Important articles published by national and regional news outlets related to wild salmon restoration in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
September 1, 2019
By David Neiwert
Everyone in the San Juan Islands who watches the whales remembers the summer of 2016. No one wants to relive it.
That was the summer the Southern Residents lost seven members, including one of the J Pod’s elderly matriarchs, who scientists say are the acknowledged leaders of the pods and repositories of the stored knowledge essential to the whales’ survival. But it was the death of J28 and her calf that stirred people to action.
It was late summer when observers began noticing J28, a 23-year-old female known as Polaris. She had given birth to a male calf that spring, but as the summer wore on, it became clear something was wrong. One day in August was especially telling.
The scene unfolded in the waters directly off Lime Kiln Lighthouse, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands: Polaris’s 6-year-old daughter, J46, nicknamed Star, was swimming about actively in the roiling currents with her mother and her baby brother, who had been designated J54, but had not yet been named.
They were not, as is often the case at this lighthouse, merely frolicking in the nearby seas. They were pursuing the salmon that comprise most of these endangered killer whales’ diets, and there was a deadly serious intent to it.
A week or so before, researchers at the nearby Center for Whale Research had sounded an alarm of sorts about Polaris, who was in her reproductive prime, and by extension the dire lack of salmon for the Southern Resident killer whale population. Ken Balcomb, the center’s founder, had reported that another J Pod matriarch, J14 (Samish), was missing and presumed dead, and that several whales appeared to be struggling.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Balcomb. “J28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”
The “peanut head” condition that Balcomb had reported—a severe sunkenness in the flesh directly behind the orca’s skull, an indication of extreme malnutrition and often a harbinger of imminent death—was clearly visible in Polaris the day we observed her, about a week after the warning. However, the listlessness CWR had reported also was ameliorated somewhat: The orca mother appeared at times to be frolicking physically with her calf, and seemed to be fairly active, though at times she also was simply “logging,” laying still on the surface and drifting with the current.
The most striking aspect of the scene was Star’s activity. She swam constantly around her two companions, diving deep at length and doing percussive behaviors like tail-lobbing and pectoral-slapping, often pointing in her mother’s direction. At times, the three of them would go down into the deep currents and disappear for minutes at a time, evidently foraging. It appeared to my amateur eye that she was herding the salmon she could find toward her mother, helping her get the food she so desperately needed.
The scene also had a deep emotional resonance for me: Six summers before, when Star had just been a still-callow baby of eight months, I had encountered her with Polaris a little south of the lighthouse, along a cliff wall in my kayak. I had tucked into a cove, well out of their way, and began taking photos.
That too had been a deeply touching scene: The mother and little amber-toned calf had played in the still morning waters, nuzzling and wrestling about, reveling in the kind of contact that human parents and their bonded offspring know well, the joy of touching. Polaris also seemed to be feeding the calf, getting its first nascent tastes of fish as the mother dove and brought at least one healthy Chinook to the surface to show and share, as these orcas have been observed doing for years.
Six years later, the now-grown calf was doing her part, returning that love and care to her mother by helping her find and catch the salmon she clearly has not been getting. The familial bonds of killer whales are now a scientifically established fact, but they are profound things to observe, spine-chilling reminders of the deep connection that exists between humans and orcas, whom the Northwest Native Americans referred to as “the people under the sea.”
The afternoon feeding at the lighthouse was a bit of good news, at least—it appeared that Polaris was more active and feeding well. Orcas have occasionally recovered from “peanut head,” though rarely (in captivity, it has been a virtual death sentence). Still the worry remained, and was compounded by the reality that if Polaris died, it meant nearly certain death for her still-unweaned calf, too.
In some regards, the loss of J14 Samish—a 44-year-old female whose still-mysterious death can’t be attributed to malnutrition or a lack of salmon, since the last sightings of her just days before her disappearance showed her in robust apparent health—may prove even more devastating for the Puget Sound’s endangered orcas. Recent research has revealed that post-menopausal females play an essential role in orcas’ long-term survival, because they actively lead the pods in their foraging and represent long-term memory of prey-seeking routes. Without their immense brains leading the way, orcas have a harder finding the large of amounts of fish they need to eat daily to survive and thrive.
That year also saw the loss of a big, striking male once so large he was nicknamed “Doublestuff,” who died after being struck by some unknown vessel. There was also a mother who died after her developed fetus died and became necrotic. Another big male died after government scientists darted him, and the wound became infected.
The bad news regarding the two well-known orca females cast a pall over a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry in the San Juans that had just endured the worst season (for seeing resident orcas, at least) in its history, and seemed to cast a cloud on the island’s whole community. As September drew to a close, it seemed everyone wanted to know how J28 was doing, as though the fate of the Southern Resident killer whale population seemed to hinge on the news. And in some respects it may have.
The orcas’ human advocates were not giving up, but the picture was becoming grim. “Right now, we don’t even have a sustaining population of Southern Residents,” said Deborah Giles.
“We’ve gone backwards. There were 88 animals when they were listed in 2005. Now we are down to 82, and maybe fewer very soon.” As she said this, she looked out over the waters where we had all observed Polaris and her offspring a few days before, and a cloud crossed her face.
A month later, on Oct. 28, CWR scientists made it official at a press conference in Seattle: J-28 had disappeared and was now presumed dead. Her baby, J-54, they said, looked even more malnourished and was being supported in the water by his sister, J-46. They gave him only a few more days, if not hours, to live, and at the time of the announcement was also presumed dead.
"It's a sad day," said Ken Balcomb. "I've been to several funerals and that's what this feels like."
Something snapped. The agony of watching a mother orca slowly starve to death, followed by the spectacle of her unweaned baby’s path towards the same death, was like a final straw that kicked the region’s whale advocates into action.
Coordinating among several advocacy groups and the CWR, they organized a press conference at the Seattle waterfront focusing on the deaths of J28 and J54 as a tragic warning sign for the state of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. Even the normally reclusive Balcomb was persuaded to participate, and he delivered the message in stark terms.
“We know what we need to do—feed them!” Balcomb told the assembled reporters, and urged government officials to take immediate steps to begin removing the four Lower Snake River dams.
“Restore Chinook habitat, anywhere, anyhow,” he said. “If we don’t, we will lose our whales.”
The surge of publicity created immediate political pressure on the state’s politicians, though it eased off over the following year or so, but local lobbying efforts in Olympia, led by the Pacific Whale Watch Association and other advocacy groups, stepped up their intensity during 2017, culminating in Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 2018 announcement that he was forming an Orca Recovery Task Force to tackle the problem.
In the meantime, the bad news for the Southern Residents reached a kind of apex when, shortly after New Year’s Day 2017, Balcomb and the CWR announced a momentous death in the population: J2, aka Granny, the J Pod’s grand matriarch who was estimated to be more than 100 years old.
There was only one further death in the population in 2017: J52 Sonic, a 2-year-old male who disappeared in September. But 2017 also saw a significant change in the Residents’ behavior: Their presence in the Salish Sea waters became extremely scarce.
It may have been one of the effects of Granny’s death; matriarchs are known to be the leaders of the pods, calling the shots on where they go and when, and the change in J Pod leadership clearly affected its foraging patterns. However, the far more likely culprit in the change was the disappearance of Fraser River salmon.
The Chinook produced by the Fraser—which flows out of British Columbia just south of Vancouver—have long been the primary reason the Southern Residents have come to the Salish Sea in the summertime: Scientists estimate that 80 percent of their summer diet comprises fish from the Canadian river. And in the summer of 2017, the numbers of Chinook returning to the system, measured at the Albion Point salmon station, simply flatlined.
Canadian officials remain puzzled at how the returns simply fell off the table that year, but the trend has remained similar through 2018 and much of 2019, as well. The return of the J Pod to the San Juans this past week coincided with a marginal rise in salmon return numbers on the Fraser.
So for most of the summers of 2018 and 2019, the Southern Residents have simply been absent from the Salish Sea.
“It still feels very surreal that we've just had our first June on record with no Southern Resident killer whales in inland waters,” wrote Monika Wieland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute and the author of Endangered Orcas: The Story of the Southern Residents, at her blog.
“June used to be a highlight of the year because of the abundance of sightings of all three pods on the west side of San Juan Island. Yet here we are, 58 days without any of them in the Salish Sea. The silence created by their absence is deafening.”
The absence of the Residents, however, has not been the complete disaster one would expect both for land-based whale watchers and for the whale-watching operations based in the San Juans and Vancouver/Victoria area. That’s because the second population of orcas to use these waters—the mammal-eating population known as transients, or Bigg’s killer whales—have suddenly begun showing up in unusually large numbers.
The two populations—which geneticists have determined haven’t exchanged DNA in more than 300,000 years—are not friendly; when they have been observed in proximity to each other, the Residents have generally chased away the smaller pods of Bigg’s whales. So scientists have hypothesized that the Bigg’s whales may be taking advantage of the absence of the Residents to access the abundant numbers in the Salish Sea of their main prey: namely, seals and sea lions.
Additionally, humpback whales—which were absent from the Salish Sea after being hunted out near the turn of the 20thcentury—have begun returning as well, feeding on the large schools of herring and the semi-abundant krill that can be found here.
Certainly, passengers on the region’s whale-watching tours have had plenty to witness. On one tour I took this spring, we followed a pod of Bigg’s whales as they hunted a Dall’s porpoise at high speed, and then turned the waters around them blood-red when they finally caught and killed it. Even more common have been sightings of Bigg’s whales launching hapless harbor seals 50 feet into the air with their powerful flukes at the climax of a hunt.
“The transients are fascinating animals, and it’s been great to have them here,” says Jeff Friedman, owner of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching and president of the PWWA. “They are amazing to watch, especially when they’re hunting.”
However, the tour operators aren’t content with the new reality. “The fact is that our number one priority is the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale population,” Friedman says. “They are the reason we are here. Even with the transients around, the picture isn’t right without the Residents.”
Friedman, like the scientists and advocates, has been heavily engaged in the Orca Recovery Task Force process. Even though his focus has necessarily been directed to warding off the would-be moratorium on whale watching, he says his primary mission remains getting enough fish in the water to return the Resident population to health.
However, many of the solutions under consideration by the task force—habitat restoration, vessel effects, toxins in the water, and dam removal among them—are all long-term solutions that do relatively little to help the orcas now. Even if the Lower Snake dams were all to be taken down within the year (not at all likely), it would be as long as another decade (though perhaps sooner, depending on which salmon scientists you talk to) before the Snake/Salmon river systems would produce numbers of fish appreciable enough to help the killer whales.
The pressing issue facing scientists is how to get enough fish in the water to feed the orcas right now.
J35 Tahlequah, the mother whose mourning for her dead calfgripped the world last summer, thus sparking the wave of anger over the loss of the whales that finally drove the state’s politicians into action, was among the J Pod whales who returned to the San Juans last week. She looked plump and healthy, frequently playing with little J56, and tail-slapping and socializing.
“We have seen her foraging successfully a couple of times. She looked really healthy to me,” says Deborah Giles. “It made everyone happy.”
Both the condition and the behavior of J Pod made clear that they have, for now at least, figured out how to sustain themselves without enduring the paucity of salmon that has been their reality in the Salish Sea recently. “It’s so heartening to see these whales, and to see them together, see them playing, lifting each other up out of the water, breaches and tail slaps—it’s really amazing,” says Giles. “And it’s really, really good to see them looking as well as they do.
“But in the back of my head, I am thinking—where is K pod? Where is L pod? Are there more babies? Obviously K27 lost the baby she was pregnant with last September. She didn’t come back with a baby. K pod hasn’t had a new baby since 2011.”
While J Pod appears to have regained its health, there were nonetheless three deaths among the Southern Residents this year, including J17, a 42-year-old matriarch known as Princess Angeline. She was Tahleuqah’s mother, making J35 the matriarch of her clan at age 21.
So while Giles spends her time this month on the water collecting scat samples, she has been directing her political focus on getting more fish in the water sooner. For her, that means fisheries management.
The Northwest’s salmon harvest is carefully regulated by a treaty overseen by the Pacific Salmon Commission, an international body that includes both American and Canadian stakeholders such as commercial and sport fishermen, as well as Native American tribes. That body produces a treaty every 10 years—vigorously negotiated—in which the salmon harvest produced in Pacific waters is divvied up among those various interests.
The Southern Resident killer whales, however, do not have a place at that table. So their needs are left to whatever might be left over from the divided harvest.
“What we’ve all been screaming about is giving the whales a place as a major stakeholder in fisheries management,” says Giles. “We’re asking for an allocation of fish for the whales.”
The solution, as she sees it, is for much tighter regulation, if not an outright moratorium, on fishing for Chinook in the orcas’ home waters, which run the entire length of the Pacific Coast. “If not full on fisheries closures, we at least need to have targeted regulations for where and how we fish,” Giles says. “It’s past time we’re doing that. And a lot of that has to do with tribal rights, which is where it becomes very political.”
Recently undertaken studies aimed at identifying key orca-foraging “hotspots” in the San Juans could help provide the data needed to make such a plan a reality, Giles says. However, “the thing I am scared that if we don’t get a handle on these fisheries, there won’t be any salmon even in those hotspots.
The PSC itself has been resistant to these overtures, though its most recent news releases have indicated at least a sensitivity to the political pressure that has arisen around orca recovery.
“At the Pacific Salmon Commission, at that highest level, in the rhetoric around the most recent treaty, the dialogue was that ‘the needs of the Southern Residents would be taken into consideration,’ but if you look at the treaty itself, the words ‘whale,’ ‘killer whale,’ ‘orca whale’—none of that show up in the treaty itself,” Giles observes.
“So basically it’s just lip service. Those words ‘allocation’ and ‘Southern Resident’—they don’t want those to pass into reality. No way.”
However, an adjunct body of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Pacific Management Fishery Council, has proven more amenable to whale advocates’ overtures. It is holding public hearings of an ad hoc group in key cities around the Pacific Northwest, examining the impacts of mixed open fishing on Southern Resident killer whales.
“It is a start, and the more people that get involved in those hearings, and make comments leading up to the meetings” the better, Giles says, noting that the deadline for such commentsis Tuesday.
Overall, Giles is mostly heartened by how the public has responded to the killer whales’ plight, and how the effort has drawn help from a variety of quarters. “There are a lot of people working in a lot of different arenas to help these whales in different capacities—like the Toxic-Free Future people, who are doing a lot of important work to remove toxins from our system, and to try to push legislation that reduces the use of chemicals as much as possible. I think that’s good, I think we need to keep pushing each other in our own areas of expertise. “
“And we need to be engaging with our political appointees, the people that we elect, and pushing them into continuing to address the issues and continuing to cut to solutions,” she adds.
At times, particularly back in 2016, Giles would confess that she feared she was doomed simply to document the demise of a once-great population of killer whales. These days, she is more hopeful—not to mention determined.
“We may well be witnesses to the complete loss of the Southern Residents,” she says. “But we know what can be done. It may get depressing at times, but none of us will ever stop fighting for them.”
September 10, 2019
By TJ Martinell
As federal agencies continue work on a new environmental impact statement for the lower Snake River dams, Washington state is preparing a new stakeholder process with meetings planned in December.
As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USAE), U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) continue work on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) affecting the lower Snake River dams to be released next year, Washington state is preparing a new stakeholder process examining whether or not those dams should be breached to improve salmon and orca recovery. However – state officials at a Sept. 9 meeting of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force emphasized the narrow objective of the process and the final report that will be submitted to Inslee and the state legislature in February.
“The goal is not to develop the mitigation option here,” state Office of Financial Management Senior Budget Assistant Jim Cahill said. “We’re trying to gather information on what stakeholders and communities and others feel are important things that we need to consider, or possible mitigation options. We can’t go out of the kind of the scope of our charge.”
During this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers approved $750,000 in the 2019-21 budget for a stakeholder process to continue ongoing discussions over whether the four lower Snake River dams should be breached to aid salmon and killer whale recovery. The move was advocated last year by the task force as part its recommendations to improve the dwindling orca population.
At the Sept. 9 task force meeting, San Juan County Commissioner Jamie Stephens said: “there are specific questions that I think need to be answered on both sides – for the advocates of tearing down the dams as well as Bonneville Power trying to save the dams.”
Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Meyers told Lens that “the fundamental problem with this whole study is that it’s $700,000 that will do literally nothing for a single salmon or orca. It’s the Burning Man for environmental activists. It’s a chance to dress up.”
The final report sent to Inslee is intended to help him decide what recommendation to submit as part of the EIS process. Meanwhile, NOAA Fisheries has already confirmed that its new analysis for the EIS will not advocate for breaching the dams.
“It is a discussion that the Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries are doing in a very detailed and scientific way right now,” Myers said. “What is the governor going to hear that they aren’t going to examine?”
Some advocates for removing the dams point to a 2002 USACE report on juvenile salmon migration which concluded that breaching would provide “the highest probability of meeting the survival and recovery criteria” for the salmon out of the alternative options included in the study. However, the report noted that the benefits for salmon would be a “slightly reduced” risk of extinction for spring/summer Chinook and a “moderately reduced” risk of extinction for fall Chinook and Steelhead.
The report also noted that it did not address whether removing the dams was necessary. “The bottom line is that no single alternative stands out as the ‘silver bullet’ for listed stocks.”
A 2000 biological opinion by NOAA Fisheries also found that “breaching the four lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of long-term survival and recovery than would other measures,” though it noted that the “breaching is not essential to implementation of the initial actions called for in the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA).”
NOAA Fisheries officials have previously told Lens that while the agency’s previous studies have offered “some degree of support” for removing the dams, none have concluded it’s necessary for salmon recovery.
One of the issues the process aims to address are the potential economic consequences of removing the dams. Their vital role in shipping inland produce was underscored by the recent, unexpected closure of the Bonneville Lock by USAE that froze barging on the river. In addition to generating hydropower, the Bonneville dam is the first of eight in the 465-mile Columbia Snake River System that barges use to move agricultural products to market.
According to the Washington Grain Commission, in 2014 alone the system barged 4.4 million tons of cargo that would have otherwise required 43,600 rail cars or 167,000 semi-trucks to move. According to the USAE, the system moves around 10 million tons and $3 billion worth of cargo each year.
To facilitate the forums for local, state, federal and tribal stakeholders, the state has hired Ross Strategic, Kramer Consulting, White Bluffs Consulting and Anchor QEA. Public workshops are tentatively planned for December, with possible venues in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities.
September 2, 2019
Setting aside for the moment that 2019 coho returns are predicted to be healthy and Buoy 10 fishing was hot over the holiday weekend, this has been another of many troubling years for Columbia River salmonids.
Last year, the total return to the Columbia of Chinook, coho, steelhead and sockeye came to 665,000 — far below the current 10-year average of 2.21 million. We also must bear in mind that this current average is far below the pre-dam era.
This year, the forecast is for 349,600 fall Chinook (on top of the 54,657 spring and 51,050 summer Chinook counted at Bonneville), 726,000 coho to the river’s mouth, 62,600 sockeye and 86,000 steelhead. Chinook, sockeye and steelhead predictions have all been downgraded as fish have straggled into the river. All told, returns are sure to be under 2 million — possibly far under.
Most of the increase over 2018 will be thanks to hatchery coho, for which fishermen and fishing communities are grateful. The optimistic coho forecast is based on the belief that ocean conditions have favored this year’s returning class of adults. But ocean conditions are hard to read with precision, and forecasting salmon returns is as unsure as forecasting the weather months in advance. We shall see if biologists are right about 2019 coho. All we can confidently say now is so far, so good.
Ocean conditions off the mouth of the Columbia have brought albacore tuna remarkably close to shore — as little as 14 miles by some reports.
This is a windfall for sport fishermen, who ordinarily must venture uncomfortable distances into the Pacific to find albacore schools. But the season has been mediocre at best for commercial tuna boats. A current approaching 70 degrees is hosting bluefin tuna, marlin, Humboldt squid and other species seldom seen at this latitude. Though novel and exciting, such departures from normal signal a worrying degree of instability in the local marine environment.
Brian Burke, an ocean scientist with NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, commented about gyrating temperatures to the Columbia Basin Bulletin: “My new answer is the ocean is still changing; we are seeing more variability, and ‘typical’ and ‘normal’ conditions are difficult to define.”
This obvious and irrefutable instability in the ocean is ample reason to keep a close eye on Trump administration plans to tinker with Endangered Species Act protections.
The pullbacks include softening what it means to ensure species survive for the “foreseeable future”; this from a fossil-fuel-dominated administration that professes not to believe in human-caused climate change.
Experts are worried about the ESA changes.
“The impacts of climate change and the fingerprints of climate change can be seen in nature wherever you look. It’s really egregious to ignore it,” top climate scientist Thomas Lovejoy told Time magazine last month.
Almost since the day President Nixon signed the ESA into law in 1973, many have recognized its flaws. Trump is far from the first to suggest a need for better ways to weigh the economic costs of avoiding the extinction of a species. There are examples of many millions being spent to preserve a species when the same sum might have achieved far more by saving or restoring entire habitats.
Too often, as in the case of northern spotted owls, ESA protections for a species serve as a backdoor way to impose restrictions on an entire region and industry.
A smart revamp of how we protect species might focus less on fiddling with or sabotaging details of the current law, and instead looking ahead to how we can best preserve the functionality of different kinds of environment for the benefit of the broadest cross section of species. Cost effectiveness will become more and more mandatory as sea levels and temperatures rise.
But in Nixon’s time and now, trust is the issue. In 2005 regarding the comparatively moderate Bush administration, we editorialized that ESA laws and, more importantly, the realities of endangered species recovery do not neatly conform to whatever is most convenient for political operatives who staff the upper levels of the NOAA Fisheries service, Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This is even more true today, with many top environmental and land-use posts under Trump manned by former industry lobbyists and lawyers.
In a long series of actions that would be politically and legally inconceivable today, these federal agencies turned the world’s greatest salmon river into a series of canals, dams and reservoirs.
Those who profit from the status quo have tried every trick in the book to keep the nation from revisiting this decision to harness the Columbia-Snake River system. This debate will grow even more intense as we weigh the needs of orca for more Chinook versus the relatively climate-neutral benefits of hydropower. At a minimum, agencies must continue to develop smarter ways to allow salmon and dams to coexist.
Honest, unbiased, science-based policies will be the only way to navigate the existential threats facing some salmon runs and other species.
How well we thread this needle, this narrow space between extinction and survival, will determine how our descendants judge us and what kind of a world we leave them.
September 8, 2019
By Eric Barker of the Lewiston Morning Tribune
Daily fish counts at Lower Granite and Bonneville dams foreshadowed recent moves by state, federal and tribal fisheries managers in the Northwest to downgrade their official forecast for the return of steelhead to the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Snake River.
The moves, not unexpected, follow weeks of ugly steelhead counts recorded at dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. For example, for the past week steelhead passage at Bonneville Dam has numbered between 477 and 814 per day. The 10-year average for daily steelhead passage at Bonneville during the same time span ranges from 2,714 to 2,921.
At Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, daily steelhead counts over the past week ranged from a low of 17 to a high of 38. The 10-year average for daily steelhead counts over the same period ranges from 215 to 1,063.
The numbers reflect the failure of A-run steelhead to meet preseason expectations. In response, fisheries managers in Washington reduced steelhead bag limits to just one hatchery fish per day on the Snake, Grande Ronde, Tucannon, Touchet and Walla Walla rivers. The state also adopted regulations that require anglers fishing on the Snake River between its mouth and the Couse Creek Boat Ramp south of Asotin to release any steelhead 28 inches in length or longer. Washington also extended a steelhead fishing closure on the lower reaches of the Wind, White Salmon and Klickitat rivers.
Washington and Oregon extended a steelhead harvest closure below the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River through September. Idaho earlier reduced steelhead bag limits to one per day and implemented requirements to release steelhead 28 inches or longer caught from the Clearwater River and its tributaries and the Snake River downstream of Couse Creek. The latest steelhead forecast, released last week, calls for 76,000 A- and B-run to return at least as far as Bonneville Dam. The preseason forecast was a modest 118,200 which was downgraded to 86,000 in late August.
Fisheries managers did not update the forecasts to reflect how many of the expected steelhead will belong to the A-run and how many to the B-run. The A-run returns earlier and those fish generally spend just one year in the ocean. The B-run fish are bigger and return later in the year after spending, on average, two years in the ocean.
The downgrade was based on the performance of A-run fish. B-run steelhead are just starting to show up at Bonneville Dam and fisheries managers won’t know for some time if those fish will live up to the preseason forecast.
But even if they do meet expectations, the B-run is not likely change the forecast for the better. That is because fisheries managers are calling for only about 8,000 of the big steelhead to return to Bonneville Dam this year and only about 5,300 to Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
“We weren’t expecting a very big (B-) run, so any sort of a downgrade in that component is going to make it even more grim,” said Alan Byrne, a Boise fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “But we probably need a few more weeks before we can say anything about that component.”
Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Spokane, said wild steelhead are performing as expected, but hatchery fish are lagging. The difference in performance means this year’s run to date has been dominated by fish anglers can’t keep.
Through Tuesday, 2,072 steelhead had been counted at Lower Granite Dam since July 1. Of those, 1,397 or about 67 percent, were either wild or unclipped hatchery fish. Based on the 10-year average during the same time period, wild and unclipped steelhead should make up about 40 percent of the run.
Wild steelhead are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and anglers who catch them are required to let them go.
This year’s steelhead run is the third in the row to perform well below most runs over the past two decades. The poor returns have led to bag-limit and size reductions and to acrimonious posturing between state fisheries managers, some conservation groups and anglers.
Fisheries managers suspect lingering poor conditions in the Pacific Ocean have led to low survival of the fish during their time at sea. They had hoped the A-run would see a modest rebound this year based on indications that ocean conditions are improving.
Donley said even with the disappointing steelhead numbers, anglers still have fishing opportunities. He said the fall chinook salmon run is performing as expected, and the coho salmon run is also looking like it will live up to forecasts.
“At least we are in a good spot there,” he said.
September 4, 2019
By Steve Liebenthal
Stanley, Idaho — Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains has some of the clearest cleanest water in the United States. It was named for the fish that make a nine hundred mile journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.
"Redfish was named after the fish that turn red when they're spawning," said Andy Munter of Idaho Rivers United. "The old settlers talk about not being able to cross the creeks because there are so many fish it would spook the horses."
But this year sockeye salmon are not returning to Redfish Lake Creek by the tens of thousands, the thousands or even the hundreds.
This year Fish and Game has only captured seventeen sockeye in their trap near Stanley. Only eighty one sockeye have made it past Lower Granite, the last dam on their migration to Idaho.
Every day Fish and Game technicians check a trap on Redfish Lake Creek, hoping to find sockeye, but this year they have mostly found resident pike minnows.
Idaho's most critically endangered salmon face many challenges, including recent warming of the ocean. But this year's return of sockeye was also hit hard two years ago when hundreds of thousands died within minutes of being released.
"It was basically a one hundred percent die-off from sometimes one hundred yards from where they dumped the fish," said Munter. "There was just a shock to 'em."
The fish were raised at the Springfield Hatchery in eastern Idaho, where the water is very hard. When managers released them into the soft water in the Sawtooth Basin, more than eighty percent perished between Redfish Lake Creek and the Snake River.
Now biologists are holding juvenile sockeye in the medium hard water at Sawtooth Hatchery before releasing them into the wild.
"In 2018 we had one of the highest post-release survivals in the history of the program," said IDFG Research Biologist John Powell. "So we know we put a lot of fish out into the ocean, and right now we're kind of waiting for those fish to come back."
Those fish will return to the Sawtooth Basin next year. And despite the initial failure of the Springfield program, conservationists are not blaming Fish and Game for the plight of Idaho sockeye.
"Fish and Game are doing an amazing job of keeping these fish alive, but they're not making the decisions on long-term survival rates," said Munter.
And while Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson has recently said that breaching the four dams in Washington is a possibility, Governor Little has gone on record as saying that is not an option.
Munter hopes that will change as more citizens get involved in salmon recovery.
"There's money and there are ways while we're spending these billions of dollars on the status-quo that is not working for salmon recovery," said Munter.
September 1, 2019
By David Neiwert
The river, I thought, looked like you could walk across it, there were so many fish. It was a wide and shallow stretch, the kind that salmon like to use as spawning beds, and it was positively alive with hundreds, maybe thousands of thrashing salmon.
To my five-year-old eyes, the sight of the returning salmon along the headwaters of the Salmon River in the early 1960s was so awesome it has been burned into my memory since. My granddad Mel had taken us to visit his favorite fishing holes in the Stanley Basin, but we weren’t catching many of the cutthroat we usually came for, because the salmon were crowding everything out, it seemed.
I’ll never forget what the fish looked like, either: Hook-jawed and fierce, some of them (the sockeye) flaming red, and huge. It confused me at that age that we couldn’t catch and eat these giant fish, but my dad explained to me that their meat was soft and almost inedible by the time they reached the spawning beds. All of them were scarred and battered, the results of their thousand-mile journey from the ocean.
By the time I was a teenager in the 1970s, most of the big spawning runs had dwindled to a few dozen. By 1992, when only a single spawning sockeye—dubbed “Lonesome Larry”—returned to the Stanley Basin, those runs had simply vanished. Gone, too, were the throngs of native cutthroat my granddad had loved to catch, because when the proteins that the salmon brought up to the Sawtooths from the ocean stopped arriving, the entire native ecosystem there collapsed.
There were a number of causes for the runs’ decimation, including overall declines in fish habitat and commercial overharvest, but one loomed above them all: the construction of four dams—Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite—on the Snake River between Lewiston, Idaho, and Richland, Washington. They were built in the late 1950s and continuing up through 1970, at the height of the Northwest’s dam-building mania, when they were still largely viewed as unalloyed assets for the region. These four dams were largely the brainchild of chamber-of-commerce promoters from Lewiston, who envisioned creating the world’s most inland seaport in their city and campaigned for the idea for nearly two decades before the dams were finally built.
That, in fact, is the main benefit of these dams: barging traffic. By creating four navigable slackwater reservoirs up to Lewiston, barges became capable of moving grain and other goods downstream to Portland at what were then cheaper rates compared to rail or truck shipping.
Because they are relatively shallow dams with little water behind them (in the hydroelectric business, they are called “run of the river” dams), their ability to produce electricity was always limited. At best, they have only produced a small fraction of the region’s electricity, and currently only contribute about 3-4% of the total Northwest energy grid.
The dams quickly proved to be salmon killers too, as fishermen in the Stanley Basin could attest. Fish ladders were installed when the dams were built that enabled salmon to return upstream, though over the years these required improvements as they proved less than effective in their supposed purpose; but the downstream trip for young smolt making their way to the ocean proved to be the truly lethal component of their migration, since the reservoirs created flatwater that stopped the smolt in their downstream track (scientists have since ascertained that they need free-flowing rivers to effectively get to the ocean), and the few smolt who did make it past them were often ground into fish meal by the dams’ turbines as they passed through them.
The Snake River salmon numbers crashed so precipitously that, shortly after the “Lonesome Larry” episode, federal officials began the process of listing the four key salmon runs under the Endangered Species Act; Snake River Chinook and sockeye were both listed by 1995. That’s about the same time that salmon scientists and environmental advocates began talking about the eventual need to remove the four dams.
That created a huge political backlash in eastern Washington, whipped up by politicians and radio talk-show hosts. When the breaching was first proposed in 1999, pro-dam rallies were held in various communities at which the rhetoric became high-pitched. Leading the way were top Republican officials, including then-Senator Slade Gorton, who warned of various miseries that breaching would inflict, and smeared the plans as an attack on “our way of life.”
“We are not going to allow a few Seattle ultraliberal environmental zealots to destroy what took generations to build,” said Republican state Senator Dan McDonald, of Bellevue, at a Richland gathering in 2000.
“In case you don’t understand the urgency of this, think about this: The bulldozers are coming,” said Republican Representative Shirley Hankins, of Richland at the same rally. “The gun is at our heads, and we need to act right now before they pull the trigger.”
The bulldozers never came. The furor instead gave ammunition for the federal agencies that maintain the dams and who have ardently defended them since their construction—the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration—to sustain their existence in the face of mounting costs and shifting economics. They began mitigation efforts to save the smolt by collecting them as they came downriver, loading them onto barges, and then taking them downstream past the Columbia dams and releasing them, an extremely expensive effort that cost millions annually, and proved to have little effect.
What did follow, however, were multiple lawsuits demanding that the Corps and the BPA adhere to the letter of the Endangered Species Act—and in the courts, at least, the salmon advocates proved to have the science and the law on their side. A 2003 ruling by a federal judge, James Redden, knocked down the Bush administration’s plans to maintain the status quo on the dams. In 2005, after continuing declines, Redden ordered the BPA to begin spilling water over the dams at key times of year to help the smolt migrate downstream on their own.
As it happened, 2005 was the year that the National Marine Fisheries Service officially listed the Southern Resident killer whale as endangered. And suddenly, the whole picture became even more complicated.
It seems counterintuitive to think that the endangered Puget Sound orcas’ fate could ultimately depend on some earthen dams far away, deep inland. To understand the larger dynamic, you have to take into account how these killer whales feed year-round.
The scientists who study them have found that during the summer months, especially in July and August, the Southern Residents feed primarily on Chinook from the Fraser River, the large British Columbia waterway whose delta is just south of Vancouver, which is why they come inland to feed in the Salish Sea. But the rest of the year, especially during the winter months, these orcas roam the Continental Shelf dozens of miles off the Pacific Coast and hundreds of miles along it. During those months, they feed off all the available Chinook along the shelf, but the majority of those salmon, the ones they prefer to target even as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands, come from the Columbia River.
NOAA scientists have been working hard to try to figure out which river systems the whales mostly feed from in the wintertime, because they need the scientific data in hand before they can begin to establish the mouths of these rivers as the orcas’ critical habitat in the wintertime, the first step in any federally funded recovery program. NOAA Northwest’s chief whale scientist, Brad Hanson, first collected a handful of fish scales from an orca feeding at the mouth of the Columbia in 2010, and then in 2012 began a program of darting Southern Resident orcas with satellite tags that, in some instances, remained functional for several weeks, giving the researchers a wealth of data about the orcas’ feeding habits for the past three winters. It ended with the death of the young male infected by a dart in 2016.
Columbia Chinook runs generally (and the Snake River runs especially) have been listed as either threatened or endangered since the 1990s, and their future looks precarious at best. Recent bouts of high summer temperatures in the river water (which is worsened by the four Lower Snake Dams) have killed thousands of sockeye attempting to return up the river, and similarly threaten the future of the runs’ remaining wild stocks, which are essential for their long-term well-being.
The reason the Snake River system is so promising when it comes to Chinook recovery lies in what is behind those four dams at its lowest reaches: for hundreds of miles beyond them, the river and its arms continue into pristine wilderness, primarily the 425-mile-long Salmon River, which winds its way through the massive Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness before reaching its headwaters in the protected Stanley Basin. It is prime salmon habitat that, before the dams arrived, produced salmon by the hundreds of thousands. The promise of salmon recovery in that kind of habitat is extremely high.
So the orca scientists are able to make a powerful case that, when it comes to recovering the Southern Residents’ critical habitat in the wintertime, the most logical target is not just the Columbia, but the Snake River system particularly. It offers the most bang for the buck when it comes to providing the whales with at least enough fish in the short term to sustain them and perhaps begin a recovery.
A recent ruling by yet another federal judge, Michael Simon, made clear that the BPA’s efforts for restoring salmon to the Columbia were still woefully inadequate, and it recommended the administration to return to considering taking out the four Lower Snake dams. The agencies that operate the dams have now initiated a series of public hearings on the issue, the first stop in a long process that likely means dam removal will be years still down the road. Meanwhile, the state’s political leaders—especially Sen. Patty Murray, who has shunned multiple requests from dam-removal advocates for a face-to-face meeting—have mostly remained hunkered down on the issue, fearful of stirring up the culture-war hornet’s nest that awaits them on the eastern side of the state.
And it remains potent. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane-area Republican best known as a key congressional ally of President Trump, earlier this year successfully drummed up support for legislation that essentially would have rendered the dams a permanent fixture, immune even to court edicts. The bill, H.R. 3144, passed the House, but died in the Senate.
The Orca Recovery Task Force, however, has opened a window of opportunity by including dam removal discussions as a key component of its second round of discussions this year.
Unsurprisingly, that has in turn sparked a fresh round of claims that heedless Seattle liberals are trying to destroy eastern Washington farmers’ way of life.
The facts on the ground have shifted dramatically, however. Due to rising fuel costs, barging is no longer the more economical means for farmers to get their grain to market that it once was, and the large majority of eastern Washington farmers are now using rail lines for transport. And the small portion of electricity that the dams produce is actually part of a power-oversupply problem in the Northwest, where there’s an annual surplus of about 16% of power production that costs ratepayers by reducing demand while also crowding out wind and solar energy as it comes online. The old arguments defending the dams have largely evaporated, while the need for their removal, in a biological sense, has become profound.
Jim Waddell, a retired Army Corps of Engineers official from the Walla Walla district that oversees the four dams, has been arguing forcefully for the past couple of years that not only are the dams a boondoggle that wastes taxpayers’ money and needlessly destroy salmon, but that the means exists for the Corps to begin tearing the dams down as soon as this year.
Waddell was part of the Corps team that wrote its 2002 (and still operative) Environmental Impact Statement on the dams, and he delights in pointing out that dam breaching is included as one of the viable options in it if the salmon-mitigation efforts it lists failed to recover the endangered runs—as they have. Waddell also makes a powerful case that the dams cost taxpayers in excess of $170 million annually, with an investment return of 15 cents on the dollar.
The wave of bad news for the Southern Residents over the summer added more fuel to the case for dam removal. And indeed, the offices of Gov. Inslee, as well as Murray and her fellow Democratic senator, Maria Cantwell, were inundated with calls from angry constituents demanding action, and frequently demanding the dams be taken down.
National Marine Fisheries Service officials held a series of meetings last winter in Friday Harbor and Seattle intended to ameliorate and perhaps address the raw anger in the communities over the deaths, first, of J-35’s calf and its subsequent remonstrative display by her grieving mother, and then more recently the loss of J-50, aka Scarlett, the spunky little four-year-old.
The meetings simmered with resentment as hundreds turn out to voice their frustration. Many vented their anger: “You have done nothing! Nothing!” shouted one resident to the silent panel of scientist bureaucrats seated at the front of the room. “It’s time to stop playing politics!”
The orcas’ human advocates are not giving up, but they believe the picture has become grim. “Right now, we don’t even have a sustaining population of Southern Residents,” says Deborah Giles of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs. “We’ve gone backwards.”
“They were declared endangered in 2005,” Ken Balcomb, chief scientist of the Friday Harbor-based Center for Whale Research, reminded the NOAA panel. “And fifty-one animals have died since then.
“These babies that we see dying now are probably the most dramatic. They’re probably the most media-savvy. They’re telling us something: We’ve got to do something NOW about restoring wild salmon.”
Earlier this summer, the nonpartisan think tank ECONorthwest published a study examining the pros and cons of removing the four Lower Snake River dam, concluding that “society will incur some costs from dam removal due to lost barge transportation and effects on grid services, but the public benefits relative to costs strongly justify removing the Lower Snake River Dams. In other words, the benefits of dam removal are large enough to fully compensate individuals or industries that could experience costs if the dams are removed.”
Especially damning were the portions of the study that examined barging on the river: It showed the federal government’s subsidies for the lock system far exceed in federal costs what the public gets in return.
Local Republicans jumped to denounce the study: "This privately-funded study is a slap in the face of our state's agricultural economy,” a joint statement from McMorris Rodgers and Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse read. “It is another example of Seattle-based interests failing to understand our way of life in Central and Eastern Washington.”
However, one glimmer of political hope has turned up from an unexpected source: Conservative Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho—who has his own memories of seeing salmon spawn in Idaho rivers—has recently begun denouncing the federal inaction on the state’s diminishing salmon runs, arguing for serious consideration of the dams’ removal. Simpson says he wants to see the runs recovered in his lifetime.
“We need to stop thinking about what currently exists and ask ourselves, ‘What do we want the Northwest to look like in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years?’ ” Simpson told a Boise gathering aimed at addressing the salmon problems. Among his likely backers on the discussions are Idaho’s Native American tribes.
A Christian Science Monitor piece noted that Simpson’s approach is based on economic realities—particularly the fact that hydropower no longer is the lowest-cost energy option for Northwest utilities.
“There is a new fact on the field,” Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League remarked to the Monitor, adding that as the discussion moves forward, “for the first time in many years I feel like we have a hopeful chance of saving salmon for future generations.”