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Restoring the Lower Snake River

By Duke's Seafood and Chowder, January 26, 2018

A geologist might not be the first person that comes to mind when you think about salmon experts, but David Montgomery wrote the book on the decline of salmon: “King of Fish” in 2004.

Montgomery, a geomorphologist and professor at the University of Washington, has a unique perspective on why salmon are so important to our region. Of course, there’s the importance to the indigenous people in our area and the delicious food they provide, but they also have a serious impact on our whole ecosystem.

“Juvenile salmon are hatched in their natal home river streams and they’re tiny suckers, so they go out to the ocean and they get big,” Montgomery explains. “They spend most of their life out at sea in a more resource-rich marine environment then they bring their bodies back to the rivers and streams in Washington, and Puget Sound along the way, with these bodies full of nutrients.”

After the salmon return home, spawn and die, those nutrients don’t just go away. “They get recycled,” Montgomery says. Decaying salmon feed tiny organisms in streambeds, which are eaten the next year by juvenile salmon. Salmon also get dragged onto the forest floor by bears and eagles and distribute their nutrients there. “Fully one-third of the nitrogen in those big old-growth trees in our forests swam up river as a fish,” Montgomery says. “When you lose those big runs of salmon, you lose those nutrients and it cascades through the whole system.”

It’s no secret that those big runs are declining in a major way. Historically, adult salmon returns to the Columbia Basin were at least 10 to 16 million fish annually — today, across the Northwest, less than 5 percent of historic populations of wild salmon and steelhead return to our rivers and streams. Fifteen different salmon and steelhead stocks in Washington state are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act today.

As Montgomery notes, the loss of these salmon means a domino effect to the ecosystem. More than 135 other fish and wildlife populations benefit from the presence of wild salmon and steelhead, from southern resident orca whales, which are at a 30-year population low, to eagles, wolves, bear, otter, coyote, seals and sea lions.

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, says the impact on orcas is immense. “In 2015, the federal government declared southern resident orca off our Northwest coast to be among eight species most likely to go extinct without dramatic action. Just in the last two years, seven whales have died. Lack of chinook salmon has been strongly implicated as the main cause of decline.”

Other animals and plant life aren’t the only ones that lose out when salmon are lost, our very landscape and culture are at stake as well, argues Langdon Cook, author of “Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table.” “Salmon are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest… they have shaped our landscape as much as the glaciers and volcanoes. As the ultimate stewards of salmon populations, we have a responsibility to them. But it’s also a responsibility to our own communities, since anything we do to benefit salmon — clean water, functioning ecosystems, and so on — will likely benefit us in the long run.”

All is not lost, though, according to Bogaard. “Salmon are a very prolific species. If you give them a healthy river, they will do the rest,” says Bogaard. “The most important action we can take to help salmon and steelhead survive and thrive is to restore healthy habitat and access to healthy habitat.”

Montgomery, studied three different salmon habitats in his book “King of Fish”: the United Kingdom, New England and the Pacific Northwest. He found all three had been negatively influenced historically by multiple factors. The biggest perpetrators were habitat destruction, blocking habitat by building dams, overfishing and the impact of hatchery fish on wild fish. “I researched those various factors and how they’ve affected salmon throughout history and found commonalities that were repeating in the Northwest that have already played out in Europe and New England, where their salmon decline was not only dramatic, it became permanent.”

Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of more than 40 organizations including conservation organizations, recreational and commercial fishing associations and clean energy and orca advocates, is working to secure removal of the four lower Snake River dams in southeastern Washington state and to include “ecosystem function” in the upcoming U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty negotiations.

“The Snake River Basin, in central Idaho, Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington, has more than 5,500 miles of healthy, pristine, often high and cold, protected salmon habitat,” says Bogaard. “The habitat is there, but the fish aren’t. The problem? Four costly, outdated dams on the lower Snake River.”

Bogaard believes dam removal is one of the most important opportunities to restore salmon habitats and access to those habitats. “We still have more than 400 dams and other river blockages in the Columbia Basin,” he says.

He points to the Elwha River drainage in the Olympic Peninsula for proof this will help. Two dams were removed in 2012 from the Elwha. “Since then, salmon and steelhead populations have begun to reinhabit stretches of river that have not seen salmon in 100 years,” he says. “Wildlife populations in the basin are growing — including otter, American dippers and more. When rivers are restored and fish allowed to return, whole ecosystems can be restored.”

In addition to dam removal, there are other environmental changes impacting salmon that we can reverse if we act soon, says Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings, a 31-year-old conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the wild salmon and steelhead populations. For instance: climate change, shoreline development and diking and dredging estuary marshes.

White suggests learning more about salmon and what they need by supporting and tracking the work of groups like Long Live the Kings and local watershed groups. And take action in your own life. “You can help restore salmon habitat in your community by practicing low-impact landscaping and gardening,” says White. “Also, write letters to and visit your local, state and federal elected representatives to tell them you care about our salmon, steelhead and orcas.”

Choices made at the grocery store can help save salmon, too. Some Pacific Northwest products are marked with Salmon-Safe eco-labeling. This label recognizes farmers who adopt conservations practices that help promote healthy watersheds and protect native salmon habitat, says David J. Burger, executive director of Stewardship Partners, an organization focused on improving watershed health.

“The Salmon-Safe label is a great addition to organic certification because it shows a commitment to restoring local salmon streams, an important issue to farm customers and community,” Burger says. “Farms that go through the assessment sometimes have conditions that identify areas for improvement that include; manure management, fish passage, habitat restoration (planting trees and shrubs) and improving irrigation practices.”

To get involved and stay up-to-date on salmon conservation legislation and news, visit Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservationists, fishermen and clean-energy and orca advocates pressing elected officials to restore the health of the Columbia-Snake River Basin.

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