Photo Credit: Washington State Department of Ecology
In March 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order that directed state agencies to take “immediate” action to help the critically-endangered Southern Resident orcas and formed a nearly 50-member Southern Resident Orca Task Force (the “Task Force”). The Executive Order recognized the inextricable link between the orca and its main prey—the endangered Chinook salmon.
The Task Force released a 148-page report in November 2018, with prioritized recommendations for orca recovery (the “Report”). The recommendations and their order of importance was the result of compromise—a natural consequence of the diverse composition of the Task Force. About 20 percent of Task Force members are state agency employees. It also comprises legislators (including Debra Lekanoff), representatives of state, tribal, federal, local and Canadian governments, as well as private sector and non-profit organizations. (See the Report, pages 77-81, for a complete list of members and their affiliations).
On March 19, 2019, the Task Force met in Lacey to provide legislative and other updates on the orca, including confirmation that a rare newborn calf spotted in January is still alive. The male calf, named Lucky—officially identified as L124—was the first newborn in the pod since the death of a calf born last summer that was carried by its mother for weeks. Lucky was last seen on March 9 by the Center for Whale Research.
Even with Lucky’s survival, the 75 Southern Resident Orcas are at their lowest level in more than 30 years. These Orca usually travel in three groups—the J, K and L pods, and spend most of the year in the Salish Sea and along the outer coasts of Washington. They show obvious signs of starvation and distress, and an inability to successfully reproduce. The survival odds are low for any newborn calf. None of the Southern Resident calves born between 2015 and 2018 survived. The Task Force identified multiple reasons for decline of the orca, including scarcity of Chinook salmon, noise pollution from boats, and toxic contaminants in the Puget Sound that accumulate in salmon and concentrate in the orca.
The Task Force allowed inclusion in the Report of a “Minority Report,” if any member disagreed with the priority of recommendations or length of time necessary to implement a recommendation. Ken Balcolm, Founder and Principal Investigator with the Center for Whale Research, submitted a Minority Report regarding Task Force Recommendation 9, which requests Washington, along with Idaho and Oregon, to “establish a tribal and stakeholder process for local, state, tribal and federal leaders to address issues associated with the possible breaching or removal of the four lower Snake River dams.” (The Report, p. 49). Balcolm said, in part:
Throughout the meetings I have been dismayed that the discussion of bypass of the four Lower Snake River dams (Recommendation 9) did not get more traction, given that action would offer the most immediate and dramatic increase in returning adult Chinook salmon to the mouth of the Columbia River and Washington coast (prime SRKW foraging areas) in the shortest time (2-3 years). The 4LSR dams never should have been built and have been an acknowledged ecological disaster from their conception. I kept hoping that you [Governor Inslee] would simply initiate a phone call to LT General Semonite (the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers) to get the facts about who has the authority to order bypass of these dams, but it seems that the consensus of the Task Force was to establish a time-consuming several year stakeholder process to address issues associated with the possible breaching or removal of the four lower Snake River dams, rather than get the facts now and/or make a bold recommendation. The number one fact, who has the authority, can be answered in a phone call, but it seems that the forces against bypass want to keep everyone confused. As a result, recommendation number 9 now slips into a less meaningful timeframe and back into the quibbling that has gone on for decades while the salmon and SRKW continue to dwindle. My discussions with career salmon biologists who studied the spill option (#8) and NOAA’s own reports conclude that following that recommendation will not lead to salmon recovery, either. So it looks like the SRKW are stuck with the failed status quo.
(The Report, p. 91).
Balcolm has studied the orca for more than 40 years. His frustration cannot be disregarded. The salmon have been endangered for decades, and many salmon runs are extinct in rivers with dams—some of which are now obsolete and unnecessary—that blocked salmon from their natal spawning grounds. The Governor’s order can hardly be considered “urgent” if the Southern Resident orca become extinct before the Snake River Dam “stakeholder process” can complete its “work.”
The Salmon’s Cultural Heritage and Tradition
Salmon is not just a fish. Salmon has nourished tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years, creating a rich cultural heritage that endures even with the destruction of its abundance. Salmon evolved in the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest for millions of years. During the 10 thousand years of evolution since the last glacier, every river basin of the Pacific Northwest was a never-ending highway of salmon. Year round runs of Chinook (King Salmon), Sockeye, Coho, Steelhead, Pinks and Chum—among others—fed hundreds of animals and fertilized the entire region with the nutrients salmon carried with them from the Pacific Ocean.
Salmon are now fish out of water and out of time. Entire runs or populations are now extinct, and 13 more are listed as endangered or threatened. Since the first Pacific Northwest salmon was put on the Endangered Species List in the 1990s, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to try to prevent their extinction. And yet, they remain perilously endangered. We owe the remaining salmon a debt for the lush richness, ecological diversity and beauty of this region.
The time to repay this debt is now. There is no runway left. Millions of years of evolution in northwest streams, ten thousand years of evolution since the last glacier: Will we carelessly extinguish this icon of the Pacific Northwest and leave nothing for our children but a picture and a story?
The Decline of the Pacific Northwest Salmon: History Repeats Itself
We’ve know the reason for salmon decline for more than 150 years. It is complicated because it involves nearly every human activity in our watersheds from the headwaters to the estuaries and out to the Pacific Ocean. But the west coast salmon crisis began with the commercial salmon-canning industry, which was already in trouble in 1875 after just 10 years of operation. Fishermen and canneries had harvested far more fish then could be processed or sold, so millions of fish rotted instead of making it into a can or back to their ancestral spawning grounds. By then, the canneries had already seen a decline in salmon catch—repeating the collapse of the Atlantic salmon industry.
Wild Atlantic salmon populations also dropped precipitously following European settlement. The fur trade, timber harvesting, dams, mills and agriculture degraded freshwater salmon habitats. Beaver populations were trapped to near-extinction by 1800. Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and why they matter, Ben Goldfarb (2018).
Timber clear-cutting, log drives and lumber dams intensified stream erosion and habitat loss. Agriculture expanded, freshwater streams were channelized for irrigation, and more salmon habitat was destroyed. By 1850, more than half of Atlantic salmon runs were extinct. The Atlantic Salmon in the History of North America, R. W. Dunfield (1985).
Canned to Extinction
As in the Pacific Northwest, wild Atlantic salmon were caught, canned, exported and pushed closer to extinction. Business leaders and politicians on the west coast wanted to avoid collapse of their salmon industry, so they petitioned the United States Fish Commission (at that time there were no state fish and wildlife agencies) and asked what caused the decline of salmon and what would prevent it. United States Fish Commissioner Spencer Baird responded in an 1875 report that three things would cause the decline of salmon: 1) Excessive fishing; 2) dams; and 3) habitat change. Salmon without Rivers-A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis, Jim Lichatowich (1999).
By 1875, the Pacific Northwest industry and political leaders of the time knew the causes of salmon decline, and those causes haven’t changed. Still, they (and we) have failed to prevent it. Unfortunately, Spencer Baird’s answer to the second question—how to prevent salmon decline—led to 150 years of unintended consequences of untested fish hatchery “technology” and the persistent struggle for survival of a wild fish that already spends much of its life swimming upstream.
Baird suggested that canneries could stop west coast salmon decline with a $20,000 investment in artificial propagation (or commercial hatcheries), that would make salmon so abundant that the other problems wouldn’t matter. In the meantime, salmon runs were over-harvested, countless dams were built throughout the Pacific Northwest, and multiple links in the salmon habitat chain from the river headwaters to the ocean were altered or destroyed.
Across the Pacific Northwest, fish hatcheries have become surrogates for rivers and streams, incubating all six species of salmon. Protecting salmon came to mean producing them in fish factories. Hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon produced in hatcheries are released in the river basins of the Pacific Northwest—and it’s not working. The wild salmon were adapted to the particular environments in the rivers and streams to which they returned to spawn. For more than 100 years, hatchery fish have weakened the wild stock and reduced their numbers and size by inbreeding.
For thousands of years, the biggest component of the food base in the Pacific Northwest was salmon. The journey of the salmon back to its native spawning grounds tied the rich nutrients of the Pacific Ocean to the banks of every salmon habitat and hundreds of miles up into the mountains of Idaho. The salmon that died spawning nourished life throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Dead adult salmon provided food to small invertebrates that in turn fed newborn salmon. The benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds of marine nutrients that swam upriver every year weren’t confined to the edges of rivers and streams, or even to the animals that ate them along the way. Bears and other animals would eat a salmon carcass, and then go into the woods and spread nutrients from the fish into the mountains. You can find salmon-generated marine nutrients in alpine forests far from the stream beds in which the salmon died—spread there by animals. The salmon life history created natural richness throughout the Pacific Northwest where salmon were a biologically necessary animal. Those wild salmon are now either a memory or a story, but they no longer feed the land.
Dammed to Extinction
More than 400 dams now control the Columbia and its tributaries. It’s one of the most hydro-electrically developed river systems in the world. Some dams were built with fish ladders, or artificial rapids that allow some salmon to pass around the dams.
Others, such as Idaho’s Hells Canyon dams blocked passage to the entire upper Snake River including desert streams as far away as Nevada. The Grand Coulee Dam blocked passage to the spawning grounds of the famous “June Hogs,” 100-pound Chinook salmon that were among the largest on the planet. They are now extinct.
Above these dams, gravel bed after gravel bed lies empty, because the salmon can no longer reach them to spawn. When they closed the gates on Grand Coulee, over a third of the spawning area of the Columbia basin was totally blocked off. Five years later, the run was dead. The loss of each run is disastrous, because the salmon adapted and evolved over millennia in response to specific conditions in each river and stream. That diversity is how salmon survived and thrived throughout the region during millions of years of changing geology and climate.
Today, the once natural productivity of the Columbia River watershed has been replaced by over 170 hatchery programs. Unfortunately, in human hands, salmon are an industrial product lacking genetic diversity. They also lack the ancestral ability to survive in the ocean where they spend most of their lives. For example, salmon produced in hatcheries above the Bonneville dam rely on truck transport to make it to the Columbia river estuary. Young hatchery salmon are transported a few miles below the Bonneville dam and flushed into the river for the next phase of their life cycle. Hatchery fish released into the wild are at an immediate disadvantage because they are used to being fed at the surface. When they reach the mouth of the river, they wait at the surface for food. In doing so, they are vulnerable to nearby predators.
Human alteration of the river has actually created habitat for and increased the population of salmon predators. The 150 miles between Bonneville and the sea are regularly dredged to keep the channel open for transports and barges. Some of what’s been removed was piled near the mouth of the river and created a sandy island, which attracted the world’s largest breeding colony of Caspian Terns. Together with their young, these terns eat millions of juvenile salmon a year—mostly hatchery fish.
To protect young fish, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to build the terns an alternative island farther offshore. But that doesn’t address the 35,000 Cormorants and their very hungry chicks that have also moved to the Columbia basin to eat the hatchery salmon. Sea lions likewise relocated to the Columbia and wait below the Bonneville and at the mouth of the Columbia to feast on released hatchery fish. Billions of dollars have been used for Columbia River salmon recovery, including patrol in the Columbia by the Army Corps, trying to drive sea lions back to the sea or shooting Cormorant that feed on juvenile salmon. It’s a losing battle.
Fish that somehow make it to the open ocean and survive two to four years, return to the Columbia and swim upstream to the Bonneville fish ladders. There they pass by a window where the returning fish are counted. Generally, the returning salmon are less than 8 percent of an average run 100 years ago.
The three-dam Hells Canyon complex built in 1967 eliminated salmon from thousands of miles of streams in the upper Snake River watershed, ending the flow of nutrients from the sea. Only by removing these obsolete and underperforming dams will wild salmon be able to again fertilize the land as effectively as they once did.
Thousands of dams on American rivers are old and expensive to maintain. And many, like Savage Rapids dam on Oregon’s Rogue River, blocked salmon from spawning streams. In 2009, Savage Rapids joined a growing list of dams that have been removed, and the Rogue ran free for the first time in 80 years. Finally, the salmon and steelhead populations are returning.
Successful habitat restoration of spawning streams is a vital part of salmon recovery. In addition, removal of unnecessary dams provides opportunity for rapid and monumental change at the regional level. The four dams on the lower Snake River were constructed primarily as navigation locks in the 1960s and 1970s (Ice Harbor Dam; Lower Monumental Dam; Little Goose Dam; and the Lower Granite Dam). They disrupt migration to and from some of the healthiest salmon habitat in the Columbia River watershed, and they are unnecessary. Removing these dams would be the largest wild salmon recovery project on earth. This is the urgent action needed—with salmon and the Southern Resident orca on the brink of extinction.