By Steve Liebenthal, June 27th 2018
RIGGINS, Idaho - It has been 20 years since the push for breaching dams to save salmon was gaining traction in the Pacific Northwest. But, in the last few years, fish returns have taken a nose dive.
Three years ago, Kerry Brennan turned his Riggins guide shop into a tackle shop. It was his retirement plan after 30 years guiding anglers who wanted to catch salmon and steelhead. But, his timing was not good. For the second year in a row, the fishing season is being cut short.
This year's return of spring Chinook salmon from the Pacific Ocean is the worst this century. The result, for river communities like Riggins, is a major decrease in money spent by salmon anglers.
Brennan agrees with conservation groups who say the main problem is poor migration conditions for juvenile salmon moving downstream through eight dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers.
"Power companies, irrigators took what water there was," Brennan said. "The migrating conditions were terrible for fish. We lost most of the juveniles going out, so we're paying the price now."
Fish and Game managers admit that downstream migration is vital to salmon recovery, but they say the dramatic drop in returns in recent years can be blamed on ocean warming.
"You may have heard about the warm water blob that was an area off the Pacific coast near the mouth of the Columbia that was warmer than normal and fish being cold-blooded animals are very sensitive to temperature," said Lance Hebdon, anadromous fish manager.
All of this comes at a time conservationists consider crucial for Idaho salmon. While enough hatchery fish are returning for a very limited fishing season, last year fewer than 6,000 federally protected wild Chinook salmon returned to Idaho. That's less than 10 percent of the goal for salmon recovery.
And this year, a 10-year-old agreement called the Columbia Basin Fish Accords is set to expire. The agreement provided $900 million for salmon restoration projects throughout the Columbia River Basin, including $69 million for Idaho. Three states and most northwest tribes agreed not to sue for additional fish protection at the dams. They also agreed not to advocate for the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River, an idea that had momentum in the late 1990s after a panel of independent scientists said breaching the dams was the key to recovering Idaho's wild salmon runs. Now, the administration of Governor Butch Otter is in negotiation with the Bonneville Power Administration to extend the accord.
Meanwhile, die-hard anglers like these will be back on the Little Salmon River continuing to pound the water for at least four more days, hoping to hook a spring Chinook. On average, they are spending 33 hours fishing for every salmon they take home.
Brennan is trying to figure out how to pay for his road-side tackle shop that depends on money spent by salmon and steelhead anglers.
"A big part of it was going to be the salmon season, and therefore, I still haven't paid the remodel back yet," he said.