Running the gauntlet

Snake River sockeye salmon fighting for survival

Rhett Lawrence, Policy Analyst
Save Our Wild Salmon

manysockeyeSurviving an epic journey to their natal waters, encouraging numbers of sockeye salmon are reaching Idaho’s Redfish Lake – swimming more than 900 miles and gaining nearly 7,000 feet in elevation. With more than 450 of these magnificent fish having arrived at Redfish and a nearby hatchery as of August 17, we have reason to hope that this year’s numbers might even exceed last year’s impressive return of nearly 600 sockeye, which was the highest count in a generation. Given that only four fish survived to Redfish Lake in 2007, and only three in 2006, these numbers are heartening indeed. But before we declare victory for Snake River sockeye, a little perspective is in order.

A century ago, as many as 40,000 sockeye returned to this picturesque alpine lake, turning its waters red. Last year’s impressive return notwithstanding, prospects have recently been so bleak for these fish that most Northwest fish biologists declared them functionally extinct. Few dreamt that the lake would ever see a self-sustaining population again.

Sockeye, however, are both surprising and resilient. With help from a federal court, salmon advocates secured improved river management programs that have helped these fish home in the last two years. For a species that was largely abandoned, it is exciting to watch these returns and imagine that fabled Redfish Lake might one day turn red again.

While these returns are encouraging, we shouldn’t confuse these numbers with the actual recovery of a species that has been on the federal Endangered Species List since 1991 — we’re still looking at just a few hundred fish, after all. Along with increased hatchery production, the improved returns are largely the result of spilling additional water over dams when these fish were migrating to the ocean as young salmon in 2006 and 2007. U.S. District Court Judge James Redden ordered those in-river improvements — over the vehement objections of federal agencies. But all of this progress was discarded when federal agencies finalized their latest salmon plan last year.

In addition, two years of improved returns doesn’t mean much after more than two decades of dismal counts. A few hundred amazing fish have overcome the steep odds, but such a number pales in comparison to the tens of thousands that once returned before dams decimated their migration corridor. According to NOAA Fisheries, eight consecutive years of at least 1,500 returning fish would be necessary to get these fish out of the ICU and into the recovery room.

Further, a panel of independent scientists concluded in 2006 that the Snake River sockeye hatchery program — the equivalent of life-support system — was unlikely to ever recover the species unless other downstream impacts were addressed. Namely, scientists tell us that the best — and perhaps only — way to recover these endangered salmon is to remove four outdated and costly dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington. Without a commitment to long-term, science-based, salmon-friendly policies, sockeye will most likely spiral to extinction.

These strong returns do tell us, however, that there’s still hope for the world’s most endangered salmon. Favorable snowpack and ocean conditions, combined with the court-ordered spill and increased hatchery production, have done wonders in the short term for these sockeye. Imagine what could happen if the four largest obstacles in their path — the four lower Snake River dams — were also removed.

We still have time to save these fish but we will need leadership from the Obama administration and Congress, and support for removing the four outdated dams on the lower Snake River. We can have healthy salmon populations, fishing opportunities, a reliable energy supply, and a strong Northwest economy but we can't have all of those things while the lower Snake River dams remain in place.

We urge the Obama Administration to lead the way by setting a “solutions” table — a forum that brings regional stakeholders together to create a real recovery blueprint that will restore the Columbia Basin’s wild salmon and steelhead runs to vibrant, self-sustaining levels. We also call on Congress to pass the Salmon Solutions and Planning Act of 2009, currently moving through the House of Representatives as H.R. 3503. The bill would provide Congress and federal agencies with up-to-date, thorough information about how best to protect and restore wild salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia and Snake River Basin.  A comprehensive plan can create family-wage jobs, restore salmon and recreation, and expand clean energy opportunities for the future.

So as we celebrate the returning sockeye this year, we also ask the Obama administration and Members of Congress to act now to protect and restore our sockeye, in 2009, in 2010, and for the years to come.

More on salmon and steelhead returns in the Columbia & Snake Rivers.

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