The 10-year mean for hatchery fish in the Lower Snake River Compensation Program is 0.52 percent with a goal of 0.87 percent. That goal has never been met.
The South Fork of the Salmon River is my local salmon stream. It is good to see that my local hatchery is exceeding its smolt to adult return rates for the 10-years 1996-2005 (IDFG numbers). In mid-March the hatchery personnel release about 1,000,000 smolts, usually about 70,000 more than 1 million, at the Knox Bridge over the South Fork of the Salmon River there off Warm Lake Highway.
Those smolts hang out a while normally before deciding it's time to head to sea. The mean travel time from release to Lower Granite Dam is about 48 days, but in some years they take off almost immediately and can be at Lower Granite Dam in eastern Washington (284 miles away) in 7-10 days. They can get from Lower Granite Dam to Bonneville Dam in 6-10 days and in 2 days if they are picked up by a barge. They can get from Bonneville Dam to the estuary there at the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Ore., and Chinook, Wash., in 2-5 days.
Then they go to sea for a year or two or three and then return. They swim 325 miles up the Columbia River to the confluence with the Snake River, they traverse four dams along their Columbia River route, Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary dams. Then they swim over four lower Snake River dams beginning with Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental and Little Goose then finally to Lower Granite Dam 107.5 river miles upstream from the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers. These fish then swim another 284 miles roughly to the South Fork of the Salmon River trap. During this period from release at Knox Bridge to capture at the fish trap not far below Knox Bridge we lose 990,000 fish.
The biggest loss occurs between Knox Bridge and Lower Granite Dam in those 48 or less days between smolt release and arrival at Lower Granite Dam. We lose on average 404,000 McCall Hatchery Chinook salmon smolts in that 284-mile stretch.
About 240,000 of the remaining 596,000 smolts will be picked up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers smolt barging program and they will be released at below Bonneville Dam two days later. The other 356,000 smolts will either go through the dam's turbine or through the bypass system. The survival rates for barged fish and fish that go through the hydrosystem are pretty low, 0.53 percent for barged fish and 0.26 percent for fish going through the hydrosystem. Regardless, after they die en masse en route, they also die in great numbers in the estuary and the ocean, leaving us with 10,600 fish that make it back to the South Fork of the Salmon River. Every year about 80 percent of the fish that come back to Idaho are hatchery fish, while 20 percent are wild or natural origin fish. The South Fork of the Salmon River usually gets between 100-2,380 natural origin fish returning (1982-2009 IDFG numbers). That more important natural number is not viable.
Removing the four lower Snake River dams would bring Idaho's salmon back from the brink of extinction, but will that ever be seriously considered as long as we have fishing seasons and improving hatchery returns? I don't know, but I am also quite sure that during this Great Recession as was the case during the recent boom years, questions such as this are not on the front burner. However, Americans will have to come to a decision on this question. Do we secure food for the species or do we secure food for our machines?
Currently, it seems we have concluded that securing food for our machines, energy, is more important that securing food for our species. We can generate power in other ways and we can transport grain in other ways, but politically speaking, the small interests that control the fate of Snake River Salmon at best believe in a world where we can have our cake (energy, cheap transportation) and eat it too (salmon that don't go extinct). I have to hand it to them, though, that would be great.
Honestly, that would be the best, but unfortunately we have some 35 years of data that suggests that is a pipe dream and either we decide we can live without Snake River salmon or we must decide that we can generate energy differently and we can cheaply transport grain from the Palouse without the use of barges.
It doesn't seem likely, though, as the push to expand the seaport at Lewiston, a bold move to reinvigorate a port that was slowly becoming completely useless. Today we see an expansion plan to accommodate for those megaloads so Canadians can get their big earth busting materials to their tar sands so the world can keep sucking every last drop of oil out of every rock and you have to wonder if enough people make the connection that we are sacrificing our Snake River salmon so a port can continue to exist in Lewiston, Idaho and also so we can continue to produce petroleum in Canada. The argument isn't framed that way and that's the problem with efforts to save salmon in the Snake River basin.