The following guest editorial was submitted to the Seattle Times at the same time as our letter to the editor, published on December 22, 2023. In an unsurprising fashion, this longer version of our response to Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood’s Op-Ed was not printed:
Chinook recovery hindered by a misdiagnosis
Chris Wood in his December 12 guest editorial advocated strongly for removing the Snake River dams saying it was the only way to ensure survival of endangered salmon species. There are strong indications that even if the dams were removed and the extremely high costs of mitigation paid, it is highly unlikely that this would have a significant impact on Chinook recovery.
Chinook are the only species of salmon that are struggling. The commercial salmon industry is in crisis but not because of undersupply of salmon, but an oversupply. Asian and Russian hatcheries are producing massive quantities of salmon, mostly pinks, and the price has collapsed. Fishers have seen record numbers of sockeye, but even in Alaska Chinook are struggling.
Numerous studies show the reasons why other species are thriving and Chinook are not. The most critical is ocean warming. The Chinook life cycle is harmed by warming conditions while other species benefit.
Another major reason is predation, particularly in the local waters of the Salish Sea. Federal laws protected marine mammals in the 1970s and since their numbers have increased dramatically. A NOAA-led study showed that harbor seals in the Salish Sea alone consumed 24 million Chinook, representing nearly 90% of all Chinook consumed by these predators from Alaska to California.
Chinook hatchery and wild production has increased about four fold in the 40 years between 1975 and 2015, but recovery has lagged because Salish Sea harbor seals have increased from about 7700 to about 80,000 in that time.
NOAA has consistently communicated that the $24 billion spent on fish passage through dams is highly effective. About 95% of salmon pass successfully through the Snake River dams. Their opinion supporting dams was included in the 2020 federal impact statement that recommended retaining dams. However, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, when the Biden administration was inaugurated NOAA rather dramatically changed their message and called for dam removal. It’s yet another example of politics influencing science.
The most damning evidence against dam removal comes from a Canadian study that examined a number of river systems providing Chinook habitat. This showed that all river systems are struggling with Chinook recovery and the ones without dams are struggling more than the Snake River. The study done by Kintama Research aptly summarizes the facts:
“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.”
Habitat is crucially important and efforts need to continue to protect, enhance and expand salmon habitat. But unless we experience decreased ocean warming and we fail to act against the immense loss Chinook due to predation, we cannot expect habitat improvements will significantly change the recovery picture.
Snake River dam removal would come at an exceptionally high cost. Government estimates of $30 billion to remove and mitigate are, by the author’s own admission, missing many elements. The green energy provided, the minimal environmental impact of farm produce transportation would be lost. Up to 7700 farms, almost all family farms, would risk bankruptcy, and tens of thousands of some of the region’s poorest citizens would be displaced. This social justice cost must be included in the equation.
All that may be worth it to save the iconic Chinook salmon. But, to take such measures we need to be very certain of the cause of failed recovery efforts. Right now, the indications are we’d incur the costs without the promised benefits.
Read our full research paper here.
The accompanying appendix can be accessed here.