The Columbia/Snake River Basin once welcomed 10-16 million adult salmon back to its spawning and rearing grounds in the tributaries throughout the greater Pacific Northwest. Over the past 10 years (2005-2014) 16,365,024 adult salmon returned to the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam, about 145 river miles from the mouth of the Columbia River. I really can't say this fact enough, it took us 10 years to get back roughly the same number that we used to get back quite normally before we settled the Pacific Northwest.
These streams invited back 10-16 million wild salmon each year. There weren't hatcheries then, all of those fish were wild. It was akin to manna from heaven, except it wasn't bread it was protein and omega-3 fats. Today, it took all our machinations an entire decade to produce what we got back for free in one year back in the day. Over those 10 years we spent roughly $7 billion on efforts to restore our salmon. It was something in that neighborhood for the years 2005-2014. I'm being kind, it was a lot more than that figure. Essentially, we get back 10 percent of historical runs today and our hatcheries are responsible for 80 percent of those fish that do return.
The chinook run would have been as large as 6.4 million adult fish in those pre-settlement days. I am going to simplify this exercise and place the sex ratio of the returning adults at 52 percent male and 48 percent female.
We don't have a lot of solid data on the sex ratios of wild or natural origin fish returns, and many hatchery data is skewed heavily toward males due to the timing of the placement of the trap. Females tend to come earlier in the run and so a good number are often missed by hatchery trap operations. Another wrench in the gears is that some hatcheries seem to be prolific producers of jacks. Two-year-old jacks are all male, most of the three-year-old fish were male and most of the females were four and five-year-old fish. The Chinook females would have had between 2,500-7,000 eggs. So we can simplify this to be roughly 5,000 eggs.
So we have, using my simplified sex ratio of 52 male/48 female, 3,072,000 female chinook returning to the Columbia/Snake back in the glory days. Essentially that means some 15,360,000,000 chinook salmon eggs were laid in redds throughout the Columbia/Snake. 15.36 billion is a big number. Using today's 15 percent survival rate for eggs to alevins in wild fish we end up with 2.3 billion.
Back then various things would have contributed to this high initial loss. Today's list would consist of unfertilized eggs, low oxygen levels in the water, extreme water temperature changes, the gravel being disturbed, sediment loads caused by various natural disruptions within the watershed, diseases, predators like bull trout swimming by and eating eggs and other general poor habitat conditions. Today's list would be very similar to what would have contributed to mortality back then at this stage, though the reasons for sediment loads and poor habitat, gravel disturbances, low oxygen levels and extreme changes in water temperature COULD all be man made.
From the alevin to fry stage there would be about an 8 percent survival rate today. And now we have about 184 million left. From those we would see about a 15 percent survival rate to smolts today. In those last couple of stages dams, reservoirs and nonnative predators are beginning to play an increasing role in mortality. Now we are down to 27.6 million chinook smolts. And if they performed like our chinook do today at a 0.9 SAR then we'd get back 248,400.
Before anyone goes off shouting these numbers from the mountain top (not that anyone would), obviously this is an unscientific exercise with a lot of simplification being used to show how the cumulative negative effects of all the things we are doing in the Columbia/Snake could essentially put a robust historical run's next generation on life support in a short amount of time. From 6.4 million chinook, using, admittedly various sources of today's, survival rates at various stages in the life cycle of the salmon you see a subsequent generation run that is 38.8 percent of the original run. Obviously, that would not be sustainable if that persisted. If that persisted at a simple 38.8 percent rate each generation, the next generation of returners would be 96,379, then the next one would be 37,395, then down to 14,509 and then 5,629. Using the average of four years between each generation, today's river conditions could diminish a run of 6.4 million down to less than 6,000 in 16 years.
However, if you actually run through the numbers again, the actual decline would be even greater. We get back 248,400. Of those 48 percent are female and that means we have 119,232 female chinook. They each lay 5,000 eggs for a total of 596,160,000 eggs. 15 percent of those eggs survive to alevin stage. Now we have 89,424,000. Only 8 percent of those are going to survive to the fry stage. Now we have 7,153,920. Another 15 percent of those are going to survive to be smolts, now we are down to 1,073,088. Now, only 0.9 percent are going to survive to be adults and that means we only have 9,658 fish returning in four years. What happened there? Now we only have 3.88 percent of the previous run returning.
I know you are probably saying something like, "Dude, that's way too dramatic." Again, these numbers aren't some solid thing and this is not a scientific exercise. But I will remind you that with all those hatchery fish, we dump 141 million smolts and we basically get back about 1.28 million hatchery fish per year, we don't see just how bad it is for wild fish. Hatchery fish don't suffer those additional survival steps in the way wild fish do. Hatcheries are pretty good at minimizing loss. Their goal is to produce a certain number of smolts each year and they are pretty good at doing that. The real risks for those hatchery smolts begins when they get dumped in the river. Since they get to the smolt stage at a better rate they mask what is going on in the river with wild fish. Another thing you need to remember is that with different timing for going to sea, different lengths of migration and the fluctuations of the rivers naturally each distinct population is going to have differing survival numbers. That 1.28 million returning hatchery fish amounts to a 0.9 percent SAR, by the way. And I came to that number independently. I multiplied our 10 year average run of 1.6 million fish (which is a solid number, except I rounded off about 36,500 fish) by 80 percent (leaving a wild run of 20 percent). That brought us to 1.28 million hatchery fish returning and simply divided 1.28 million by 141 million to come to, no surprise here, the average SAR for these fish these days 0.9 percent.
I've been fairly good at burying the lead here today. The people presiding over the extinction of our wild salmon and steelhead runs have been doing nothing but treading water for more than 20 years and they have absolutely no intention of doing anything more. Bert Bowler's site, www.snakeriversalmonsolutions.org had published a figure of about $11 billion that the Bonneville Power Administration had spent from 1979 to 2009 in mitigation/salmon restoration. Anyone who is honest understands that the only thing that has occurred in that time period is that hatchery fish have masked the problem, but the problem still remains and it is as acute as ever. Since 2009, the BPA is spending about $800 million a year (I'm being nice again) so that's another $4.8 billion down the drain not restoring our wild salmon and steelhead.
The perplexing thing for me is that anyone who spends $15 billion had better not come back to me or frankly anyone and say, "well, we tried." No, $15 billion is "you had better succeed," money. There is no try when you spend $15 billion. You must succeed. The inaction agencies haven't done that. They've failed. They aren't going to do what needs to be done, so we have to get their bosses to force them to do what needs to be done before we lose these fish forever. The inaction agencies and NOAA's bosses need to see the support is there for this sort of thing. Well, 70,000 people signed a petition back in August asking for those four lower Snake River dams to be breached. There's a Free the Snake Flotilla you can be a part of on October 3. It'll just be a lot of people who want to see wild salmon and steelhead runs persist into the very, very distant future on the Snake River paddling around in their boats for a bit. You can be a part of that. Some of the very best advocates for wild salmon and steelhead are sponsoring this flotilla.