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Idaho Salmon/Steelhead Have Seen Better Days

by Michelle Sells
Boise States' The Arbiter, February 26, 2004

Returns of Natural Fish to Idaho as counted at Lower Granite Dam As a sportsman, I have been to Riggins and seen first-hand the people who have come to depend on sport fishing for a living. This is reason number one to save our salmon/steelhead. I have also been to Black Canyon and the site of Bell Rapids in Hagerman, where anadromous fish used to be. This reason is number two to save these fish. As a state, we cannot allow the steelhead and salmon to go the way of the sockeye. These fish are a part of our heritage, as well as a significant source of our revenue.

It is estimated that Idaho and northeast Oregon are responsible for nearly two thirds of the spawning/rearing habitat necessary to support the Columbia River Basin fish population. Earlier this year, the Bush administration proposed an additional $10 million dollars of funding be added to the $90 million already annually contributed to the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund. In the past, the dollars from this fund were only granted to the coastal states of Oregon, Washington, California and Alaska. Idaho is not a costal state, and because of that, did not qualify for funding. Now, however, that may change and Idaho could benefit from this money which has been used, for the most part, to improve habitat in the lower Columbia River. And while Idaho has many suitable rivers and streams, it does not have a high rate of returning fish (when compared to the number of fish Idaho produces each year).

Several of Idaho’s hatcheries are devoted to producing steelhead and Chinook salmon smolts. These hatcheries include the Pahsimeroi, Sawtooth, and Rapid Rivers. Tom Rogers, of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, provided some round numbers of steelhead and Chinook salmon smolts produced by both state and Federal hatcheries. Idaho annually releases 7.8 to 8 million steelhead smolt and 10 million Chinook salmon.

In the calendar year of 2003, approximately 98,000 adult hatchery and wild Chinook salmon were reported at Lower Granite Dam. In the same year, adult steelhead were reported to number about 177,000 at Lower Granite. Lower Granite Dams are the last of the dams that must be crossed before reaching Idaho waters.

The McCall hatchery’s focus is on producing Chinook salmon. This hatchery produces one million smolt a year and hope for an adult return of 8,000. This is dismal return of less than 1 percent. At this rate, it will be impossible to restore a healthy population to Idaho.

It is generally accepted that the dams are responsible for a great percentage of these low-return numbers. The IDFG fishing regulation manual itself says, “Construction of dams and reservoirs on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers has been the primary cause for the decline of Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead. Dams and reservoirs have created unfavorable migration conditions, especially for smolts, the young salmon and steelhead going to the ocean” Smolts must pass these dams on their way to the ocean as well as navigate them as adults on their return journey.

Mortality rates are high. Idaho based conservation group Idaho Rivers United claim the mortality rate to be as high as 80 percent. Historically, a smolt’s journey took one to three weeks but now can last up to 3 months. Smolts navigate by following spring runoff to the ocean. Dams create warm pools that may confuse and delay a smolt’s progress. ‘ In addition, reservoirs are full of predators that smolts would not normally have to deal with in such a great concentration.

“Flushing”, a method for moving the smolt, has shown the most promise in terms of success. Through tagging, scientists now know what time of day these fish prefer to make their runs. Flushing is allowing the dam to spill over enough water to allow safe passage for a large number of fish. But, this too has proved controversial - especially in areas that suffer from drought.

The Bush administration salmon recovery strategy has focused on improving habitats, limiting harvest and hatchery operations since 2000. Dam breaching under this administration was not considered an option. In 2003 a federal judge ruled that the federal plan for the Snake and Columbia rivers violated the Endangered Species Act and ordered the Bush administration to rewrite it by June of this year.

The state of Idaho is glad to be recognized by the Bush administration and would be happy to receive a slice of the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund but it is still just a proposal and not a guarantee. The conservation groups are equally happy about the opportunity to revisit the idea of dam breaching but fear another rehash of the same old arguments. The longer these issues are debated and revisited the longer Idaho’s anadromous fish suffer declining numbers.

We have seen better fish returns in the last four years, but in 1980’s and 1990’s were particularly dismal with only about 20,000 summer steelhead and Chinook returns. Recently the Bush administration claimed improved return numbers as a victory for their management plan. Bill Horton from IDFG contends, “To call it recovery we have to get more wild fish back. The reason that numbers have improved in the last few years is due improved ocean conditions. Not management.”

In 2001, adjunct faculty member Dr. Don Reading compiled data regarding economic activity during the salmon season only. He estimated that during this brief period $46.2 million was generated in this state alone. And, this figure does not include revenues generated by the steelhead runs.

From the research, it is clear that Idaho is doing everything possible to maintain a healthy population. This state produces millions of smolt each year in the hopes that a few thousand will return, but recovery means a growing population of wild fish - not just maintaining a hatchery population. Each year, the number of wild fish that return declines. Evidence shows that the dams on the Snake River are detrimental to these populations. And yet, very little is done to solve this problem.

As a state, Idaho has a lot to lose. If these salmonoids (and the issues that involve them) are not managed properly we will loose them. They will go the way of the Sockeye and the Coho. Last year two Sockeye returned to this state -- meaning, that they are nearly extinct in this area.

Michelle Sells
Idaho Salmon/Steelhead Have Seen Better Days
Boise States' The Arbiter, February 26, 2004

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