On the wild salmon of the Snake River Basin front, the enemies of wild salmon are making up stories and drawing up bills to thwart the public process. They are lying about dams and record runs of fish, in that they are proclaiming record abundance when this may well be the worst steelhead year in a very long time, if not the worst. Numbers at Bonneville Dam are only better than two other years since Bonneville Dam was completed and counting steelhead at the dam became a thing. Idaho Fish and Game managers say it possible we will not see their low projection of steelhead return this year. A bad steelhead year does not come as a surprise to me, nor would any bad year for any other wild salmonid or the hatchery ones for that matter of the Snake River Basin. The main culprit, which isn't sea lion depredation at Bonneville Dam, nor the blob, nor low flows. The culprit are the four H's caused by the H's. Harvest, hydro, habitat and hatcheries by humans. I don't mean to say the blob (area of warm water off the Pacific Northwest coast), or low flows or even sea lion predation aren't problems, but I mean to say we've placed so many obstacles in front of these fish that it's easy to choose something new. Food supply in the ocean is another reason for the low return. If you remove the four lower Snake River dams, you build in resilience, you create abundance that means more fish make it to the ocean and it tracks that more fish would make it back from the ocean unless the problem in the ocean is incredibly lethal.
I want to single out sea lion predation for really only one reason, sea lion predation is a problem because of the bottleneck at the dams. Sea lions have always eaten salmon and the problem today has more to do with the bottleneck at the Bonneville fish ladder or at the Willamette fish ladder than it has to do with sea lions eating salmon. They have simply found a really good place to find food. If we remove the lower Snake River dams, there will be more smolts making it to the ocean and more adults returning to the rivers. The predation by sea lions will not be felt as sharply.
The blob is a concern and the loss of food for young salmonids in the ocean is troubling. Climate change, something our current government refuses to acknowledge, and ocean acidity levels due to the ocean's increased carbon absorption (due to our carbon dioxide emissions primarily, a main cause of climate change) are serious problems and wouldn't it be great if we could not have created serious obstacles to wild salmonid survival at every point and stage of their lives? There are studies showing the size of adult copepods are decreasing due to carbon dissolving in our oceans creating a more acidic ocean. The same thing is happening to shellfish that need a higher ph or a more basic ph to grow their shells. Anyway, it's a serious problem, caused by humans. Way to go team! Additionally, referring back to the blob, mass of warm water in northeast Pacific Ocean, this has less nutritious warmwater copepods for steelhead to eat and for various forage fish to eat, which steelhead and salmon eat to get fat. Coldwater copepods are far more nutritious and are the basis for the food chain that young salmonids rely on for survival and to thrive in the ocean.
The hydro system of the Columbia/Snake remains the biggest threat to steelhead. Habitat degradation and hydro go hand in hand decimating wild salmonids, especially in the Snake River Basin. We've learned that hatcheries are definitely capable of inflicting irreparable damage to steelhead specifically (more on that in a later blog dealing with hatcheries and hatchery management). Let's take a look at the numbers for steelhead at this point and compare those to last year and the 10-year average at this point in the season. Then, I am going to give you the annual total steelhead returns through Lower Granite Dam since 1997. This is to paint you a picture as only the data can.
(as of Aug. 12, 2017, source Fish Passage Center)
Dam Year Steelhead Wild Steelhead
Bonneville 2017 36,721 17,088
Bonneville 2016 81,873 29,786
Bonneville 10-YR AVG 162,654 67,488
(EDITOR'S NOTE: STEELHEAD NUMBERS AT LOWER GRANITE APPEAR HIGHER DUE TO A GROUP OF STEELHEAD THAT ENTER THE RIVERS BETWEEN OCTOBER AND DECEMBER THAT SPEND THEIR WINTERS BELOW LOWER GRANITE DAM BEFORE COMPLETING THEIR MIGRATION UPSTREAM IN MARCH.)
Lower Granite 2017 7,710 3,318
Lower Granite 2016 9,268 4,947
Lower Granite 10-YR AVG 15,061 6,129
(Steelhead passage from July 1 to August 12 at Lower Granite Dam)
Wild Steelhead 257
Hatchery Steelhead 393
Annual Steelhead Totals through Lower Granite Dam last 20 years
Year Steelhead Wild Steelhead
1997 85,917 8,991
1998 72,017 9,559
1999 74,370 11,746
2000 113,211 20,604
2001 262,568 47,716
2002 218,718 57,291
2003 180,672 45,391
2004 154,389 36,209
2005 155,783 35,977
2006 145,991 29,836
2007 155,783 33,183
2008 175,481 43,678
2009 323,697 76,203
2010 206,885 48,105
2011 183,648 31,426
2012 110,675 33,634
2013 107,910 33,426
2014 164,088 52,151
2015 139,776 39,272
2016 100,176 23,786
It's impossible to see record numbers of abundance in those numbers. Especially, when you look at the historical run size estimates. The most often used is the 10-16 million wild salmonids returning to the Columbia/Snake each year with about half of those wild salmonids (5-8 million) returning to the Snake River Basin. That's the number the Northwest Council adopted in 1987 that was arrived at by using lower river commercial catch records. The council also did an alternative method of lower river commercial catch plus upriver Indian and settler catch and came up with 12.5 to 13 million adult fish returning each year.
The Bonneville Power Administration in 1984 estimated the historical run size to be 35 million fish based on a fish wheel catch. And there were other estimates, two that placed the historical run at about 8 million fish (Chapman 1986 and Pacific Fishery Management Council which used a habitat available approach) Dr. Allan Scholz also came to 12-16 million fish annually in 1985. Even from the lower estimates, today's numbers do not represent anything remotely like a record run of abundance.
One estimate from historical run sizes that ended up with 7.5 million fish attempted to give a historical makeup of the various Pacific salmon and their abundance within the run. Chinook led the way with 3.75 million, Sockeye were next at 2.25 million, and coho, chum and steelhead runs were each about 500,000 in the Columbia Snake. Let's say half of that historical steelhead run was bound for the Snake River (250,000) and they were all wild fish, though hatcheries began infiltrating the populations in the 1800s. Does the wild steelhead number crossing the Lower Granite Dam in anyway resemble 250,000 fish?
I know what you are saying and you are partly correct, I should have you compare that number with passage of steelhead at Ice Harbor. There are counts at that dam dating back to 1962, and do you know how many years steelhead (hatchery plus wild) beat the historical average of about 250,000 (I am basing off the low estimate historical run)? Two times, just two years did our hatchery production plus wild steelhead production mean that the Snake River got back more fish than a low estimate of historical runs, those years were 2001 and 2009. Now, let's extrapolate (oh boy we love it when I do math...because I am so bad at it) Let's assume that the fish run makeup was correct in its shares of the run by specific Pacific salmon. If so, steelhead made up about 6.67 percent of the run. To check ourselves last year through Bonneville there were 1,404,632 salmonids (minus the three pink salmon I am not including because they weren't included in that historical low estimate) and there were 240,406 steelhead through Bonneville Dam, which is about 17 percent of the run. How do we handle this discrepancy of 17 percent today and 6.7 percent historically? Well, one thing we have to do is acknowledge the virtual nonexistence of chum salmon in the Columbia/Snake, there were 47 chum salmon last year through Bonneville Dam. We also must look at the serious decline of Coho salmon. Last year saw 47,509 coho salmon pass through Bonneville Dam or about 3.4 percent of the run. The sockeye run last year was about 24.4 percent compared to 30 percent of the historical run. The chinook run made up about 55.1 percent of the run last year compared to half the historical run. We also must acknowledge that those historical run estimates were based heavily on fish catches that were made long before fish would have gotten to Bonneville Dam had it been there, so there's bound to be some discrepancy with the counting methods that we must acknowledge. But for comparison sake, you are going to see that the idea that we've had record runs of fish during the era of dams is a laughable premise.
If the run was 16 million fish, based on those percentages historically, we would see 8 million chinook, 4.8 million sockeye, 1,072,000 steelhead and then the same number of chum salmon and coho salmon as steelhead. At 10 million, we would see 5 million chinook, 3 million sockeye, 667,000 steelhead, 667,000 chum and 667,000 coho. If that was the case then historically (based on the adopted Northwest Council estimate of historical salmonid runs of 10-16 million fish and about half of the run swimming up the Snake River) we would have expected to see 333,667 to 536,000 steelhead swimming up the Snake River before the dams. Did any of those 20 years I shared with you about steelhead through Lower Granite or any of that Ice Harbor data that goes back to 1962 or any of those 10-year averages give you any doubt that anyone touting record runs during the era of the dams, is propagating fiction? It's simply not correct, in no way, shape, manner or form. Any member of the media, who doesn't point this huge discrepancy out when they report on these politicians who want to thwart the public process and make null and void a court ruling from May 2016 are doing everyone in the Pacific Northwest and the United States of America a huge disservice. It goes without saying just how great a disservice Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers's bill represents, but these days nightmares come true and those anti-salmon folks out there are counting on facts not mattering to you. This country has a lot of work ahead of it, we need to come together right now and demand facts carry the weight facts should carry and sensible solutions to problems should be implemented. Breaching four lower Snake River dams makes a whole lot of economic sense these days and the ecological dividends are enormous and would reach into the future for millennia if we just do the right thing for wild salmonids of the Snake River Basin. I might add that now is the time to do it, rather than allow all of these incredibly expensive hydro system maintenance projects to go to completion. It's passed time to breach those deadbeat dams.
Next up for the Salmon Blog, I'm going to point out just how irrelevant that irrigation group calling on Trump to initiate the god squad to speed up wild salmonid extinction really are. But that probably won't take very long. So, I'll probably talk about some other issues as well.
Don't miss the 3rd Annual Free the Snake Flotilla Sept. 8-9 at Chief Timothy Park near Clarkston, WA. The flotilla launches at 10 a.m. and will paddle a six-mile round trip. Last year's flotilla had four times more people than that irrigation group that's calling for wild salmonid extinction, just to give some perspective, which is largely missing in today's world.