Idaho’s wild salmon are headed towards extinction. This fact, though often ignored by politicians and government agencies, has been at the forefront of conservation groups’ work for decades. These groups form a coalition of non-profits strewn across the Western US with the singular, shared understanding that protecting wild salmon means preserving an ecosystem and revitalizing local communities.
Throughout US history, salmon have endured habitat destruction, over fishing, and fluctuating ocean conditions, but the construction of four dams on the lower Snake River between 1961 and 1975 has been the most destructive. Since the completion of these four dams in Eastern Washington state, sockeye and chinook salmon and wild B-steelhead numbers have dramatically decreased. According to Linwod Laughy, President of the Board of Directors of Advocates for the West, an estimated 162 sockeye salmon returned to Idaho’s Redfish Lake in 2017. This is compared to around 35,000 in 1880. Laughy also compared the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s count of 43,196 wild B-run steelhead “crossing the old Lewiston Dam on the Clearwater River” in 1962 to the fewer than 500 wild B-run trout who entered the Clearwater River last year.
The Snake River is the largest North American river that spills into the Pacific Ocean, and for many salmon, this is where life begins. Once hatched, these tiny fish emerge from the gravel and swim to the surface of the water to begin feeding as they migrate towards the sea. Adult sockeye and chinook salmon travel over 900 miles and climb 6,500 feet from the Pacific Ocean to return to their home in the Sawtooth Valley in Idaho to spawn. Idaho salmon are believed to come into contact with 137 species on their journey to and from the sea. As part of their journey, they store ocean nutrients—which forests need—in their bodies that they deposit as they swim upstream.
This vital migratory process is disrupted by the lower Snake River dams. In fact, Laughy points out that “The federal hydro system (dams and reservoirs) account for over 50% of migrating juvenile fish loss.” Another issue associated with the dams is water warming. As average summer water temperatures steadily increase, so do diseases and delays in salmon migration. Warm water also depletes the salmons’ energy reserves. The lower Snake River dams turn the river into “large, shallow reservoirs that trap the sun’s heat and warm the river until it becomes uninhabitable for salmon.” Removing the dams could help solve this crisis.
Chinook salmon are the primary food source for Resident Killer Whales that reside in the Pacific Northwest. As chinook salmon continue to die off, these populations of orcas face starvation. Most recently, these resident pods (J, K, and L) have reached an alarming 30-year low of just 75. This bleak reality came to light when a video of the Resident Killer Whale named J-35 was released. In the video, the grieving mother is shown carrying her dead calf for seventeen days through the Salish Sea.
Although difficult to watch, Laughy believes that this exposure is what it will take to “send a message” to citizens that they must take action. Laughy fervently asserts that “citizen outrage” may be the “surest” way to save Snake River wild salmon and steelhead. In an interview with Laughy, he asserted that special interest groups like Bonneville Power Administration and the Corps of Engineers are not preparing to actually solve this issue. Laughy believes that it will take a grassroots uprising of angry citizens who are willing to speak at public meetings, support litigation, challenge the lies of politicians, and use civil disobedience to recover our threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, and orcas.
One project Laughy and other grassroot activists helped form to bring attention to Idaho’s salmon is the annual Free the Snake Flotilla. Laughy says since the creation of the flotilla, four years ago, it hasn’t evolved much, but last year, more than 400 people from throughout the Pacific Northwest paddled six miles in support of Idaho’s wild salmon. With the completion of the first Nimiipuu Tribal canoe in nearly a century, this year’s event focused on tribal land and tradition. Sovereign tribes across the Northwest joined the Free the Snake Flotilla to display solidarity for a free-flowing snake river. Environmental activist Winona LaDuke also joined this year’s flotilla as a keynote speaker.
Those who argue that the lower Snake River dams are necessary for electricity have been misinformed. These dams only make up about 4% of the Northwest’s electricity and the region already produces an excess of power that goes unused. It has also been proven that replacing this minimal power with clean, renewable energy is feasible and more cost-effective. Removing the dams would also lower the financial burden on local communities who currently pay taxes for sediment management to support a private corporation that ships wheat in barges near Lower Granite Dam.
The good news is that evidence has proven that dam removal restores rivers and fish populations even faster than scientists predicted. This evidence was gathered when both small and large dams, such as Savage Rapids on the Rogue River and dams on the large Elwha River, were removed. With proper planning, the four dams along the lower Snake River could be removed and fish populations rebuilt. With an increase in salmon and steelhead numbers, the revitalization of orcas and communities that depend on these ecosystems may be possible. In the words of Laughy, “We need a Standing Rock for salmon and orcas in the Pacific Northwest.”
What do you plan to do to help protect wild salmon?
Latest posts by Jessica McDermott (see all)
- Protected Status Restored for Yellowstone Grizzly Bears in Environmental Victory - January 12, 2019
- The Newly Established Patagonia National Park System - December 7, 2018
- How Top London Restaurants are Producing Zero Food Waste - November 29, 2018