That paragraph up there is the big picture without carving out the wild numbers. Just take a look at wild sockeye returns in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Those were 11, 34, and 11 respectively. That's a far cry from the recovery goal of 2,500 wild sockeye.
How about the wild steelhead numbers, the recovery goal is 90,000 wild steelhead. Since listing Snake River steelhead as threatened back in 1997, wild steelhead returns have never reached the 90,000 recovery goal. In 2009, 76,203 "wild steelhead" passed over Lower Granite Dam, that was the closest we have gotten to reaching the recovery goal. But remember the recovery goal isn't a number that if reached once then the fish will be off the list, no you've got to do that eight consecutive years. "Wild steelhead" totals in 2017 were 14,844 and 23,786 in 2016, and 39,272 in 2015. Last year's 14,844 was the fourth lowest number since listing in 1997. Well, this year, Idaho Fish and Game only predicts about 14,000 hatchery steelhead. What does that mean for the wild steelhead, well, currently the wild steelhead are making up about 26 percent of the run that has swam above Lower Granite Dam. Last year, the wild steelhead made up 16 percent of the run. In 2016, wild steelhead made up 19 percent of the run over Lower Granite and in 2015 they made up 22 percent of the run.
Anyone can see from the above numbers that we are definitely seeing a decline in our salmonid runs in the Snake River Basin. Well, anyone except the willfully blind U.S. House of Representatives who voted to pass McMorris Rodgers' ill-informed dam protection bill back in April.
However, the real numbers that matter are the smolt-to-adult-return-rate or SAR. They tell the true story of Snake River salmonids. Back in the 1960s, before this author was alive wild chinook had an average SAR of 4.3 percent in the Snake River Basin, wild steelhead had a 7.2 percent SAR average from 1964-1969. For wild salmon and steelhead to recover they should have SARs between 2-6 percent every year. Wild chinook, since listing in 1992 have only had two years where their SAR was 2 percent. Those years were 1999 and 2008. The average SAR for wild Snake River spring and summer Chinook is 0.84 percent. Wild steelhead, since listing in 1997 have averaged a 1.6 percent SAR. The A-Run fared better from 2006-2014 averaging 2.12 percent SARs than the B-run over that same timeframe with a 1.6 percent SAR. Sockeye between 2009 and 2015 (when 96-99 percent of the entire Columbia/Snake sockeye run was killed by hot water behind the dams) had SARs anywhere from 0.10 percent to 1.15 percent.
Ice Harbor Dam was the only Snake River dam that existed in the early 1960s. McNary, The Dalles, and Bonneville dams were already in place by the early 1960s on the Columbia River, but when there were only four dams, the SARs for Snake River wild chinook and steelhead were either in the optimum level or above it. Then in 1968 John Day Dam was constructed on the Columbia River between The Dalles and McNary dams. A year later, Lower Monumental Dam was constructed. In 1970, Little Goose Dam was built and our wild salmonids now had to contend with seven dams before they could get to or from the ocean. In 1975, Lower Granite Dam was built, making it a gauntlet of eight dams our wild salmonids now had to get through.
What are SARs like in front or downstream of our four lower Snake River dams? Yakima River (4 dams) wild steelhead are at 5.6 percent from 2002-2010, wild chinook are at 2.7 percent from 2000-2011 on the Yakima River. John Day River (3 dams) wild steelhead are at 5.8 percent from 2002-2010 and wild chinook were at 3.7 percent from 2000-2011. Deschutes River (2 dams) wild steelhead from 2002-2010 had 7.3 percent SARs.
The dams are the primary killer of our salmonids, wild or hatchery. They kill far more than any other killer of salmonids. In fact, you could add up sea lions, fish eating birds, fishermen, salmon sharks, and all other killers of our salmon and they would not equal the killing capabilities of those dams. If all the other killers of salmon ever did add up to what the dams kill, our salmon, wild and hatchery would be extinct. The dams kill more than half of our outmigrating juvenile salmonids. Then the dams kill more adults on the return trip.
If you want to solve a problem, any problem, you have got to realize what the problem is (the dams, primarily the lower Snake River dams) and you have to address that problem. The Corps doesn't take responsibility for the mortality caused by its dams. They only focus on improving survival rates from one side of the concrete to the other at their projects, but their projects are killing far more outmigrating juveniles where the water's current slacks than at the dams where they boast (and confuse the general public) with survival rates of 97 percent. The actual survival rate for just getting the salmon from one side of the concrete to the other at each project is more like 78 percent once our fish get to the lower side of Bonneville Dam. However, that doesn't account for the other 30 percent the dams kill of outmigrating juvenile chinook and steelhead or the other 28 to 38 percent of outmigrating sockeye depending on the year.
Does anyone actually believe your government is going to be able to continue to manipulate the river and recover salmon?
After reading these last few paragraphs I want you to close your eyes and imagine telling your grandchildren or your great grandchildren or in the case of sockeye, your children one of two stories. In each story you tell them of these tiny fish that were born in the gravel of high mountain streams and lakes and were pushed to sea and how a few years later these now mighty fish returned to those same streams and lakes where they were born but they were in danger of going extinct. And you tell your children, grandchildren or great grandchildren how everyone knew how to save these mighty fish. Everyone. Now here's where you get to choose your own ending to the story you tell your children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren. In one ending, you tell them we tried a whole bunch of ridiculous stuff we knew wouldn't work, but no one would dare do the one thing that we knew would save them. Your child, grandchild, great grandchild now asks "why?" You reply, I can't think of a reason why, the dams didn't ever provide the power they promised and they lost money on power. The shipping was "negligible" and declined year after year. Irrigation concerns could have been addressed with a longer pipe and it wasn't like there were that many irrigators to begin with. And we knew a free flowing river would bring in more recreation money, about $4 billion, but we just looked at those monuments to mankind's hubris and we kept them and let the fish that had swam back to those mountain streams and lakes from time immemorial go the way of the dodo or the passenger pigeons or the native coho back in the 1980s.
Or you could tell them, everybody knew what was going to make our salmon go extinct and we came to realize over time that we couldn't have dams and salmon. And we further came to realize that the dams weren't necessary for power (we enjoyed a surplus for years in the region), the shipping was "negligible" just as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it was and the shipping only served a few people so we shifted the barging subsidies over to rail to solve that problem for those few people using the river transport and we bought those irrigators some longer pipe and pumps if necessary and we breached those dams and over time our salmon recovered on their own.
Imagine a future where the abundance of wild salmon challenges our notions to revere them. That's what this blog hopes for, a world handed to his daughter that is better than the world handed to him. Salmon recovery begins to build that better world in the Pacific Northwest. Snake River salmonids can recover, but there are four dams on the lower Snake River that have to be breached for that to happen.
Free the Snake.