In our efforts to save Pacific salmon in the Columbia and Snake river basins, there comes a point when those paying attention have to wonder how much is too much? No, we are nowhere near a point where we have too many salmon. The question is about how much involvement, human involvement, is too much? Should we seek better ways to achieve goals we have yet to achieve?
The answers, of course, are we have long since gone beyond what is too much human involvement and yes we should seek better ways to achieve goals that have yet to be achieved. This isn't a call to spend less on salmon recovery. In fact, you could spend five times as much as is being spent currently and this writer wouldn't complain. Salmon recovery is vital to this region, the Pacific Northwest, to this country, the United States of America, and indeed vital to this world in which we all live. Spending $10 billion on salmon recovery over the past 20 or so years isn't the problem, the problem lies in the results.
Our methods, however, have gone beyond the pale. When one looks at all the various things we do to save salmon, we must ask ourselves, have we gone mad? We harass and kill sea lions to stop them from eating adult salmon as they congregate below the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. We dredged the river and created an island that has attracted terns and comorants that eat juvenile salmon as they spend time in the estuary before entering the Pacific Ocean. And our solution is to move the birds to other locations in Oregon and California.
We dammed the rivers, slowing the current forcing juvenile salmon to die off in greater numbers than ever before and our solution is to load them on barges and transport them past the dams. Now we have people studying the higher instances of straying (salmon not going back to their natal streams to spawn) due to our barging the fish. We have created generous bounties for anglers who catch northern pikeminnow because they eat salmon smolts. We build levees higher and spend millions on dredging because our dams trap sediment behind them. The reservoir behind Lower Granite Dam is some 55 percent filled in with sediment forcing a higher levee to be built in Lewiston to keep it from becoming the western equivalent of the Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina.
We capture returning adults, separate them in ponds, then we cut open the females to release the eggs, squeeze the males to fertilize the eggs, throw the carcasses back into the stream to mimic the once natural process of decaying salmon carcasses providing nutrients in the streams. We even make fertilizer pellets out of the fish, so we can mimic a once natural occurrence of the transportation of Pacific Ocean nutrients to our inland forests. We take these fertilized eggs back to hatcheries where we later pour them from one bucket of water to another bucket of water to see which eggs are dead. We discard the dead eggs, then take some of the live eggs and plant them in streams in boxes made to mimic the stream bottom. Back at the hatchery, the eggs we didn't set free hatch into alevin and grow into fry and later parr. We take those fish and run them through an automated machine that clips the adipose fin, so we can recognize them as hatchery fish. We place coded wire tags in the snouts of these fish. In some of the fish, we place more involved devices called Passive Integrated Transponders or PIT tags that send out a signal identifying the fish. We even stick these in wild fish that we capture in traps before they head to sea. We involve ourselves into virtually ever point in the life history of these fish and we still do not see these fish at sustainable levels.
We spend millions on lawsuits trying to get someone somewhere interested in removing the dams we built that we knew beforehand would kill the salmon. We find ourselves in strange situations where we decide one endangered species is more important than another as previously mentioned with the case of killing and harassing sea lions or moving bird colonies we helped establish by our placement of dredging materials.
Do we fully comprehend just how much we have changed the world in which we live by forcing salmon to the brink of extinction in the Pacific Northwest?
What is our plan to restore wild or natural stocks of salmon? Does our effort stop at successfully removing four dams on the lower Snake? Do we then go through decades of legal wrangling to remove more and more dams that would open up more salmon habitat now closed off by dams in Hells Canyon or by removing Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams?
When do we get off our hatchery habit? When do we stop producing fish in buckets and runways and allow these salmon to start new populations in streams where habitat is abundant, yet unused? The day we start to ween ourselves from these hatcheries, is the day we begin restoring Pacific Ocean nutrients back into the larger ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest.
But the question will still be how much is too much? And I hope, we don't think we've accomplished the job by simply removing four out of eight dams that affect Idaho salmon.
If we are true stewards of our environment, then we must continue to fight to restore salmon throughout the historic range of salmon. That's costly, but we cannot allow such an important species to linger in ghost runs, augmented by hatchery fish that allow for fishing seasons. That is not enough and it should not be enough for anyone living in the Pacific Northwest today or tomorrow.
Recovering salmon, truly recovering salmon, will have implications far beyond the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. An entire ecosystem that includes the northern Pacific Ocean and every forest east to the continental divide will reap incredible benefits if we truly recover these fish.
Please continue the fight beyond just removing four lower Snake River dams. Our future depends upon this massive effort. But in the future, let's be smarter than we have been in the past, let's recognize the problems and find solutions instead of applying bandages that only continue diminished returns.
If we always give these fish the opportunity to sustain themselves, we will see our efforts were not in vain. The answer has always been restoring the habitat of these fish. That begins with the removal of dams. That begins with smarter ways to produce energy, smarter ways to irrigate, cleaner ways to live in this land. Only when we have restored the habitat to these fish will they truly recover.
Wouldn't it be great to one day say to your grandchildren that you were a part of the generation that saved Pacific salmon? Imagine the legacy you would hand off to future generations, if you could say that and it be true. That's the goal and it isn't too much to ask.
We can start by removing the four lower Snake River Dams, they don't produce so much power that that power can't be replaced by other renewable sources of energy that don't kill salmon. Let's start there and see what the following 20 years do for salmon recovery in the Snake River basin, then with that experience as our guide let's continue to knock down barriers to salmon recovery when the opportunity arises and let's one day turn to our streams and complain that with all the salmon thrashing about we can't get any sleep, like it was when we first laid eyes on this beautiful country.