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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Salmon Run for Their Lives

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Schmidt reports that the dangers facing salmon on the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest are worse than ever. Once a plentiful food source and active industry, salmon habitats have been threatened by damming, farm irrigation, ranching, and the aluminum industry, and many feel if immediate action is not taken, with all the new obstacles to their spawning grounds, their remaining days will be few.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Once again, the Pacific Northwest is apparently headed into a bitter environmental dispute. Feelings there are already raw from nearly a decade of wrangling over old growth forest, and that conflict still awaits final resolution in the courts. Far bigger stakes are at risk in the emerging struggle over wild salmon. The Columbia River Basin was once home to the world's largest salmon runs, but since the 1930s, at great expense, some of the world's mightiest dams have been built on the Columbia system to power homes and factories and water the land. As a result, salmon runs have dwindled sharply, and some are close to extinction. Federal and regional officials are scrambling to come up with plans that will save the fish in the next few months, but should they fail, the battle over salmon will probably head into Federal court. It could prove to be the most important case ever brought under the Endangered Species Act, a law which itself is under fire by those who feel it protects nature at too high a cost to humanity. From Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt has our story.

(Running stream)

SCHMIDT: As it weaves through eastern Washington, the Columbia River forms a path of shimmering blue in an otherwise austere landscape of sagebrush and coolies and barren brown hillsides.

(Running motor)

SCHMIDT: On this windy fall day, Washington State biologist Larry LaVoie moves a small boat across the choppy water. He points to dozens of Chinook salmon darting just below the surface.

LaVOIE: It's just more or less the start of the spawning season. There's a spawning red right there. You notice the gravel's been cleaned away. You might have even been able to see a fish scoot away there; there's another one there.

SCHMIDT: Each year LaVoie comes to this section of the river to count fish. The area is known as the Hanford Reach. It is the last stretch of the Columbia that still flows freely.

LaVOIE: This is the kind of habitat that salmon are used to. It's a moving river. It's got good gravels, a variety of small little habitats that the young fish can get their food on. This is - this is what's left of probably the tremendous salmon runs that historically the Columbia had.

SCHMIDT: Nowhere is the loss of salmon more evident than on the Columbia's main tributary, the Snake River. In recent years, Snake River salmon have faced brutal conditions. Their spawning streams have been damaged by erosion caused by grazing and logging. A prolonged drought has also taken a toll. But the worst killer has been the hydroelectric dams. Snake River salmon must pass 8 dams on their way to and from the ocean. It's a journey that's proved deadly. One run of salmon is already extinct, and most others are now on the Endangered Species List. Merritt Tuttle of the National Marine Fisheries Service says the situation has recently reached a crisis point.

TUTTLE: Our runs have literally collapsed in some areas. Our fall Chinook runs are down to about 300 fish. And if you can imagine, around the time of World War II, the fall Chinook runs were at 72,000 fish. Our Sockeye salmon runs in the Snake River system are down to 1 fish this year.

SCHMIDT: The pressure caused by this crisis has become a lot more intense this year. In two separate rulings, Federal courts have blasted Federal and regional officials for failing to take the steps necessary to protect and restore salmon runs. Policy makers have scrambled back to the drawing board and are now working to revise their plans for protecting the fish. They don't have much time. What may be the last viable population of salmon on the Snake River will migrate out to sea this coming Spring. Biologists warn it's crucial to protect these fish and say plans to do that need to be in place within the next few months.

(Woody Guthrie: "Now river, you can ramble where the sun sets in the sea, but while you're ramblin', river, you can do some work for me. Roll, Columbia, won't you roll, roll, roll. Roll, Columbia, won't you roll, roll, roll...")

SCHMIDT: In his songs, Woody Guthrie celebrated the era of dam building on the Columbia, an era which began 50 years ago with the completion of Bonneville Dam. Dozens more followed: Grand Coolie, Ice Harbor, John Day, Lower Granite.

(Dramatic background music and announcer: "An unshackled giant becomes a sea way to an empire. The promise of power for every corner of the Northwest. Power to make a million and a quarter acres bloom again...")

SCHMIDT: At the time, promotional films heralded the transformation of the region.

(Announcer, continued: "To bring better crops and better living to the farmers of the region. Power for the home. Good light for Billy's eyes. Electric cooking for Mother...")

SCHMIDT: But what the region did not foresee was the toll the dams would have on salmon. Each year millions are chewed up in the power generating turbines, injured and diseased at the fish ladders, or crippled by slow-moving reservoirs. Up till now, river managers have tried to protect salmon by barging them around the dams. Despite the plummeting numbers of fish, dam operators and many other river users say this is still the best way to ensure the survival of endangered salmon runs. But opponents like Tim Sterns of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of environmental and fishing groups, say putting fish into barges exposes them to disease and disrupts their ability to create an internal map that allows them to find their way home years later.

STERNS: Barging is not going to be any long-term substitute for fixing the river. And in fact it may even be illegal. If you look at the Endangered Species Act, it requires you to protect the animals' habitats. And taking fish out of the river is not a good substitute for fixing the river. You know, its advocates cling to it not so much because it works, but because it allows them to operate the system for their benefit.

SCHMIDT: Save Our Wild Salmon says major changes are needed. In the short term, the coalition wants to leave more water in the river, and let it flow through the dam's spillways rather than diverting it into turbines. This would mean less power for the region. But advocates say it would speed up the salmon's migration and reduce mortality. They also call for partially draining some reservoirs to strengthen the river's natural current, and in the long term possibly emptying them all the way, effectively disabling the power generators. Save Our Wild Salmon's vision for the Columbia is currently shared by the states of Oregon and Idaho, local Indian tribes and coastal communities. But those who oppose these proposals say such changes to the river system could literally destroy the Northwest.


SCHMIDT: Just before dusk, Bud Mercer scrambles down a rocky, sage-covered hillside and heads over to his small pump house, which juts out into the Columbia.

MERCER: There's about 5,500 horsepower here, pumps enough water to irrigate 4,400 acres.

SCHMIDT: The water Mercer takes from the Columbia has transformed his land from dry scrub into a mosaic of brightly colored fields of corn and carrots, wine grapes and potatoes. As Mercer stares out at the river, which is now wide and deep and calm, he describes with evident disdain how the area looked before the dams.

MERCER: It was the damnedest desert you ever saw. And, you know, I'd been stuck out here when I was a kid in a jeep, and we used to chase cattle out of this brush in the summer time, it was hotter than hell. You know, flies all over the place. Bad news country. A lot different now, a lot of uses here for a lot of people.

SCHMIDT: Mercer worries that some plans to save the salmon will leave his pump house high and dry. Inland ports are also against lowering reservoir levels, since it would impede upstream barge traffic and hurt commerce. The owners of aluminum smelters along the Columbia are worried, too. These huge, smoky factories use a quarter of all the power produced by the dams. Operators fear changes to the river system will send power prices skyrocketing, and push the smelters into bankruptcy. Ken Peterson is the head of Columbia Aluminum. He says there are salmon on other rivers, and it might not be worth saving them here.

PETERSON: At a certain point, the men and women who make their living in aluminum and the men and women who make their living catering to the needs of those who actually work in that industry, in the subsidiary, and auxiliary industries, are worth more than the 2 Sockeye salmon that may get to Idaho.

SCHMIDT: Nobody is saying the region has yet reached the point where salmon should be sacrificed. For now, the aluminum industry, farmers and ranchers say they're willing to do what it takes to help salmon runs recover. They just take the position that recovery is possible without major alterations to the current system. They favor a proposal put together by some of the region's top biologists based on improved barging and trucking. It also calls for additional reductions in commercial and tribal fishing. Bob Heinith, a biologist working with local Indian tribes, says that proposal is unacceptable.

HEINITH: The tribes have given, time and time again have given a lot of their resource, and they keep waiting, they keep saying when is the hydro system going to give something? When are the irrigators, are the grazers going to give something back to the system?

SCHMIDT: Heinith says the tribes have no more to give.

HEINITH: For the first time, ever, this year, there weren't enough fish for people to do their burial ceremonies, and all other types of ceremonies in their longhouses on the reservations. People are panicking on the reservation that there aren't enough salmon to have their, to carry forward their basic cultural beliefs and ceremonies. And it's a crisis for the tribal people.

SCHMIDT: The tribes say the Federal Government has a legal obligation to restore salmon runs, not just because of the Endangered Species Act but because of treaties that guarantee tribal fishing rights. But the loss of salmon has affected more than just the tribes. It's also dealt a devastating blow to commercial fishermen.

HOGAN: This is my boat. This is the Jean and Paige, named after my two daughters. It's a 28-foot tawley craft stern picker.

SCHMIDT: Gillnet fisherman Jim Hogan has been fishing the Columbia for 20 years, and has gradually watched his season dwindle from about 7 months in the early 1970s to just 18 days this year.

HOGAN: For the first time in my life I put together a resume the other day looking for some sort of job over the winter, see if I can find something to, you know, keep going until - see what next year brings. But right now it's not looking very good.

SCHMIDT: Fishermen are bitter at those who have characterized the salmon debate as one of jobs versus the environment. Merritt Tuttle of the National Marine Fisheries Service says this portrayal also disturbs him.

TUTTLE: I guess the thing that bothers me about people saying the economic cost is not worth it - it's like throwing away an industry. We have an industry that we had down through time, where people could commercially fish, people could go aboard charter boats and recreationally fish. It was the life blood of many of the coastal communities that we have throughout the Northwest.

SCHMIDT: For the time being, Federal and regional officials remain tight-lipped about the changes they're considering. If planners follow the Federal court's directive, the Northwest is likely to see expensive changes, not just to the hydrosystem but to the entire economy. Electric rates are sure to rise, and there could be even more restrictions on logging and grazing in watersheds and near spawning streams. With pressure building, something is going to have to give soon. There's already talk among some river users of urging Congress to use the emergency valve in the Endangered Species Act and assemble a "god squad" to overrule the law's requirements. The recent elections have also emboldened those who oppose major changes. The new governor of Idaho, unlike his predecessor, is strongly opposed to lowering reservoir levels. And many of those elected to Congress have promised to take a hard look at the nation's environmental laws. The results could be a major political battle, and some of predicting the salmon crisis will be the issue that blows apart the Endangered Species Act. For Living On Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.



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