Fishing Took Half of Idaho's Chinook in the 60's
by Rocky Barker
Don Chapman isn't ready to join the parade saying Columbia salmon are on road to recovery.
The retired University of Idaho fisheries biologist, has worked for both the utility industry and environmental groups involved in the salmon debate over the years. He has a historical perspective that most of the others involved in the issues don't.
He was around in the 1960s when the last of the hydroelectric dams were completed on the Snake and the Columbia rivers. He remembers the years before the closing of John Day Dam in 1968 killed tens of thousands of salmon, many heading for the South Fork of the Salmon River.
So when he reads the optimistic statements about salmon numbers coming from people ranging from industry groups, Indian tribes to outdoor writers he wants to make a rebuttal.
"Most of these kinds of statements look at the 70s or 90s as a base period," Chapman said.
The 1970s through the 1990s were the lowest populations of salmon in the Columbia Basin since time immemorial.
"And, of course, some fail to mention that only 20 to 25 percent of the returns are wild/natural fish," he adds.
But there have been years - 2001 - when returns to Idaho rivaled the years when dams were in place. Again, Chapman reminds most of the fish are from hatcheries and that these fish mostly are raised to catch and play little and sometime even a negative role in recovery.
The tall, balding professor who lives in McCall, said the fact that most people miss is that today's returns come at a time when few fish are harvested in the Columbia River. In the 1960s 50 percent of the spring chinook that were returning to Idaho were caught by fishermen.
Today the only Snake River spring chinook that are supposed to be caught are a few tribal-caught fish for ceremonial purposes and a few that die when released from gill nets and sport anglers.
So that means today's returns should be compared with the number of chinook, that were counted a Ice Harbor Dam in the 1960s, doubled. Then you have to look at how many fish die between each dam, the differences in ocean cycles and the year-to-year changes in populations inherent in fish populations.
"My point is that we all need to remember to account for lower Columbia River fishing rates when we compare recent numbers of salmon with those in the past," he said.
Chapman says it's going to take the removal of the four lower Snake Dams in Washington to save the salmon he thinks has the best chance of surviving global warming. But he doesn't know how long that will take to happen.
"I think if you want to have wild stocks for the future that are in the high elevation refuges, you are going to have to remove those dams and you're going to have to cut fishing too," he said.
Chapman's view won't please the people who oppose dam removal nor will it please the sport fishermen, tribes and others who support it since he also wants fishing cut. But Chapman no longer has a dog in the fight.
He doesn't care what they think.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs