of fish hatcheries located in the Columbia River Basin. Historically, hatcheries were operated to mitigate the impacts of hydropower and other development and had a primary goal of producing fish for commercial, recreational, and tribal harvest. However, hatcheries are now adjusting their operations to ensure that they support recovery or at least do not impede the recovery of listed species.

As dams were built in the 1900s, attempts were made to minimize their impacts by installing fish ladders and bypass systems to help salmon and steelhead migrate up and down the rivers. In the 1980s, several other actions were taken to increase salmon and steelhead populations, including:

  1. a treaty between the United States and Canada limiting the ocean harvesting of salmon;
  2. the passage of the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act (P.L. 96-501), which called for the creation of an interstate compact to develop a program to protect, and enhance fish and wildlife affected by hydropower development in the Columbia River Basin and mitigate the effects of development; and
  3. the beginning of major state, local, and tribal efforts to address habitat restoration through watershed plans.
None of these efforts proved to be enough, however, and in the 1990s, 12 salmon and steelhead populations were listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, resulting in the advent of intensified recovery actions. The 12 listed populations are:
  • Endangered - 1991 - Snake River Sockeye salmon
  • Threatened - 1992 - Snake River Fall-run Chinook salmon,
  • Threatened - 1992 - Snake River Spring/Summer-run Chinook salmon,
  • Threatened - 1997 - Snake River steelhead,

  • Threatened - 1998 - Lower Columbia River steelhead,
  • Threatened - 1999 - Lower Columbia River Chinook salmon,
  • Threatened - 1999 - Lower Columbia River Chum Salmon
  • Threatened - 2004 - Lower Columbia River Coho salmon.

  • Threatened - 1999 - Middle Columbia River steelhead
  • Endangered - 1999 - Upper Columbia River Spring-run Chinook salmon,
  • Endangered - 1997 - Upper Columbia River steelhead
  • Threatened - 2004 - Upper Columbia River steelhead

  • Threatened - 1999 - Upper Willamette River Chinook salmon,
  • Threatened - 1999 - Upper Willamette River steelhead,

Smolt-Adult Ratio above 2% is considered
necessary for a sustainable population.


Chinook Salmon Smolt-Adult ratio (SAR)

Wild Steelhead Smolt-Adult ratio (SAR)

Hatchery Steelhead Smolt-Adult ratio (SAR)

Smolt-Adult Ratio above 2% is considered
necessary for a sustainable population.

Source: Fish Passage Center

The Federal Caucus Strategy
Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish, December 2000

(Andy Porter) Tour participants look over the edge of Lower Monumental Dam's cavernous navigation lock during a tour Wednesday. It was a rare opportunity to see the structure almost completely empty of water. It is important to recognize resources are limited. Congress and the region are most likely to commit resources to actions with immediate predictable and broad benefits.

The Federal Caucus Strategy places priority on actions with

  • the best chance of being implemented,
  • the best chance of providing solid and predictable biological benefits,
  • and the best chance of benefiting the broadest range of fish species.
The Federal Caucus Strategy calls for a contribution from governments and individuals at all levels, yet it also recognizes and complements the strong efforts already underway throughout the region.

. . .

Much of the regional debate has focused on removal of Snake River dams. There is little doubt dam removal would benefit Snake River salmon and steelhead. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is not recommending it at this time, however, for several reasons:

  • There is scientific uncertainty about whether breaching dams is necessary to achieve recovery and whether breaching alone can lead to recovery.
  • Only Snake River fish show a benefit from breaching, with no benefit to the other eight listed populations that do not originate in the Snake River Basin.
  • Dam removal is not within the existing authority of the federal agencies, and cannot be implemented in a short time frame.
  • And its high cost could preclude other actions needed throughout the basin.
In short, the option of Snake River drawdown ranks as a lower priority than other available options because of narrow benefits, high uncertainties and high costs, and on balance does not appear to be warranted at this time.

Hydropower Plan
Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish, December 2000

All salmon and steelhead in the basin are affected to some extent by the hydropower system. The Strategy does not recommend removal of Snake River dams at this time. Instead, it establishes performance standards for survival of juvenile and adult fish, and a schedule for meeting those standards. Performance standards are to be met through an aggressive program of improvements that includes more flow, more spill, and continued improvements in the dams themselves to pass more fish safely. Part of the ultimate decision on dam removal will depend on the ability of the hydropower system to compensate for fish losses by improving fish survival through off-site mitigation measures.

Snake River Chinook Salmon in-river Survival 1964-2010. The hydropower element includes performance evaluations after 3, 5 and 8 years to determine whether the combination of hydropower improvements and off-site mitigation is meeting performance standards. Failure to meet standards could trigger additional consultations under ESA, more aggressive measures within the hydropower system, such as dam breaching, and/or more aggressive off-site mitigation measures. After 10 years, NMFS will determine whether the hydropower system performance has been sufficient to achieve recovery in combination with other measures, and, if not, whether breaching or other actions will be necessary. NMFS would seek review of these determinations by the Independent Scientific Advisory Board.

  • Improve flows.
  • Improve spill and passage at dams.
  • Improve water quality.
  • Reduce fish trucking.
  • Implement measures to protect resident fish.
  • Conduct analysis of economic and cultural implications of dam breaching.
  • Improve nonfederal hydropower dams.
  • Consult with tribes on reservoir operations impacts to cultural resources.

NMFS' best estimate of the additional improvement in adult and juvenile survival levels associated with these (hydropower) measures is modest and accrues primarily to in-river migrants and primarily in the Lower Columbia River.

Survival Benefit from Hydropower Plan
Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish
(Page 82, Volume 2)
Snake River ESU Survival under Current Operations Survival with Proposed Hydropower Measures
Spring/Summer Chinook
In-river Juveniles 40.8% 49.6%
Transported Juveniles (?) (?)
Returning Adults 82.5% 85.5%
Fall Chinook
In-river Juveniles 10.2% 14.3%
Transported Juveniles 11.7% 13.5%
Returning Adults 71.0% 74.0%
In-river Juveniles 41.5% 51.6%
Transported Juveniles 47.8% 50.8%
Returning Adults 77.3% 80.3%

Habitat Plan
Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish, December 2000

Snake River Chinook Salmon in-river Survival 1964-2010. There is no doubt fixing habitat is central to any recovery plan. Survival improvements are likely to have the biggest effect in the first year of life (when most of the fish are in the tributaries) and during the transition to salt water (when the fish are in the estuary).

Federal agencies will assess mainstem habitat and implement experimental programs to create more natural habitat areas along our system of reservoirs. They will also establish a management plan to protect the Hanford Reach, home to a healthy core population of fall chinook.

Federal agencies will work with state, local, tribal, and private partners to acquire or restore thousands of acres of estuary habitat over the next 5-10 years, creating a Lower Columbia River Greenway to benefit migrating fish. Predator control and improved river flows will be prominent features of efforts to improve the estuary.

  • Immediate Actions - Improve in-stream flows, restore water quality, screen diversions, remove passage barriers, secure high quality habitat.
  • Manage federal lands to protect fish.
  • Protect and improve estuary habitat.
  • Protect and improve tributary habitat.
  • Improve mainstem habitat.

Estimates of potential tributary habitat improvement provide a general idea of the range of possible improvement in freshwater habitat productivity from an effective habitat program such as would come from a well-executed subbasin and watershed assessment and planning process (which will include the estuary).

Potential Improvements in Smolt Production
from Proposed Habitat Measures

Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish
(Table 4, Page 33, Volume 2)
Snake River ESU Range of Incremental Increase
of Smolt Production
Spring/Summer Chinook 0 - 80%
Fall Chinook 0%
Steelhead 0 - 35%

Harvest Plan
Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish, December 2000

Cutting harvest immediately increases spawning escapement and can reduce near-term risks of extinction. However, reductions in harvest rates on natural stocks have been the first response to declining production and ESA listing, and now harvest rates are so low for most stocks that further reductions will not yield major benefits. Most of the harvest impacts remaining on listed fish occur in treaty-protected fisheries, which have been especially hard-hit in recent years.

Millions of Tons of Salmon Harvest(source: Preserving Salmon Biodiversity, by Levin & Schiewe, American Scientist, May/June 2001) Although further reductions in the already-reduced harvest might provide small additional benefits for listed fish, the Strategy recommends against such action because of the high standing importance of the treaty fishing right and the federal trust obligation.

Federal agencies will, however, seek to reduce impacts from harvest on listed fish where such additional cutbacks are necessary and effective at aiding recovery. they will enable more selective fishing opportunities by marking most unlisted hatchery fish, developing and promoting selective fishing techniques and locations to open up or restore opportunities for increase tribal and non-tribal fishing while still protecting the listed stocks, and providing resources to improve management capabilities needed by increased reliance on selective fisheries. They will also provide funds to buy back state-issued commercial fishing licenses when doing so would be effective at reducing fishing.

  • In the short term, constrain harvest at currently reduced rates.
  • Increase selectivity of harvest and reduce take of listed fish further.
  • Provide opportunities for increased harvest.

Hatchery Plan
Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish, December 2000

The Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy contains two primary hatchery initiatives. The first is to reform all existing production and mitigation hatcheries to eliminate or minimize their harm to wild fish. The second is to implement "safety net" projects using various artificial production techniques such as supplementation and captive broodstock programs on an interim basis to avoid extinction while other recovery actions take effect.

Millions of Hatchery Fish Released in Columbia/Snake River basin (source: Preserving Salmon Biodiversity, by Levin & Schiewe, American Scientist, May/June 2001) Protecting and managing for species diversity is a key objective for reforming hatchery operations. Diversity is reflected in the wild fish that are genetically adapted to the areas they inhabit. To protect this diversity, it is critical that hatcheries produce fish that are biologically appropriate for the areas where they interact with natural fish. The Strategy requires that any agency operating a hatchery develop a Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan (HGMP) to govern production. These plans will ensure that hatcheries are operated to manage risks to wild fish and to improve the survival rates of the hatchery stocks themselves.

The second part of the hatchery plan is to use conservation techniques at least on an interim basis, to prevent extinction by stabilizing or increasing numbers of listed fish. this will be done by a variety of techniques and projects tailored to the particular circumstances. Some will involve collecting eggs and milt from wild fish, raising the young fish for a period of time in a hatchery or semi-natural environment, then releasing them in natural production areas. The intent is to increase the abundance of natural spawners. Other projects may use captive-brood techniques, where the juvenile fish are raised for an entire generation or two before they are release back in the wild. Still others will employ more conventional supplementation techniques.

  • Reform production facilities to minimize harm to wild fish and maximize potential benefits for recovery.
  • Use "safety net" projects to avoid extinction.
  • Conduct an aggressive research, monitoring, and evaluation program to better determine hatchery impacts, positive and negative, over time.
  • Transfer operation of certain hatchery production programs or ownership of certain hatcheries to tribes, subject to approved HGMPs, to facilitate co-management and tribal fisheries.

Biological Considerations
Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish, December 2000

The scientific analyses examined the risks and opportunities facing all salmon and steelhead population groups (known as Evolutionarily Significant Units, or ESUs) listed under the ESA. In addition to assessing extinction risks, the analyses looked at how much improvement is needed to achieve survival and recovery. In short, the analyses give a sense of how the fish are performing now, the level at which they need to perform to avert risk, and the areas where improved performance are likely to have the greatest effect. The results are sobering. Generally, fish from the upper Columbia and Snake rivers have the furthest to go to reach recovery. Spring chinook in particular have an extremely high extinction risk in both the upper Columbia and Snake rivers.

The analyses also looked at those life stages where survival improvements would provide the greatest benefit. Generally, these are the life stages where the fish suffer the greatest mortality. The analysis shows that the highest mortality occurs in the first year of life and in the transition from freshwater to saltwater. Although mortality from dam passage is high for ESUs in the upper Columbia and Snake rivers, improving downstream survival, by itself, is unlikely to recover any of the upper basin species. For all ESUs, the analysis concluded that improvements in more than one life stage give the best chance for recovery.

Minimum Risk at the ESU Level
Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish
(Table 1, page 26, Volume 1)
ESU Probability of
a 90% Decline
in Abundance
in 100 Years
Annual Rate of
Population Change
Snake River
Spring/Summer Chinook
100% 0.91
Snake River
Fall Chinook
100% 0.92
Snake River
100% 0.83
Upper Columbia
100% 0.85
Upper Columbia
100% 0.83
Lower Columbia
72% 0.96
Lower Columbia
100% 0.91
Middle Columbia
100% 0.84
Columbia River
0% 1.04
Upper Willamette
100% 0.82
Upper Willamette
99% 0.92
An annual rate of change less than one indicates that a population is declining; greater than one indicates that it is increasing.
All estimates assume that hatchery fish on the spawning grounds have a reproductive success one-fifth (20 percent) that of wild spawners. If hatchery fish have greater reproductive success, the annual population growth rate of the wild population will be lower than that presented here and the risk of decline correspondingly higher.
Annual population growth rate, risk of decline and needed changes will all vary between populations within an ESU.

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