Slide background

Restoring the Lower Snake River

by Pat Ford

1sockeye.web 2Writer and reporter Lynda Mapes had a fine piece on Snake River sockeye salmon two weeks ago in the Seattle Times.

Snake River sockeye migrate farther and higher than any sockeye on earth: 900 miles inland and 6600 feet above sea level to Idaho’s Redfish Lake. In the 1990s this one-of-a-kind fish fell to the lip of extinction, with annual returns in single digits for a decade. It was the first salmon petitioned for Endangered Species Act listing, in 1991.

20 years later, its story mixes success and failure. The success: a captive rearing hatchery program begun in the 1990s saved it from extinction. The failure: federal policy is turning that hatchery program into a permanent, expensive enterprise that’s almost certain not to restore the fish.

Mapes’ story asks if this expensive program is worth it. Yes, it was worth it to avoid the extinction of Snake River sockeye – an emergency that forced a big intervention. But no, it is not worth it as the centerpiece of a recovery strategy. The hatchery program can’t achieve recovery. Only restoring healthier natural processes in its circle of habitat, thus allowing the fish to restore themselves, can do that. For Snake River sockeye, its most degraded habitat by far is in the 400 miles of federal dams and reservoirs on the lower Snake and Columbia.

Statements in Mapes’ story by Lorri Bodi of the Bonneville Power Administration show the careless way BPA is confusing the sockeye hatchery program with sockeye recovery: "[Snake River sockeye] were functionally extinct. Now, in good years, we have more than 1,000….Our goal is to have a few thousand sockeye again, just as we did in the 1950s, before human impacts were so severe.”

The accompanying chart, from fisheries biologist Bert Bowler of Snake River Salmon Solutions, corrects BPA’s loose numbers. The thousands of sockeye returning in the 1950s were all wild-origin fish. The 1,165 sockeye that returned in 2010 were nearly all hatchery-origin fish. By confusing the two, Bodi makes the status of Snake River sockeye sound far better than it is. In fact the highest number of natural-origin sockeye to return recently is 180 fish, not “more than 1,000.”

BPA’s goal seems to be “to have a few thousand sockeye” returning, period, whether produced in a hatchery or in their habitat. But the real goal, for the ecosystem and to comply with the law, must be a few thousand sockeye produced in their habitat. The chart shows we are far from that. In 2012, only 53 natural-origin Snake River sockeye returned to Redfish Lake, or just 2% of the annual recovery goal.

Later in Mapes’ article, scientist Jim Lichatowich, one of our wisest salmon men, nails what BPA is up to here: "Building a large hatchery infrastructure to try to compensate for the dams is the status quo; it is the comfort zone for the management agencies.” But, he concludes, it won’t work.

The emergency hatcheries for Snake River sockeye have largely done the job they could do: stop an imminent extinction. Now that program should be a supporting measure in a recovery strategy, so that as soon as possible the hatcheries close. The centerpiece must be to reduce dam-caused mortality to sockeye as they fare to and from the ocean, by getting them out of barges filled with competing salmon species and back in a healthier river where they belong, and by more spill at Snake and Columbia federal dams to boost the survival rate of natural-origin sockeye. These measures can proceed immediately.

A large majority of salmon scientists think that restoring the lower Snake River by removing its four dams will also be necessary. So our coalition does too, while recognizing that it needs more public debate and solid analysis.

I hope Mapes’ story helps ensure that Northwest people and leaders do not confuse the sockeye hatchery program with sockeye recovery. If we do that, we, and the highest-and-longest-faring sockeye salmon on earth, will both lose

Share This