In a recent interview with Inlander News, Don Chapman and Steve Pettit made an appeal to President Obama to “restore science” in efforts to recover salmonids in the upper Columbia, and specifically the Snake River.
The condition of wild salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin is “dire” according to these two retired fish biologists who have spent their careers, sometimes on the opposite side the issue, but have come together to speak directly to government to pay attention to the science of salmon recovery and put that information into actions that will actually restore the wild runs.
Recent large runs of sockeye, summer steelhead, and fall chinook have returned to the Snake and there has been a lot of excitement among government agencies and fishers about the success of measures to save the salmon. In 2002, a similar large run of hatchery fish swarmed into the Columbia, creating a wave of optimism that the worst was behind us. Little was said officially about the condition of the wild runs, which continue to be plagued by low survival rates.
It makes sense, doesn’t it, that when on an annual basis millions of hatchery smolts are released from federally funded hatcheries, that when these fish enter a productive ocean environment that there survival is high and large returns of adults come a few years later.
What is not stated by the government agencies is that for wild runs to take advantage of periodic high survival rates in the ocean, it takes several years to make a difference in the adult returns. Even though wild smolts have a higher survival rate than hatchery smolts, there are a lot fewer of the wild smolts entering the ocean. A high survival in one or two years means that more wild spawners reach their natal rivers to spawn, but it takes them longer to increase the number of smolts entering the ocean. Compared to hatchery fish that have an instant response to improved ocean conditions, the wild runs take several run years to rebuild.
In addition to this lag time in their ability to respond to a favorable ocean environment, the wild smolts are plagued by high mortality rates due to many factors including passage at the dams, predation in the reservoirs and harvest mortality in the ocean and in river fisheries.
Chapman said the wild salmon are just two percent of what use to return to the Snake River. All the “cheery” and “misleading” stories about Snake River salmon returns over looks a single critical factor: “Those record numbers are hatchery fish.” The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is recovery of wild salmon and steelhead not farmed hatchery fish released by huge factory hatcheries in the basin.
Salmon recovery in the Snake River means that survival of smolt to adult return of two percent to six percent is needed.
The Endangered Species Act has been in effect 19 years, but wild fall chinook, sockeye, and steelhead survival from smolt to adult is just 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent. “That is a long way from recovery,” Pettit says. In nearly twenty years, the ESA has failed in its application and mission to recover wild salmon and steelhead in the Snake River.