Wild salmon: Are their best days all behind them?

Warming waters are a new threat for Columbia River fish. Dams remain an ever-present problem.
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Fishermen with catch

Warming waters are a new threat for Columbia River fish. Dams remain an ever-present problem.

Chinook salmon returns are setting records on the Columbia this year. But 80 percent are hatchery fish. Thirteen wild salmon populations in the region are listed as endangered and 11 are threatened. The latest threat, warming waters, comes on top of the longstanding dangers of hydropower for salmon.

Wild fish advocate, fisherman and biologist Jim Martin shows off a catch of King and Silver salmon. On a warm fall day on the lower Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon, fishing is good. “It was a wonderful day. Yesterday we struggled all day for four bites and today we got over ten.” Some of the salmon are nearly twenty pounds but all are hatchery fish. Eighty percent of all returning salmon in the Columbia River basin are hatchery bred. Any wild salmon caught must be released. “Because if we didn’t,” explains Martin, we’d be putting additional pressure on the wild fish when they have so much pressure already.”

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A fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for f40 years, Martin who is quasi-retired, loves fish and loves fishing. But his passion is to see wild salmon runs restored to the region.

When hydro dams went up to harness the basin’s power over a century ago, hatcheries became a fixture on the landscape as a way to protect the interests of Native and non-Native fishing communities. They were meant to be a temporary substitute, but today 13 wild salmon populations in the region are listed as endangered and 11 are threatened. The pressures they face are relentless. “They have the pressure of the dams,” says Martin, “and they have the pressure of irrigation and the pressure of power production.”

Their most recent adversary is warming waters. This summer, temperatures in the Columbia Basin exceeded 70 degrees for a total of 340 daily readings. Salmon function best when temperatures are closer to 55 degrees. As climate models predicted, says Martin co-author of the report, "A Great Wave Rising, Solutions for Columbia and Snake River Salmon in the Age of Global Warming," the region is seeing more winter rains and less snowpack. “That has gigantic implications for the fish because they historically rode the snowpack runoff of the Rockies to the sea.” What once took 11 days now takes a month a half.

The federal Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers built steel reservoirs to store water for spring power production, explains Martin. But adjustments need to be made to ensure wild salmon survival. One would be to store less water in the spring. “Maybe store more of the water in the winter when the fish don’t need it.” Modifying hatchery and harvest practices are other adjustments that are needed. “So we take pressure in other ways off the fish so they have the most ability to adapt to this natural change which is coming at us from climate.”

Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of fishing communities, tribes and business, has tried to work with federal agencies for years to find relief for the iconic creatures. But in the last 20 years there have been a dozen lawsuits filed and court actions ordered. “It’s been a frustrating merry-go-round of litigation for years,” says Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Samon. Fishing advocates have been consistently successful in the court, he says. “The federal agencies have been told your plan is inadequate. You’ve got to go back and do better.” Agencies became responsible for producing “plans” or biological opinions to mitigate harms caused by dams and reservoirs when Pacific Northwest salmon were first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.

A judge rejected the most recent plan in August 2011 and told the agencies to go back to the drawing board. A new draft biological opinion was released by the agencies this month. BPA spokesperson Kevin Wingert says plans for habitat restoration, surface water fish passage and increasing spill over dams are all being met. “Our job as public servants is to take the best science available and move forward in a way that balances the various needs of the region in order to support salmon and steelhead.” Bonneville Power has completed projects on the Bonnevile dam, the Dalles, John Day, Ice Harbor and others, says Wingert, to ensure spring and summer fish passage. “Right now we’re on track at all of the projects to meet our juvenile survival passage targets by 2018.”

Save Our Wild Salmon’s Bogaard says the BPA is engaged in spin. He says they’re reluctant to take any measures that would significantly impact revenue. Wild salmon and steelhead populations are bumping along the bottom or in decline, he says. People in the region are ready to find common solutions such as  new forms of clean affordable energy, he says, ones that can co-exist with healthy salmon populations, he contends. “This repeats all the same old mistakes and is really a missed opportunity to move the region forward in a productive way that expands the pie for everybody involved.”

(Note: The BPA’s draft plan for 2014-2018 can be found at salmonrecovery.gov. The plan is open to public review through Oct. 7.)

This story is brought to you with support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by Moe Provenchar for Green Acre Radio.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.