Summer of Salmon

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

In the Pacific Northwest, the salmon is an ancient symbol of abundance. But this king of the open stream increasingly has feet of clay. Once a dominant presence in the rivers and lakes of the region, salmon are now in deep trouble.

In only a century, salmon numbers have dramatically declined, and the fish have vanished from more than 40 percent of their historical range. The present population is only about two percent of the original 16 million fish that once provided native peoples with food, wealth and a cultural identity. Some 200 salmon runs are at risk, and many species are officially endangered.

The reasons? The decline is due in part to overfishing and habitat loss through agriculture, logging and mining. But the most significant factor has been hydropower. Dams are death for salmonids. They obstruct adults on their way upstream to spawn and kill many juveniles on their way to the sea. These youngsters either die in turbines or are fed upon by other fish in the reservoirs the dams create. By impounding water in lakes, dams destroy the clean, shallow, cold, fast-flowing rivers salmon need to spawn.

For years, people have tried to make dams more salmon-friendly by installing fish ladders and carting fry around dams during migration periods. But nothing has worked. Now four species on the Snake River-the Steelhead Trout, Spring/Summer Chinook, Fall Chinook and Sockeye-have landed on the Endangered Species List. According to the environmental group American Rivers, their numbers have plunged from between five and eight million to fewer than five thousand. And without immediate action, several stocks will go extinct within the next decade.

It's either dams or salmon. Since all parties-including federal and state governments and Indian tribes-have declared that extinction is not an option, it's the dams that may have to go.

Beyond their utility, dams have been an important part of the Yankee myth of progress. To control water is to control life, but over the last several decades a new mentality has emerged. People are taking a more discriminating view: all dams are not automatically good. In many cases, the environmental costs-dead rivers-have outweighed the material benefits. It seems that people are beginning to see that using the power to harness water wisely is more important than simply having that power.
As a result, dams are coming down all over the country-some 100 in the last 40 years. Why? Keeping the dams in place is often more expensive than removing them, when you take into account the costs of modernization, dredging and general upkeep. Meanwhile the services they provide can often be replaced with more ecologically responsible irrigation and flood-control strategies. As for power, it can be used more conservatively.

The Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act compel the Clinton administration to restore the Snake River salmon, and possibly even to restore stream flow close to its historic volume. In addition, treaties with Native American sovereignties such as the Yakima and Nez Perce oblige the United States to guarantee salmon fishing in perpetuity or indemnify the tribes. If the salmon are allowed to go extinct, this compensation could amount to $6 billion by some estimates (legally, half the value of Columbia Basin salmon). This amount easily surpasses the most pessimistic estimates of dam removal costs.

The U.S. is also bound by the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada. U.S. fishermen in Alaska take fish reared in Canadian streams, and vice versa. Due to the Snake River declines, Canadian fishermen have come up on the short end in recent years. A compromise engineered in June will even out the distribution but do little to help salmon recover. More significant action is needed. That action seems increasingly to be dam removal.

Last year, scientists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service produced several reports on salmon recovery, and the most likely options for achieving it. The reports overwhelmingly cited dam removal as the single option most likely to improve conditions for all populations of salmon in the Snake River.

Although science says we need to protect salmon and the law says we must, the fate of the four Snake River dams is far from resolved. A series of public hearings is underway to gain citizen input, but environmentalists definitely have their work cut out for them. Dam removal has more than its share of critics. Needless to say, the usual suspects like agribusiness, shipping, developers, public utilities and the politicians who work for them are a huge obstacle. In the end, the powers that be may have their way, keeping the dams in place and dooming Snake River salmon right out of existence.

But is crisis not the flipside of opportunity? This is a unique moment in the history of the water planet, a chance to see if we are ready to make room for endangered species and the ecosystems that support them. Let us hope that concerned parties, working together, may give these miraculous fish a chance not only for survival, but for posterity. Like the symbol of abundance that it is, maybe salmon can double as an emblem of human foresight.