A Save Family Farming Research Paper | October 2023

Chinook salmon are unique. They are the largest, most preferred salmon among seafood lovers. They are important to indigenous peoples economically and culturally. But, unlike all other Pacific salmon species, Chinook are struggling. Will the favored solutions bring these iconic fish back, or merely cause more harm?

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Is it possible that the most popular solutions proposed to recover Chinook salmon will fail if implemented?

Most proposed solutions to Chinook recovery focus on habitat. Advocates seek to remove dams, convert farmland into large, inflexible stream buffers, and restrict or eliminate water access.

In this paper we will introduce science studies important to this discussion. It will show:

1) Why most salmon species are flourishing

2) The causes for Chinook decline and failing recovery efforts

3) The proposed solutions and their costs

4) Three example studies that point to real solutions

This paper is an overview and introduction to the range of science studies and reports presented in the Appendix. Cumulatively the studies point to the possibility of a great misdiagnosis. If there is a basic misunderstanding of the causes of Chinook decline, then the costly solutions will end in disappointment.

We all have a lot at stake

The proposed solutions would greatly harm family farming in the state and region. Should the self-interest of farmers discount what they say? Farmers have a lot at stake, but farmers are not the only ones with self-interest. Tribes, commercial and recreational fishers, and food consumers all are invested in the question. So are salmon recovery advocates. They are involved in an industry with billions of tax dollars and non-profit contributions at stake. As much as farmers and fishers have an interest, these advocacy groups also have a financial interest in increasing public awareness of the problem. The funds stop and jobs end when the problem goes away.

Most want farming to thrive in our region and many may be surprised how the proposed solutions will harm it. Knowing the impact on farming is important in making decisions involving trade-offs.

1. Pacific salmon flourish — except Chinnok

As the accumulation of research shows, Chinook numbers are in decline largely because ocean mortality. Unlike other species they are uniquely harmed by ocean warming and by the huge increase in pinniped predation. Predation by harbor seals is a particular problem in the Salish Sea where 86.4% of all Chinook consumed by these mammals from Alaska to California are consumed in this small area alone.

Large Chinook salmon were called “tyees” by indigenous peoples. Also called “blackmouth” for their distinctive black gumline, they are mostly known as king salmon. They are indeed the kings of salmon because they are the largest of the seven species of Pacific salmon and preferred for their taste because of their high fat content. Chinook are especially crucial in the Salish Sea and northern Puget Sound region not only because of the strong connection to the local indigenous tribes, but also because the Southern Resident pod of killer whales uniquely depend on Chinook as the mainstay of their diets. The health of this pod has stimulated widespread concern over the recovery of Chinook.

Unlike most of the other Pacific salmon species, the Chinook runs have been declining overall. Most other species are at or above record levels. Supporting that, a letter sent to commercial fishers in Alaska in July 2023 by a major processor warned them of very low prices and a “collapse” of the market for salmon. However, a study published in 2023 shows that of the 79 Chinook salmon runs studied, 57 are in decline. Some Chinook runs are strongly increasing, but media and public attention is focused on the  areas where there are declines.

In the Northwest there is considerable news coverage of salmon declines, so the abundance of Pacific salmon overall is not well understood by the public. The focus locally is on specific runs that are endangered and listed under the Endangered Species Act. There is strong interest in improving these runs, in part to allow for improved harvest levels. The website State of Salmon provides good information on the current status of salmon and steelhead in the local region.

Significant efforts to recover Chinook runs have been going on for over 25 years. Billions of dollars have been spent, including $24 billion on fish passage in the Columbia River system and hundreds of millions in recovery efforts. Much more is proposed to be spent to recover this species. Yet, the decline mostly continues. This failure to produce sustaining positive results is a primary reason why many are proposing ever more costly and potentially damaging solutions. There are occasional encouraging signs of recovery, but the overall picture remains uncertain at best.

2. Science studies point to significant causes of Chinook decline

Most salmon recovery efforts focus on habitat under the commonly held belief that improving habitat will have the greatest impact on salmon recovery. This is clearly seen in the major paper titled “Factors Limiting Progress in Salmon Recovery” by the Puget Sound Partnership Salmon Science Advisory Group. The report notes the lack of progress of salmon recovery and points almost exclusively to habitat issues. There is a single reference to ocean productivity and salmon lifestyle affecting recovery efforts, but there is no investigation and no mention other than the one sentence. The focus of the entire paper is on habitat as if that is the major limiting factor.

Habitat is a critical component of salmon recovery. However, this study and many salmon advocates are apparently not sufficiently considering the impact of ocean mortality, specifically on Chinook. Nor are they considering important regional ocean mortality conditions that affect the endangered species, such as localized predation. When considering these factors, the serious question is raised whether the habitat changes these advocates seek will result in the recovery of salmon. Proposed solutions are costly, but would they work to help recover Chinook? There is reason to believe the results would be disappointing.

Ice Harbor is one of the four Lower Snake River Dams that advocates want removed. Access to habitat upstream of the dams is made possible by a $24 billion investment in fish passage on the Columbia system dams, including the Snake. NOAA reports 96% of salmon pass through the dams successfully. Latent mortality has been shown to be more related to ocean conditions than because of dams.

Anadromous fish are difficult to study because their life cycle includes them living in both freshwater and the ocean. Chinook in particular present difficulties because of their unique feeding and life cycles. Overharvesting was a primary reason for salmon decline in the past, particularly Chinook. While harvest levels have been significantly reduced it has not resulted in a significant rebound of Chinook numbers.

A variety of science studies show that the primary factors affecting Chinook recovery today are rising ocean temperatures and predation. While other salmon species have benefited from greatly expanded hatchery operations, the significant increase in both hatchery and wild production of Chinook has not resulted in similar increases as other species. Habitat improvements such as the nearly 1000 miles of stream buffers restored through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) have not resulted in significantly improved numbers. The studies and reports provided in the Appendix provide a likely explanation for this.

Rising ocean temperatures

Despite the complexity of the Chinook lifecycle, it is increasingly clear that rising Pacific ocean temperatures is a primary reason for Chinook decline and recovery disappointments. The report from 2023 salmon fisheries in Alaska presented below provides one example. Other species appear to benefit from the same changing ocean conditions that prove a problem for Chinook.

Predators 

Orcas consume the highest volume of Chinook by weight, but protected pinnipeds, especially harbor seals in the Salish Sea, are responsible for the loss of tens of millions of Chinook smolts. In fact, 86.4% of all harbor seal predation from Alaska to California occurs in the small region of the Salish Sea. Leading scientists suggest this could directly impact the endangered species of Chinook that are the greatest concern in this local region. Without curbing predation, improved production of wild and hatchery Chinook and improved habitat may have limited benefits.

Comparatively limited hatchery production

Hatchery production of other species contributed significantly to their increased numbers, but Chinook hatchery production remains relatively low in comparison. There are various reasons for this including caution in taking brood stock. There has been a significant increase in both hatchery and wild Chinook production since 1975, but the two factors above suggest primary reasons why this increased production has not produced a commensurate increase in numbers of adult Chinook returning from the ocean. A study showed the very high cost of Chinook hatchery production per fish returned or harvested, which again likely points to specific conditions Chinook face while in the ocean.

Riparian buffers provide valuable habitat. Science studies show that smaller, flexible buffers provide the major benefits. Yet, salmon advocates continue to demand large, inflexible buffers that would largely destroy farming in the Puget Sound region.

3. Proposed solutions, their costs and impacts

Recovering the once historic runs of Chinook salmon is a very high priority to nearly everyone and particularly those who call the Pacific Northwest home. The willingness to absorb the exorbitant costs of some solutions demonstrates how important recovering salmon is to so many. Here is a summary of some of those solutions and the costs associated with them:

1. Remove the four lower Snake River dams

This action is promoted by some salmon recovery experts and advocates as the most important thing we can do to restore Chinook. Many others disagree. The belief is that removing the dams would provide more access to historic spawning grounds. Current adult fish returns show that there is a problem with this widely shared belief.

Removing the dams would be exceptionally costly, particularly if the benefits they currently provide are replaced. The dams provide green sustainable power that would need to be replaced by other systems. Replacing the power with other green power is not considered feasible in the near term by experts who have evaluated this.

The dams also provide efficient and environmentally friendly barge transportation for market access to vital agricultural crops.  If the dams are eliminated, it will require replacing the barges by trucks or trains, which are far less efficient and environmentally friendly. Recent studies show that most of the 7700 family farms in the wheat growing region of Southwest Washington and neighboring Oregon and Idaho could be lost. Thousands of citizens who depend on the farm economy in that area would be displaced.  Cost estimates of dam removal and mitigation exceed $30 billion with $50 billion more likely because of recognized unknowns. Despite this high cost, there are no guarantees that removing the dams will increase Chinook populations.

2. Eliminate farmland and replace with large, inflexible buffers

For many years salmon advocates have pushed for large, inflexible buffers on rivers, streams and even drainage ditches throughout Washington. Buffers are important for salmon habitat because they provide shade that helps cool streams among other benefits such as protection against run-off pollution and adding woody debris.

But science studies show much smaller buffers are effective at providing the benefits. Farmers support these buffers and have voluntarily helped implement almost 1000 miles of these in mostly Western Washington. The large buffers some say are needed for salmon could remove up to 30% of existing farmland in the Puget Sound region alone according to analysis by farm groups.  Often, these large, inflexible buffers would make the remaining land unusable for farming, likely resulting in the accelerated conversion of remaining farmland to development. Extensive work on buffers between farmers, environmental groups and government agencies has demonstrated that site-specific planning provides the best overall results.

The most popular Chinook recovery solutions would have a devastating impact on family farms across the state. In Puget Sound over 60% of farmland has already been lost to development. Massive buffers, restricting water for irrigation and taking water rights will likely result in the permanent loss of most farming in the Puget Sound region. But, these solutions would likely not bring Chinook back.

3. Adjudicate water rights 

Recovering salmon is also the primary justification for the Washington State Department of Ecology’s plan to file lawsuits against all water rights holders in the Nooksack and Upper Columbia River watersheds. Whatcom County, where the Nooksack river flows, is one of the last remaining areas in northern Puget Sound where farming is still viable. Instream flow rules designed to help protect fish will be a significant part of any litigation. Most water used for irrigation uses plentiful groundwater which typically has little impact on flow levels affecting fish. The water right adjudication process will be a multi-decade litigation and threatens the loss of secure, abundant and reliable water that farmers use to irrigate their crops. Farmers in this region have already begun to leave based on the uncertain future.

4. Restrict irrigation and infrastructure

Like most of Western Washington, Skagit County is blessed with abundant water. Dams on the Skagit River protect the towns and cities like Burlington, Sedro Woolley, and Mount Vernon from flooding. Skagit County, like Whatcom County, is one of the last remaining viable farming areas in the Puget Sound region. But farmers are often restricted from irrigating their crops, especially in hot dry weather when water is most needed for crops. There is also growing pressure from environmental groups to restrict necessary maintenance on the dikes and drainage systems needed to protect homes, property and farms from flooding. Saving fish and improving salmon runs are the reasons offered for these limitations, but impact on fish is non-existent or negligible as made clear in the Appendix.

5. Oppose winter river storage

Fish protection and recovery is also a basis for some to strongly oppose a proven solution to the twin problems of low flow and flooding. What happened in the Nooksack River in late 2021 is a prime example. In September the hot, dry summer resulted in elevated temperatures and low water flow in the river, causing the death of 2500 spawning salmon. Just weeks later in November, the river flooded causing loss of life, loss of homes and businesses, and over $1 billion in damage in the Abbotsford, BC area.

Experts agree that water storage is essential as we face the increasing impacts of climate change. Most river systems in the state have dams and reservoirs that store excess winter water and release it when it is most needed for fish to spawn. These storage systems prevent flooding while enhancing fish habitat. In the Nooksack, storage can be built with minimal impact on fish habitat, yet many strongly oppose the water storage concept under the illusion that all dams are bad for salmon. Storage, however, is a well established measure that will solve the twin problems of low flow and flooding –– problems that are almost certain to increase.

The Fraser River is the longest in BC, Canada, and one of many river systems without dams. A Canadian study showed that rivers without dams or other human-caused obstructions are having the same – or even greater – problems with Chinook declines as river systems with dams. NOAA reports that about 96% of salmon pass successfully through the Snake River dams. The $24 billion spent on fish passage has proven very successful.

4. Three compelling examples point toward real solutions

The extended Appendix will provide the scientific support for the claims made in this paper. But three reports provide an introduction to the larger story.

Chinook in crisis while sockeye runs dramatically increase

This July 2023 public radio report out of Alaska highlights the sharp decline in Chinook in the Nushagak river to below escapement levels. Fisheries from Alaska to California are reporting declines as well.

The Nushagak is the most productive river in Alaska for Chinook, but other river systems in Alaska are experiencing the same Chinook decline while sockeye harvests in the Nushagak are at record levels. As of mid-July, Chinook in the Nushagak had not reached the level of returns that would allow for any to be harvested. However, the sockeye harvest in this run alone at that time was 22 million fish, three times the 20 year average harvest for this species.

State fisheries experts point out this is not a local problem. Katie Howard, an Alaska state fisheries scientist:

“It’s not just Alaska. It’s everywhere where Chinook are,” she said. “The reports we’re getting from pretty much everyone is that with a few minor exceptions, Chinook have been down everywhere, so that kind of points towards a cause that can affect things on a really large geographic scale. So not local causes.”

They point to the same problem that leading marine scientists, like UBC’s Andrew Trites, have suggested: ocean warming:

“When the water temperatures increase, these fish get stressed out because they’re really cold water fish and that makes it even harder for them to swim because it’s affecting all of their organ function,” Howard said.

In 2013 a “blob” of warmer water settled in the northern Pacific disrupting marine life, with Chinook very directly affected. The report identifies several problems that warmer water causes Chinook, including loss of prey, heart stress and diseases, and thiamine deficiency in eggs that limit production. The report quoted Katie Howard:

“She says between nutrient deficiencies, disease, and heat stress, it’s hard for Chinook salmon to catch a break. ‘It’s both freshwater and marine issues acting on the adult spawners that may lead them to either not make it to the spawning ground, to make it and not spawn, or to leave eggs that don’t really have the nutrients that they need to be successful and survive,’ Howard said.”

“We show that overall, Chinook salmon survival has decreased roughly by the same amount everywhere along the west coast of North America and has now reached similar or lower survival levels than Snake River stocks.”

Ironically, the warmer ocean conditions may contribute to the abundance of sockeye salmon. Howard:

“The warming temperatures produce a lot of algae, and the algae helps feed the little critters that the smolt are feeding on. And so there seems to be some positive effect of these warming temperatures on sockeye because they live in this really unique habitat and they can take advantage of that.”

BC science study shows rivers with dams and without dams both suffer from Chinook declines 

In September 2020 fisheries scientists from Kintama Research Services in Nanaimo, BC published an article in Fish and Fisheries titled: “A synthesis of the coast-wide decline in survival of West Coast Chinook Salmon”. In the course of a different study, they discovered “that Chinook survival in many rivers of the Strait of Georgia region had fallen to levels well below those reported for Snake River Chinook.”

To make this clear: the Snake River, which is the focus of calls for dam removal, is actually faring better in Chinook recovery than many rivers without dams. This is significant because of widespread belief that the Snake River dams are harming Chinook. The four lower Snake River dams are presented as a primary cause of Chinook decline and the greatest obstacle to recovery. This study clearly demonstrated that is not the case. If the dams were the problem then other river systems would show much stronger returns. Smolt-to-adult (SARs) is the key measurement of run strength as it shows how many adult salmon return to their spawning areas compared to the number of smolts that left. The authors wrote:

“Within the Columbia River, the SARs of Snake River populations, often singled out as exemplars of poor survival, are unexceptional and in fact higher than estimates reported from many other regions of the west coast lacking dams. Given the seemingly congruent decline in  SARs to similar levels, the notion that contemporary survival is driven primarily by broader  oceanic factors rather than local factors should be considered.”

The study area included the entire West Coast, and provided results consistent with the more recent Alaska report above as well as numerous other studies:

“We show that, overall, Chinook salmon survival (SAR) has decreased by roughly the same amount everywhere along the west coast of North America and has now reached similar or lower survival levels than Snake River stocks.”

The authors repeatedly point out that the data do not support the conventional wisdom that the Snake River has unique problems with Chinook returns that are directly related to dams. The fact of general decline, including Asian Chinook, points to ocean conditions as the Alaska fisheries scientists showed. The Kintama report continues:

In the 1970s Congress protected marine mammals such as harbor seals and sea lions. Their numbers have grown, particularly in the Salish Sea. While other killer whales feed on seals, the Southern Residents prefer Chinook salmon. But with harbor seal numbers in this area alone growing from 8600 in 1975 to 77,800 in 2015 these predators are leaving little left for the whales.

Harbor seals eat 27.4 million Chinook salmon across the coast from Alaska to California. But 86% of that consumption is in the waters of the Salish Sea alone!

Control of predation has proven effective in other areas such as the Columbia. Without addressing the unique problem of pinniped predation in the Salish Sea, hopes for Chinook recovery are futile.

“The similar timing of the decline in the Salish Sea, west coast of Vancouver Island, and Columbia River Basin suggests the primary influence of a broad ocean driver (Beamish, 1993; Beamish & Bouillon, 1993; Mantua et al., 1997). The evidence for a roughly similar drop in Asian Chinook catches reviewed above also indicates that the geographic footprint of any ocean (or freshwater) driver must either be large or that many populations must migrate to common geographic regions where their survival can be similarly reduced.”

The Snake River Chinook populations are actually doing better than river systems with no dams or other human infrastructure, which they refer to as “anthropogenic freshwater habitat impacts.” This study makes very clear a central point of this paper on misdiagnosis: removing dams probably would not improve salmon returns despite the very high costs involved. The report concludes:

“The recent recognition of the decline in Chinook returns across essentially all of Alaska and the Canadian portion of the Yukon River, where anthropogenic freshwater habitat impacts are negligible, is another example of how simple explanations are potentially flawed. If survival across this vast swathe of relatively pristine territory is severe enough to seriously impact salmon productivity, then there is little hope that modifying freshwater habitat in more southern regions will support a newly productive environment for salmon.”

Study shows impact of predation on Chinook and points to need for control

Both wild and hatchery production of Chinook have increased but without a corresponding increase in adult returns. Ocean warming is likely the primary cause of ocean mortality of Chinook, but there is little near term that can be done to mitigate this very serious problem.  Another significant reason, the science studies show, is predation.

This problem is particularly acute in the Salish Sea where the consumption of smolts by harbor seals is concentrated. The study published in Nature led by NOAA scientist Brandon Chasco shows that harbor seals from Alaska to California consumed 27 million Chinook in 2015. But in just one small region –– the Salish Sea –– 86.4% of those Chinook were consumed by harbor seals. The numbers of predators in this small area have grown from 8600 in 1975 to 77,800 in 2015. Numbers increased in this region much more than in other areas in part because the local pod of killer whales, unlike their cousins, do not target harbor seals as a food source. Consequently, they are being out competed for their primary food: Chinook. What makes this difficult is that while both hatchery and wild production of Chinook has greatly increased to 400 million in 2015, the ocean losses due to warming and predation appear to negate this gain.

Predator control is therefore the most important and viable solution to improving Chinook returns. Tribal leaders have been calling attention to this for years. The leading science group in Washington State recently communicated that Chinook recovery depends on control of pinniped predators.

Public attention is crucial for necessary action to be taken. Predation by sea lions in the Columbia river received far more public and media attention than harbor seal predation in the Salish Sea, despite the fact that the impact on Chinook is many times greater. Congress acted to allow limited removal of the voracious predators. Similar attention to the predation in the Salish Sea will be necessary for lawmakers to take what can be a controversial solution.

Chinook recovery is of very high importance to nearly everyone in the Pacific Northwest. The question is what recovery actions will result in the best results. Most salmon recovery advocates focus on habitat. But the science studies show that ocean mortality, not habitat, is the key factor. Ocean warming and very high levels of predation in the Salish Sea are seen by many experts as the primary reason for disappointing recovery. Predation is one primary cause that can be addressed by near-term concerted action.

Summary

The purpose here is to raise an important question. Media reports generally focus on the position of advocates who claim that Chinook recovery is first and foremost a habitat issue. The studies highlighted here and detailed in the Appendix suggest this may be a great misdiagnosis.

It would be tragic if billions were spent, family farming in the state and region permanently harmed or even lost, and the iconic Chinook remained elusive. The fact that relatively simple and less costly solutions that would prove far more effective are available would make the tragedy that much greater. Certainly, the importance of the issue requires a closer look.

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