• U.S.

A Race to Rescue the Salmon

7 minute read
Jeanne Mcdowell/Chinook

For Leslie Clark, 63, salmon fishing was a birthright — a livelihood that has sustained four generations of his family. As a boy he learned from his father and grandfather the art of casting vast gill nets on the teeming waters of the Columbia River. After years of practice, he says, “you understand the fish and his ways. You know what he’s going to do before you see him.”

In Clark’s youth, glistening 27-kg (60-lb.) silver Chinooks and red-fleshed sockeyes would leap into the nets. The commercial salmon season was 137 days long, and a day’s catch would often exceed a ton. But now the sockeyes have vanished and the silver Chinooks have dwindled. The season is one-third as long, and Clark and his two sons are lucky if they catch 136 kg (300 lbs.) each day. Soon they may have to quit the business altogether because of a broad effort to rebuild the salmon populations on the lower Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake River. “Everyone who uses the river’s water,” he says, “is going to have to share the burden and pain.”

Last fall the Snake River sockeye was added to the nation’s endangered- species list, and this spring the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to take similar action on behalf of most races of Chinook. These actions pave the way for an extensive salmon-recovery plan to be put forth by the fisheries service in September that will affect not only commercial and sport fishing throughout a four-state area but also mining, farming and other industries that depend on the river and the power it generates. “There is no better barometer of the health of the Northwest than salmon,” says Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club. “If we can bring back the salmon, we can demonstrate that we have learned to manage the natural systems in a way that perpetuates the bounty.”

Before the roaring Columbia River began to be tamed by dams 59 years ago, it teemed with 16 million wild salmon a year as it cut a 1,930-km (1,200-mile) swath from its headwaters in British Columbia to its mouth at Astoria, Ore. Today its streams and tributaries are inhabited by only 2.5 million salmon a year, nearly 75% of which are spawned in domestic hatcheries. Logging and grazing on public lands have eroded soils and buried spawning grounds. Delicate habitats have been dried up by the pumping of hundreds of millions of acre-feet of water to grow crops in eastern Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Overharvesting by commercial fishermen — both on the rivers and in the ocean, where the salmon spend two to five years of their life — has drastically reduced populations of several fish stocks.

But the most ferocious enemy of the fish is eight hydroelectric dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers that harness water behind massive walls of concrete. On their journey upstream every year, the salmon are aided by fish ladders that allow them to bypass oncoming currents. But the trip downstream from the spawning grounds to the Pacific is a treacherous 1,450-km (900-mile) journey that obliterates up to 11 million juvenile salmon, called smolts, a year. Slack pools created by reservoirs behind the dams have slowed the smolts’ traveling time from seven days to six weeks. This increases their exposure to predators and to higher water temperatures that make them susceptible to disease. The combination can be fatal, throwing off the delicate biological clock that allows the salmon to adapt miraculously from fresh to salt water once they get to the sea. The smolts that survive face a grisly threat: the majority end up ground to a pulp in the deadly turbines that create the cheapest electricity in the country.

Saving the salmon will require a far-reaching plan to restore habitat, reduce the number of commercial fish harvests and limit the number of hatchery salmon released in the river. But the crucial element will be changing operations at the dams to increase the velocity of the waters so that young fish are quickly flushed seaward. Biologists say this can be achieved by releasing vast amounts of water from upstream reservoirs or by lowering water levels in the pools behind the dams during the spring migration.

While the Endangered Species Act has given a sense of urgency to the salmon’s plight, a number of efforts have already been made to increase the runs. In 1980, Congress passed the Northwest Power Act, which required federal power authorities, who oversee the dams, to give salmon protection equal priority with electricity production. The act also created the four-state Northwest Power Planning Council, which aimed to double the number of salmon to 5 million to make up for those lost in the dams. To meet this goal, the council established fish hatcheries and installed screening devices at many dams to prevent smolts from being sucked into the turbines. The council has also ordered barges to transport smolts around the dams and has increased the flows by releasing water from storage reservoirs.

But 12 years and a billion regional dollars spent on such efforts have failed to rebuild or even stabilize the salmon populations. Optimism about hatchery technology has waned, and many scientists now believe that domesticated salmon lack the genetic robustness of wild ones. Environmentalists complain that the planning council is too weak to take on the utilities that have dominated the river for decades. “The fish got what utilities were willing to give them,” says Bill Bakke, of the Oregon Trout, a fish-conservation group. Instead of doubling, the number of salmon has continued to decline steadily.

The forthcoming plan from the National Marine Fisheries Service is likely to be much stricter in requiring increased water flows at the dams. Farmers, manufacturers and utilities are worrying about the consequences. In Lewiston, a port 748 km (465 miles) inland on the Snake River in Idaho, port director Ron McMurray says barge traffic may be halted several months a year, forcing farmers to transport cargo by rail or truck. Ron Reimann, who farms 1,295 hectares (3,200 acres) in Pasco, Wash., estimates that it will cost him $1.3 % million if he has to move his irrigation pumps to accommodate lower water levels. In addition, electricity rates are expected to rise as much as 8% because of the decreased efficiency of the hydroelectric plants. Aluminum manufacturers, lured to the region by cheap energy, could be hit, as well as the small towns they support.

Officials at the fisheries service insist that the recovery plan will spread the burden among all the divergent interests, but a power struggle is already under way. “Fish advocates” blame the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dams, for not assuming responsibility for the diminished salmon runs. Idaho farmers, on the other hand, want to protect their water-guzzling crops. Meanwhile, four Native American tribes are sure to go to court if their rights to half of all fish in the Columbia River basin are taken away.

Even so, the battle to save the salmon has generated far less rancor than the struggle between environmentalists and loggers over the northern spotted owl. In addition to its contribution to the Northwest economy — $52 million a year in commercial fishing-related income alone — the salmon has deep-seated symbolic value. Names of towns such as Chinook and White Salmon reflect the place of the cherished fish in the region’s soul. In religious ceremonies, Native American tribes thank their Creator for the life-perpetuating salmon.

Salmon lovers call completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941 one of the darkest moments for the fish. As 27-kg (60-lb.) “June hogs” made their summer migration upstream that year, following their unwavering instinct to return to the streams where they were born, thousands perished when they flung themselves against the unyielding concrete. But even the staunchest fish advocates realize that the June hogs are gone forever and the dams are here to stay. Biologists are optimistic, however, that a strong recovery plan can bring other salmon species back from the brink within 20 years. Leslie Clark, the third-generation gill netter, is willing to put his beloved livelihood on hold to achieve that end. “Fishing has been good to us,” he says. “But watching these fantastic fish go down to little or nothing has been very sad. If you depend on a resource, you’ve got to take care of it.”

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