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Press Releases

Save Our Wild Salmon

July 11, 2013


Federal agencies tout “mission accomplished” as Columbia-Snake salmon populations struggle; Revised federal salmon plan due later this year will require aggressive new measures, scientific support to pass legal muster.

CONTACT: Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice, 206-343-7430, ext. 1027

Joseph Bogaard, Save Our Wild Salmon, 206-300-1003 (cell)

On Wednesday, the agencies that operate the federal dams on the Columbia-Snake Rivers released a self-evaluation of their implementation so far of the 2008/2010 Biological Opinion (which was ruled illegal in 2011, but remains in place until a new plan is issued at the end of this year). This Comprehensive Evaluation by the Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation is one of several procedural steps toward the release of a new draft BiOp or federal salmon plan in August, with the final version due in December. The Evaluation presents a one-sided view of the agencies’ performance and progress over the past five years and fails to address the measures necessary to move salmon recovery forward.

A close look at the Evaluation reveals that threatened and endangered wild salmon and steelhead populations remain far from recovery. Despite its considerable expense – more than $600M annually - the 2008/2010 BiOp is failing to adequately protect or restore stocks that remain at risk of extinction. Notwithstanding the federal agencies’ positive packaging, their restoration efforts are failing to meet the life-cycle needs of the Northwest’s most iconic species. Most wild populations are at best treading water or at worse declining, despite being listed under the Endangered Species Act between 14 and 22 years ago.

The Obama Administration’s new biological opinion due at the end of this year must be significantly strengthened and supported by the science if it is to have any hope of passing legal muster and meeting the needs of salmon. As recent adult returns reflect, Columbia-Snake salmon and steelhead need substantially more help if they are to start approaching levels needed for recovery. The current illegal status quo is failing salmon, fishing jobs, and the Northwest.

In contrast to many of the vague statistics and hoped-for improvements discussed in the Evaluation, the practice of releasing (or “spilling”) water over the dams’ spillways is a proven salmon protection measure that enjoys broad and solid support from state, federal, and Tribal scientists. The benefits of helping young fish migrate to the ocean through spill has been the single largest bright spot for salmon in recent years. Unfortunately, the tangible benefits of increased spill over the past seven years are largely ignored or discounted in the agencies’ self-assessment. As long as the lower Snake River dams remain in place, spill is one of our most effective near-term measures for increasing smolt survival through the hydrosystem on their way to the ocean and achieving higher adult fish returns two and three years later. Expanding on the successes of the spill program in the upcoming BiOp is our region’s best chance for boosting salmon survival and provides the Obama Administration with a vital opportunity to meet the requirements of salmon science and the law.

Download the Comprehensive Evaluation here:


A close review of the federal agencies’ 2013 Comprehensive Evaluation (“CE”) reflects significant shortcomings in the status of salmon and the need for a far more effective and comprehensive plan for 2014 and beyond:

Wild salmon and steelhead populations remain in serious trouble.  While the Action Agencies tout "record returns," 80% of adult salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake Rivers are hatchery fish. The massive infusion of hatchery fish - while important for helping to sustain salmon-dependent communities and providing life-support for at least one key wild run - also serves to mask a deeper problem: most wild salmon and steelhead remain on the brink. Poor returns so far in 2013, which have largely been lower than expected, only reinforce this view and underscore the need for a significantly strengthened plan.

Agencies’ narrow per-dam performance standards ignore the full complement of dam and reservoir impacts for migrating salmon and steelhead. The Action Agencies proudly tout isolated per-dam survival rates. While this may look good on paper, it ignores the full set of lethal impacts caused by the dams and reservoirs. The CE fails to acknowledge that fish perish in the dams’ slackwater reservoirs (the result of warming waters, high predation rates, and delayed migration) as well as the impacts of delayed mortality - the percentage of juvenile fish that make it all the way to the estuary or even the Pacific Ocean, but don't survive to return as adults because of the cumulative impacts and stresses of migrating through four or eight dams and their reservoirs. Moreover, even where the agencies are achieving 93% or higher survival at each dam, the cumulative loss of salmon migrating through all eight federal dams can exceed 50%. Despite the Action Agencies meeting their narrow per-dam standards at most Columbia-Snake dams, salmon remain in serious trouble.

Wild salmon and steelhead need more spill. Spill is one of the most effective ways that the Action Agencies can dramatically improve salmon survival in freshwater. The most recent Comparative Survival Study (CSS 2013) by Northwest state, Tribal and federal salmon managers indicates that building on the past success of spill could provide a significant boost to many at-risk stocks. The upcoming BiOp should expand spill as recommended by the region’s top salmon scientists and managers, not curtail it as the Bonneville Power Administration seeks to do.

Habitat restoration projects on tributaries are insufficient to offset the high kill rate of mainstem dams. The Action Agencies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on habitat projects - "offsite mitigation" - in order to offset the lethal impacts of the hydropower system. But there is a yawning gap between the actual survival benefits for salmon and steelhead provided by these habitat projects and the high salmon mortality rate associated with the hydrosystem. The inadequacy of this habitat-heavy and uncertain approach was among the key reasons that a federal court struck down the 2008/2010 BiOp. SOS strongly supports habitat restoration; however, the CE fails to demonstrate how these projects can make up for the overwhelming harm caused by the hydrosystem, let alone in a time frame that is meaningful for salmon recovery. While improving habitat can remediate the harm caused by poor habitat management in the past, efforts to rely heavily on habitat repair to mitigate high mortality at the dams are notoriously difficult to measure, take years to complete and show any benefits, and remain highly unlikely of being able to compensate for the dams’ lethal impacts.

A track record of broken promises. The agencies are falling farther behind on delivering what they promised in 2008 and 2010, and they are failing to adequately address ongoing and increasing threats. For example, in 2010 the agencies admitted that they had completed only about 25% of the actions promised for the Columbia River estuary in the first few years of the BiOp. The CE reveals that despite past promises to catch up, these deficits have actually grown. At the same time, the agencies are failing to deal with the skyrocketing number of young salmon consumed by cormorants – a threat that they knew about and ignored when they adopted the BiOp, but that reached an all-time high in 2011-2012. The CE carefully omits any discussion of this larger context and merely promises to develop a plan to study possible solutions by 2015.

The real problem remains: the BiOp they're implementing is illegal. The reason the 2008/2010 BiOp was struck down by a federal court is that it fails to put in place the actions and measures that would ensure imperiled salmon and steelhead are given a reasonable shot at both survival and eventual recovery. The current plan is illegal, inadequate and behind schedule. Salmon and steelhead and the people of the region need a new legal, science-based plan that departs from the failed status quo policies of past decades. Today, wild fish are barely treading water. The new plan must put in place measures that will meet the basic ecological needs of imperiled salmon and steelhead, and provide a lawful foundation for rebuilding wild populations that have languished for too long.

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