Salmon and Steelhead in Idaho

ICL is working to restore ecologically significant, harvestable populations of wild salmon and steelhead to Idaho. Although regulation from federal and state governments has kept Idaho’s iconic fish from going extinct so far, salmon and steelhead populations are collapsing and have declined substantially since the development of dams on the lower Snake River.

Q: I have friends who went fishing for salmon/steelhead last week, how bad can it really be if people are still fishing?

All of Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act, with only 2% of historical populations remaining. These fish are so close to extinction that it is illegal to catch and keep a wild fish: they must be released.

Most of the fish Idahoans and out-of-state visitors are catching are hatchery fish. These fish are artificially produced to supplement wild fish populations and provide something for commercial, recreational, and tribal anglers to harvest. Even so, hatchery fish face the same pressures from dams, predators, and ocean conditions as their wild cousins. In recent years, hatchery fish returns to Idaho have been especially poor, requiring more regulation from the State and fewer harvestable fish for Idahoans. Some fisheries have been shut down entirely, which costs Idaho guides and outfitters revenue, jobs, and livelihoods.
If we continue managing these fish as we currently do, the populations of salmon and steelhead will continue to decline, and it is likely shutdowns on fisheries will become more common practice.

Q: Is ICL anti-hatchery fish?

We are not anti-hatchery fish! We firmly believe that a healthy fishery contains both wild and hatchery fish that are appropriately managed. However, we also believe that a more robust population of wild fish is necessary for this healthy balance. We have no aims to do away with hatchery fish, we just know that the loss of the wild populations of salmon and steelhead would be detrimental to the state of Idaho as a whole.

Q: If we breach the four lower Snake River dams, will it be enough to save Idaho salmon and steelhead? Isn’t this the most extreme thing we can do?

The fact of the matter is this: we have already tried all other possible solutions with no positive effects on return rates. All other options with less impact have been explored.

There have been billions of dollars dedicated to habitat restoration in the state of Idaho over the past 30 years. Much of this habitat restoration has been very well executed and many parts of the state have some of the most pristine habitat for salmon and steelhead anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the fish are still having trouble getting to it. It’s like having a perfectly made up five star hotel on the top of a mountain. The mint is waiting on the pillow, but 100 miles away, someone is turning customers away on the road.

There have also been efforts to barge juvenile fish around the dams to alleviate the impacts of smolts dying in the turbines. This is not only incredibly costly, but it has not yet shown any significant impact on overall return numbers.

Recently, the federal agencies that operate the dams have turned to spilling water to help juvenile fish survive. “Spill” refers to water that goes over the dam through a spillway, rather than through its hydroelectric turbines, which are devastating for fish. Specific levels of spill are difficult to agree on, because any water that goes to spill cannot be used for electric generation, and spill has its own problems for fish survival.

Not only is this costing the dams (and Pacific Northwest energy users) money, but it does not have a large enough effect on survival. It will never restore abundant, harvestable populations of wild salmon and steelhead to the Snake River.

Scientists agree that removing the lower Snake River dams is crucial to restoring wild salmon runs and benefiting hatchery runs, in addition to Southern Resident Killer Whales, which feed on Snake River Chinook Salmon..

Q: How much power do the lower four Snake River dams generate? Aren’t they critical to avoiding new greenhouse gas emissions?

The four lower Snake River dams are not critical to electric system cost or reliability nor the need to reduce carbon emissions. These four dams are a small part of the much larger Federal Columbia River Power System, a system of 14 hydroelectric dams owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. These 14 federal dams are connected to the larger electric grid through a transmission system owned and operated by Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

BPA’s system includes 31 hydroelectric plants, 2,764 MW of wind power, and 1 nuclear power plant. Interestingly, in May 2018, BPA said they were “well positioned” to ensure no impact to customers when the nuclear plant, large enough to power Seattle, unexpectedly shut down, as it has periodically over the past few years. This is a good example – if Columbia Generating Station, which generates about as much energy as the Lower Snake River dams, can go offline with minimal impacts, then our regional electric system is well positioned to continue to provide reliable, affordable service with minimal additions to the system after dam breaching..

To make sure we can maintain a reliable, affordable, and clean system without the dams going forward, we commissioned an industry-leading, rigorous analysis of other options. Using the federal agencies’ own data and analytical tools, Energy Strategies LLC, an industry-leading analytical firm, looked at how the regional power grid would respond by removing the lower Snake River dams and building a variety of clean options instead. That study found that for $1 a month per customer we could totally replace the dams’ capacity, and actually improve overall system reliability. Since the study, the continued drop in the cost of renewable generation, and the rise of clean energy policies in Washington, Oregon, and California will reduce these costs and increase climate benefits further.

Q: I have heard that the energy surplus gives agencies who are working with Idaho’s fish “more flexibility in the system to operate on behalf of the salmon and steelhead rather than just for energy purposes” how true is this? Will taking the lower four Snake River dams out decrease this flexibility?

We understand the concerns our federal agency colleagues have regarding changes if dam removal becomes a reality. We appreciate all the hard work they have done over the years — and continue to do — to help keep salmon and steelhead from going extinct. However, in looking at the current available data, it becomes apparent that removal of the lower four Snake River dams will increase flexibility in the system, not decrease it.

First, it should be noted that in the Pacific Northwest region there is a 16.9% power surplus that is predicted to continue through 2028. The lower four Snake River dams only produce about 5% of the energy in the Pacific Northwest — all of which is essentially in the surplus category. This disputes the logic in itself.

Even with the removal of the lower four Snake River dams, our region is predicted to remain at energy surplus levels until 2026. If the surplus is what is giving agencies relief, no immediate impacts would occur and there would be plenty of time to plan for future relief. On that note, BPA already has plans in their queue to replace and far exceed the energy produced by the lower four Snake River dams.

Q: How vital is the Port of Lewiston to grain growers on the Palouse and Camas Prairie?

There are three different ways that growers can export goods in the Palouse area: railcar, barge, and truck. Farmers in the Lewiston area can use any of the three, but barge is generally the least expensive, and most used option. Rail is not currently significantly more expensive, but farmers worry about what increases to rail shipping rates if they no longer need to compete with barging. The Port of Lewiston is one of several grain shipping terminals that farmers in eastern Washington and Idaho use to load grain from trucks onto barges.

That being said, much of Lewiston’s barge shipping is in decline. The Port no longer handles container shipping, due to a labor dispute at the Port of Portland that has continued since 2015. Grain shipping has steadily declined since the end of the Great Recession. Occasionally, the Army Corps of Engineers closes the Lower Snake River navigation channel for repairs to the dams and locks. During such times, farmers have had little problem shipping their grain by other means.

None of this is to say that the Port isn’t important for the city of Lewiston or for the farmers that use it, but that there are viable alternatives for shipping which provide the same convenience and economic benefits for farmers.

Q: Shouldn’t we do something about the sea lions?

Sea lions should be managed in proportion to their effects on the endangered fish. Careful attention to wildlife management is an important part of making sure all ecosystems are healthy and functioning.

Part of the reason that sea lions are feasting on Idaho’s salmon and steelhead is due to the hydroelectric system funneling the fish out in very concentrated and predictable areas. Sea lion populations have identified where these locations are and are able to more easily hunt for places where there is a high population density of fish. Sea lions appear to have taken up permanent residence at Bonneville Dam, where they are sheltered from the elements.

That being said, sea lions are a rather small portion of external threats endangering fish populations.

Q: What do Idaho Salmon have to do with Puget Sound Orcas?

The Orca (or killer whale) is a beloved icon of the Pacific Northwest, known for its striking black and white pattern, cultural and spiritual significance. Today, Southern Resident orcas, which live off the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, face a barrage of threats, including pollution, noise, barge traffic, oil spills – but above all else, the lack of prey. Southern resident orca only eat fish, and rely heavily on their preferred food source: Chinook salmon, the largest and fattiest of the Pacific salmon species. The largest populations of wild Chinook were once found in the Columbia River Basin, and half of those fish originated in the Snake River. Less than 5% of these historic numbers return to the basin today.

Chinook have the longest migration of any fish in the continental United States, with some fish traveling nearly 1,000 miles from the ocean to spawn in the high mountain streams of the central Idaho wilderness. To get there, they must climb to the highest elevation of any salmon species in the world, one of nature’s most spectacular feats. Although salmon encounter many dangerous obstacles on their journey, the most deadly is the dams. Chinook can account for approximately 80 percent of Southern Resident orcas’ diet. When the Chinook are not plentiful, the consequences are dire.

Southern Resident orcas are starving, and this is due to the cumulative pressures tied to lack of prey–and neither wild Chinook, nor hatchery salmon are plentiful in the Columbia Basin. If we restore abundant runs of salmon, we save the whales.

Q: How critical are ocean conditions to the survival of Idaho salmon and steelhead?

Very critical, but not exclusively. With ocean temperatures consistently rising and readily available nutritional resources becoming less and less predictable, the viability of salmon and steelhead in the ocean becomes increasingly strained.

Be that as it may, it is a disservice to salmon and steelhead not to acknowledge that we have control over other equally important factors. One of the most important things we can do to ensure survivability of salmon and steelhead is to focus on the parts of the life cycle when the fish are not in the ocean. In other words, because conditions in the ocean affect Idaho salmon and steelhead greatly, the best thing we can do is protect their lives in river systems.

Idaho is the ‘Noah’s Ark’ for salmon and steelhead in a warming world. Salmon and steelhead habitat in Idaho is known as a cold water refuge. Scientists agree that with rising ocean temperatures, cold, high mountain streams provide the best salmon and steelhead habitat in the world. It has been shown that the longer they can remain in these free-flowing river conditions, the better chance they have to survive in less-than-ideal ocean conditions.

In addition to the lower Snake River dams injuring smolts as they flush towards the ocean, the reservoirs impounded by these dams create stagnant water that disorients fish evolved to flowing rivers, and high water temperatures that slow or kill migrating fish.

Q: What about flood control?

The four lower Snake River dams have no flood control benefits, and are considered “run-of-the-river dams” which means they store very little water. Water levels in the reservoirs created by these dams can only be altered within a few feet.

Q: If this is so urgent, why aren’t you doing more?

We are doing everything that we believe moves us in the right direction to save salmon and steelhead. Saving Idaho’s salmon and steelhead is one of Idaho Conservation League’s four major campaigns. This issue has been ongoing for over 30 years and has become highly politicized, and we have learned that our best shot at saving salmon and steelhead right now has more to do with outreach, education and motivating individual action.

Despite not seeing Idaho Conservation League hosting public rallies or engaging in lawsuits on this issue, we are working on restoring salmon and steelhead every single day. We have been doing outreach and education, planning symposiums across the state, linking Idahoans to their elected officials, and working on projects to historically preserve authentic experiences with these fish. ICL has also been putting significant efforts into collaborating with groups across the state and the Pacific Northwest at large to work towards a solution.

There are more plans on the horizon, but please know that we are doing everything we can!

Q: Isn’t it too late? I’ve been working on this issue for the past 30 years and I don’t think the fish will come back in my lifetime.

This is a great question, and probably our most frequent. To which the answer is resoundingly NO — it’s not too late! There is still a great chance for recovery, but we need to act with urgency. The duration of this issue has been very frustrating and disheartening to many working to save salmon and steelhead, and rightfully so. The fact of the matter is that even though the past 30 years have been difficult, that time was used wisely to set ourselves up for success in the present day.

For example, all of the habitat restoration over the past 30 years has played an incredibly important role. Years when good ocean conditions existed resulted in a spike in return numbers and strongly demonstrate that if the fish can make it back to their pristine Idaho habitats, they thrive.

Additionally, social efforts made by those who deeply care about these iconic fish have translated to Idahoans around the state feeling the same way. In a 2018 BSU political poll, 90% of Idahoans reported caring about Idaho’s salmon and steelhead. That is a HUGE part of the process. The importance of these slow and steady victories should not be undervalued.

Finally, in addition to past important work, there have been recent shifts in Idaho’s state government. Our elected officials are beginning to take a stand for Idaho’s salmon and steelhead because they realize how important they are to the Idaho public. Idaho has been a leader in collaborative efforts to protect and fight for natural resources. Although sometimes the process takes a long time, we have been moving forward step by step. Salmon and steelhead issues are no different.

However, what will make this issue grind to a halt is if individuals discontinue their involvement. The reason this issue isn’t too late for action is because over the course of 30 years, people remained engaged. We believe that we have the power to restore these fish in this lifetime. We need to continue to show our friends, family, small businesses, and elected officials in the state that Idaho’s salmon and steelhead matter. They are a part of our identity, our economy, and our culture and history. We need to make a commitment moving forward to continue to value these iconic species.