The Seattle Times consistently reports on salmon recovery. It is no doubt a very important issue to most living in our area. Much of what has been reported is important, right, and helpful. But there are some crucial elements of the salmon recovery story that are consistently missed. Missing from these reports are the crucial facts that almost all salmon are thriving except for Chinook, and that ocean warming and predation are major reasons for Chinook recovery disappointments. The exclusive focus on habitat by salmon advocates and Seattle Times reporters may actually harm salmon recovery by taking attention away from more crucial problems.
The frequent reference to salmon recovery is misleading. The recovery focus is on Chinook, not salmon overall, as virtually all species other than Chinook are thriving. Commercial fisheries for salmon are actually in crisis because of an overabundance, particularly of sockeye and pinks. A KING5 story published a few days earlier showed that a record number of sockeye are in the Baker River despite the dam that blocks their passage. Fish passage through dams in many situations does work. Chinook salmon are struggling, but not for the reasons that most reporters seem to understand.
As Breda correctly points out, the impact of climate change on temperature is a major concern for Chinook recovery. Stream temperatures are important, but so is ocean warming. The fact is that rising ocean temperatures uniquely affect Chinook.
Breda’s article also got some important information wrong. She says the state spends millions on salmon recovery, but hasn’t been able to replant streamside habitat. This ignores the hundreds of miles of riparian habitat across Western Washington that have been restored through programs such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). This voluntary program administered by the State Conservation Commission has restored literally hundreds of miles of stream habitat and planted millions of trees. Skagit County’s Salmon Recovery Projects include an extensive list projects that are not mentioned in the article.
Another major problem is the frequent mention of NOAA’s statement that the Snake River dams must be removed to recover salmon. That statement was in complete contradiction to the agency’s earlier statements as part of the federal EIS review and their own data that show the dams are not impeding fish passage. Studies also show that many rivers without dams actually fare worse than the Snake River with its dams. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that NOAA only called for dam removal after the Biden administration took office –– politics over science?
The main problem with Breda’s article and other Seattle Times pieces is their exclusive focus on stream habitat. Numerous science studies show cool, clean water with appropriate structure is essential for salmon including Chinook. No one denies that. Yet, we have spent decades and hundreds of millions on improving habitat without an increase in Chinook recovery. Why?
The reason for this is also strongly supported by science. Chinook production over the past forty years has nearly doubled, while fewer are caught or counted. The smolts don’t return to their spawning rivers, largely because they die in the ocean. More and more research points to ocean mortality caused by warming and by massive increases in predation, mostly by harbor seals and sea lions, as likely the most critical problems causing Chinook recovery to struggle.
There are numerous studies provided in our Misdiagnosis research paper and appendix. One stands out. A research group in Canada looked at Chinook adult returns in river systems across the region including Canada, Alaska, and Washington. They found that river systems without dams had fewer adult Chinook returns than the Snake River. It appears the $24 billion spent on fish passage on the Snake and Columbia is effective, as NOAA has claimed. If this is so, those calling for Snake River dam removal will find that despite the devastation dam removal will cause to farms and communities, despite the loss of green energy and transportation, the Chinook are not likely to return unless the real causes of their struggle are addressed.
Farmers stand with our tribal friends in seeking Chinook recovery. That’s why farmers have strongly supported voluntary riparian restoration and helped restore over 1,000 miles of stream habitat, mostly in Western Washington. Gains that are now being lost through federal bureaucratic bungling. Farmers worked with tribal and environmental leaders to pass the bill on buffers mentioned in the Breda report.
But farmers are practical people who understand that as important as habitat is, unless other issues such as the out-of-control predator problem is solved, decades and billions more spent on habitat will not recover Chinook.
Reporters can be wrong in one of two ways: what they report on, and what they don’t report on. Stories focused solely on habitat are wrong, mostly in what they miss. We hope future reporting will not miss the critical misdiagnosis that is preventing Chinook recovery.