Stranding Kills 1.6 Million Salmonby Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, August 23, 2001
In the first major salmon kill caused by dam operations in a year of drought, Washington state reported that 1.6 million young wild chinook died this spring in the Hanford Reach.
The fish, part of the Columbia River's largest surviving population of wild salmon, were stranded in pools and on cobbles when the water level was raised then lowered by private and federal dams upstream meeting varying electricity demands. The Hanford Reach, which runs through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, is the longest undammed stretch of the Columbia east of Bonneville.
Washington officials said dam operators varied water levels less than usual, partly in an effort to aid fish. But the stranding-death toll was 22 times larger than last year, officials said, because of low river levels caused by drought. The volume of the Columbia River at The Dalles is projected to have been 48 percent below normal this spring and summer.
"There are shelves on the river bottom," said Craig Bartlett, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "When the river is low and it goes down a foot further, that's enough to dewater the shelves."
The fish are not listed as threatened or endangered, and the 1.6 million young salmon that were calculated killed from April 1 to June 10 are only about 7 percent of area's estimated salmon population.
But that did not make news of the death toll easier for tribes and conservationists.
"With mother nature throwing these fish the worst curve they have had in 100 years, man has no businesses adding to it," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
Any loss of Hanford Reach fall chinook is serious because they are the healthiest stock of wild salmon in the Columbia Basin and the mainstay of the river's largest surviving sport, tribal and commercial fisheries. Last year, for example, about 155,900 Hanford Reach fall chinook entered the Columbia River, or about 62 percent of the Columbia River's total 253,382 fall chinook.
Bartlett, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency does not plan any enforcement action against the operators of upstream dams, which include several public utilities and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
"It's not like we hold the hammer," Bartlett said. "But when we go in to talk about (flow) agreements for next year, what happened this spring will certainly be in discussion."
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