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Restoring the Lower Snake River

More work needed to save endangered Snake River sockeye

Bonneville damThe recent high numbers of adult sockeye salmon making their way past Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River are exciting and encouraging. These salmon, and the jobs and entire communities that rely on them, deserve the good news that a strong run in 2012 may bring if these trends hold.

That said, it’s important to note that the overwhelming majority of these sockeye passing Bonneville are non-endangered fish headed up to the Wenatchee and Okanogan areas of the upper Columbia Basin. It is unknown at this point how many of those fish are endangered Snake River sockeye, the farthest and highest migrating sockeye salmon on earth – and the most imperiled salmon in the Columbia Basin. The expectation is that we will see fewer than 2,000 fish make it back to Lower Granite dam in eastern Washington, which would be on a par with several recent years. While that number would certainly be an improvement over the single digit returns we witnessed just a few years ago, it is still nowhere close to the numbers needed for recovery of Snake River sockeye. The federal government remains dangerously far from meeting their own recovery goals for ESA-listed salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia and Snake River (check out this information map from the Oregonian).

Furthermore, the extra spill ordered by U.S. District Court Judge James Redden for Columbia and Snake River dams is likely a major reason for the encouraging numbers we’re seeing right now. Combined with recent favorable ocean conditions and stepped-up hatchery production in the Snake River, this additional spill is giving sockeye salmon – and other struggling salmon and steelhead runs – a fighting chance. Court-ordered spill has been an unprecedented success for salmon and salmon communities, but this crucial measure is still not a guaranteed part of the federal government’s salmon plan. And as for ocean conditions, there’s no assurance that they’ll continue to be so beneficial in the coming years. In short, much of the story for 2012 still has yet to unfold and ESA-listed Snake River sockeye are far from out of the woods.

It should also be noted that chinook numbers this year were expected to be very high, but the preseason projections have turned out to be overly optimistic (here’s our press release from March about it). In fact, 2012 is shaping up to be merely an average year for Columbia and Snake River chinook, and there’s still the possibility that the sockeye returns will not be quite as impressive as these last few days would indicate might happen. It is simply far too early to declare victory for endangered Columbia and Snake River salmon in 2012.

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