We've been at this save the salmon of the Snake bit for more than 20 years now and we need clearly defined goals as to what recovery is, otherwise, we will never have achieved recovery.
Recovery will not be achieved if we don't look at the entire picture. If we simply say recovery is this percentage of smolts surviving to the ocean and we do not consider smolt to adult return rates (SAR) we will have again failed salmon in a most egregious way. Yes, if we improve the survival of smolts, and smolt mortality is the largest problem due almost entirely to the hydrosystem (four dams on the lower Snake River and four more on the Columbia River), we could possibly see an uptick in returns of adults. However, if we do not set our benchmarks to smolt to adult returns, we will pat ourselves on the back, walk away and wonder years later why we lost our wild salmon and steelhead.
Creating a benchmark isn't an easy task, but it begins with accurate counts of wild adults returning, wild redd counts and wild smolt counts.
We do know a lot about salmon, it can be argued we know far too much for these stocks of fish to remain on the brink of extinction. I want to begin by saying at the forefront we must be transparent in this effort. So transparent that when someone wants to know how many wild fish are returning to a stream they simply search for it and it is there. We shouldn't cloud the data by combining hatchery fish counts with wild fish counts.
In a Constitutional Republic with a democratic tradition, we the people must truly know the score and we must also know what the recovery target is.
Is the recovery target having 2-6 percent smolt to adult return rates for eight consecutive years in order to remove these fish from the endangered species list? Is that target, which has never been met, the proper target? Will that guarantee enough returning spawners to perpetuate these endangered fish? That probably would do it.
We produce about 144 million hatchery salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia river basins annually at 178 hatchery programs distributed throughout the basins. By doing this we create a situation where 80 percent of our returning adults are hatchery produced fish. What smolt numbers, what redd numbers and what adult return numbers are our wild fish achieving?
If you go to Bert Bowler's Snake River Salmon Solutions site you can look at graphs that show the adult return numbers through the years, basically from the 1960s and 1950s through today depending on the fish. I want you to note some things about those graphs, you will note that in some of those graphs the blue line for wild fish later changes to be called natural origin fish, which typically means at some point in time we had to supplement the wild fish with produced fish that were allowed to spawn naturally, which meant we can no longer call them wild fish. That's a sad commentary in and of itself that perhaps I will expound upon at a later date.
Recently, we've been blessed with better sockeye salmon returns, though we are nowhere near where wild sockeye were in the 1950s and light years away from where sockeye returns were in the 19th century. However, look closer at the numbers. This year, 1,118 sockeye returned, but only 150 were of natural origin. In 2010, we had 1,345 return with 180 of natural origin. In fact 2008 was the first year we could count natural origin fish. In 1955, 4,361 wild sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley and in the 1880s they reported to number between 25,000 and 40,000 fish.
Wild spring and summer Chinook that once came back with numbers around 100,000 annually in the 1950s have not eclipsed 60,000 since the late 1960s and this year are at about 20,000, a number that is well above the returns in 2006-2009. We went from 1980 through 2000 never even sniffing 20,000 wild returning spring/summer Chinook in Idaho.
Wild steelhead returns dropped below 50,000 fish in the early 1970s and have never returned above the 50,000 mark since. Fall Chinook that once returned to Idaho numbering about 25,000 fish in 1962, spent some 30 years below 5,000 returning fish from 1970-2000.
So we must come to a consensus as to what true recovery means for these fish. We must have a goal based on science, based on historical returns and we must do what it takes to achieve those goals. We must NOT lower the bar as has been tried so often, like when we tried to count hatchery fish and wild fish to create a new standard.
We have to demand better for our Snake River salmon and that means we cannot ignore the problem simply because they allow us to fish for salmon and steelhead. That's not recovery.
This year, some 121,000 adult Chinook crossed over Lower Granite Dam along with some 58,000 jack Chinooks. The jacks are male Chinook that spend one year in the ocean and decide to come back prematurely. I like a formula I found on the bluefish site to play with some of these bulk return counts at Lower Granite Dam. It's not a perfect science, but in using rough numbers such as 80 percent are hatchery fish, we can extrapolate that of those 121,000 returning adult Chinook about 24,200 were of wild or natural origin. If we look at Bowler's graphs for spring/summer Chinook and fall Chinook we see a slightly different number which shows about 10,000 fall Chinook and about 20,000 spring and summer Chinook in the wild/natural count. If we assume, as does the bluefish site, that the average number of eggs are about 5,000 per female Chinook and if we for the sake of simplicity say half these fish are females (that's not the case as sex ratios vary throughout the run and vary from year to year in total) we would have some 12,100 to 15,000 female Chinook carrying 60.5 million to 75 million eggs back to Idaho rivers.
Now to the formula I like to use from the bluefish site. They say that of those 5,000 eggs per female, 8 percent survive to become smolts or 400. So in the macromodel from above we would have 4.84 million to 6 million smolts. Then the bluefish site's formula says 50-70 percent of those smolts survive to the first reservoir. That would mean we now have ranges of 2.42-3.39 million to 3 million to 4.2 million smolts. Of those bluefish calculates 40.3 percent survival through the hydrosystem, so now we have 975,260-1.37 million to 1.21 million to 1.69 million smolts remaining. Now bluefish calculates 71.2 percent survival of smolts from bird and sea lion predation, so now our two running models yield 694,385-975,440 or 861,520 to 1.2 million smolts.
Now it starts to get interesting and I'll admit paragraph form isn't the best way to look at this, but bear with me. Bluefish then calculates 32-63 percent survival of smolts from the delayed mortality effects of the hydrosystem, these are the fish that die due to the accumulation of stress from the dams, and now we have some truly divergent numbers. At the low end, we would now have 222,203 to 312,140 or also at the lower end but higher survival rate for delayed mortality we would have 437,462 to 614,527 for the model that began with 24,200 spawning adults. If we had 30,000 spawning adults we now would have 275,686 to 384,000 or in the higher survival rate with higher number of spawners we would have 542,757 to 756,000. So we now have a range of 222,203 to 756,000 smolts surviving to this point depending on what model of adult returners we use and where these models diverged due to survival rate percentage differences.
The bluefish site has an ocean survival rate of 2-6 percent. When we take those numbers and just use them to calculate the low and high ends of these models, you get 4,444 to 13,332 on the low end returning to the mouth of the Columbia and 15,120 to 45,360 on the high end returning to the mouth of the Columbia River.
Bluefish also calculates that about 88 percent of those adult salmon will survive sea lion predation below Bonneville Dam. Going back to the macromodel, that would mean we have a low end range of 3,911 to 11,732 and a high end range of 13,305 to 39,916. Bluefish then calculates 80-90 percent of those fish that survive to their spawning grounds, let's split the difference and use 85 percent for our final calculations. The low end returns now range from 3,324 to 9,972 and the high end now ranges from 11,309 to 33,929 fish. Assuming the bluefish calculation is spot on correct (and there are a lot of other assumptions we have to take on faith here as well) we see a range of 3,324 to 33,929 fish. Obviously, any adult return numbers produced by this year's returning fish that do not equal or exceed this year's returning wild fish would mean we are falling behind and the extrapolations here show that in the low end model that began with 24,200 spawners we don't get back an equal number of fish, we lose some 14,000 fish from the original spawning number. In the best case scenario where we had 30,000 spawners we only eclipse that return number by a little less than 4,000 fish.
It's a good exercise and I must point out that assuming a 50/50 sex ratio isn't scientific at all and it is a problem with that model, but looking at that and then the best case scenario using those bluefish formulas and at best we increase the spawners by less than 4,000 fish and at worst we lose about 21,000 fish from the whole. It's a good exercise to show you why these fish remain on the brink of extinction.
We can lose these fish in the next decade, I hope we won't and I don't think it will happen that soon, but if we do not take some drastic actions today, we will lose these fish in my lifetime.
I want to be a part of the generation that saved the salmon of the Snake and Columbia river basins, I do not want to be the last generation to see wild salmon swimming in the rivers where Lewis and Clark reported seeing millions of salmon and the presence of a salmon-based economy. You should have those same desires, because salmon support 137 species in the Pacific Northwest, they are a keystone species and if they go, more dominoes will fall.
Recovery starts when we remove the four lower Snake River Dams. Recovery, true recovery, means our salmon runs send back more adult spawners than it took to create those fish. True recovery means we fix the habitat problem created by damming up rivers, and it means we get back to the days when we had more than 100,000 returning wild steelhead, more than 100,000 returning wild spring/summer Chinook salmon, more than 25,000 returning wild fall Chinook and more than 25,000 returning wild sockeye salmon to the Snake River basin. Anything less than that means we are nothing but museum curators hoping to have something to show our patrons as they pass by. "Look at these curiosities, once there were millions of them, we like to keep a few around today so we don't feel so guilty." We have to change our ways and it begins when we truly save the salmon of the Snake and Columbia river basins.