The Northwest’s iconic salmon and steelhead are on the brink of extinction says a new report from the State of Washington. The State of the Salmon Report, which is updated every year, does not mince words about perilous conditions for these fish.

“Too many salmon remain on the brink of extinction. And time is running out. The climate is changing, rivers are warming, habitat is diminishing, and the natural systems that support salmon in the Pacific Northwest need help now more than ever.” 

The report looked at runs of anadromous fish in Washington, but its conclusions can be extended to Oregon and Idaho. Current fish recovery practices are simply not enough to bring back many populations of salmon and steelhead. Despite billions of dollars invested in salmon restoration, the majority of Washington’s endangered fish are not keeping pace. Of the 14 Washington runs listed under the Endangered Species Act, 10 are not moving toward recovery, including five deemed “in crisis.” 

Recent runs of the same fish in Idaho show similar results. Of the four ESA-listed wild fish stocks in Idaho, three have declined in the last decade. Snake River sockeye salmon remain most at risk — only a total of 125 returned to the Stanley Basin last year. Spring/summer Chinook salmon, whose runs can be somewhat predicted by the previous year’s return, are expected to decline once again in 2021 after several years of already poor runs. Idaho’s fish are in crisis as well, and it’s high time to take bold action to save them. 

Thankfully, a prescription for fish restoration has once again been offered, this time by 10 of the most respected fish scientists in the world. In a letter to governors of the four Northwest states, this group advises that “restoration of a free-flowing lower Snake River is essential to recovering wild Pacific salmon and steelhead in the basin.” 

Such a step would constitute the largest river restoration in the history of the world, and become a cornerstone of a renewed effort aimed at restoring fish to abundance, not just staving off extinction. This new goal was recently adopted by the Idaho Governor’s Salmon Workgroup in its final report, which calls for Gov. Brad Little to engage on a comprehensive package of investments and modifications that will bring significant populations of fish back to Idaho. Restoring the lower Snake River must be part of that solution. 

However, removing dams has consequences. There must be a plan and funding to replace the essential services provided to energy, transportation, and irrigation systems across the Northwest. The scientists fully believe there are “affordable, cost-effective alternatives” that can provide the same economic benefits. We agree. Through the Governor’s Salmon Workgroup and other forums, ICL has been engaged in learning what those alternatives might look like, and how much they would cost. Now it’s up to our state government and regional Congressional representatives to lead and resolve this decades-long struggle that’s exacted a toll on everyone in the region. 

The status quo is clearly not working for our fish. We can keep doing what we have been, and lose salmon, steelhead, and the soul of the Pacific Northwest, or make changes, act boldly, come up with solutions together, and place Idaho and the region on a pathway that restores fish to abundance, and makes all communities and stakeholders whole.