December 21, 2023
By Dan McDonald
For the stewardship of our natural resources for generations to come, we often think of our kids, grandkids and beyond. When we talk about the next generation of Columbia River salmon, it’s approximately four years. Sadly, the undisputed science among fish biologists, fisheries experts is clear: Almost half of Snake River salmon and steelhead populations have reached near-extinction thresholds and according to NOAA, if we want to recover them, “it imperative to start taking actions immediately.”
I’ve long called on our elected leaders and the government to “fix the dam problem.” And by that, I mean remove the four lower Snake River dams. Since they were completed in the 1970s, they’ve been devastating our salmon runs and destroying the local economies that depend on them.
At long last, the Biden administration, in step with the leadership of Northwest Tribes, has put us on the right path. The recent announcement of actions and commitments represents a significant step forward to restore Snake River salmon, steelhead and other native fish.
The legal fight has spanned more than three decades. As someone who has fished these runs my whole life and built my career on recreational fishing, the value these salmon and steelhead runs hold for our region cannot be overstated. Yet the four dams on the lower Snake have made me feel like I’ve been in a race against extinction my whole life. Therefore, I’m grateful for the Biden administration’s plan for comprehensive measures for rebuilding healthy and abundant salmon populations.
Let’s not forget: Fishing is big business. In 2023, more than 930,000 anglers spent $1.6 billion while fishing Washington’s waters. My business fuels other businesses: guides and guiding services, hotels and restaurants, and gear stores and bait shops. The fishing success and values that established Yakima Bait Company extend across the region and the country, and around the world. We provide 240 jobs to many people who are right here in my own community.
I’ve been watching the fish count decline for years, bringing unprecedented hardship to the businesses that depend on them. These small businesses are family businesses, and the ecological havoc brought on by the lower Snake River dams has forced too many to shutter their doors and move on. Predictions for 2024 chinook runs have me deeply concerned. The Columbia Basin Restoration announced by the government this week give me hope.
The way forward is clear. It builds on a broad, multistakeholder effort that has been underway in the region for years, as well as on the report and recommendations from a joint federal-state process by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. I have been a part of the process myself, attending public meetings throughout the region, which have been open to farmers, irrigators, public power coops, commercial fishers, recreational enthusiasts and more. The needs of so many stakeholders require us to explore broad solutions. The conclusion that makes the most sense is to start with replacing the services that the dams provide – energy, transportation and irrigation – to ensure everyone is made whole.
Fishing is at the heart of my career, but I know how important clean, abundant and affordable energy is to us all. The agreement announced this week builds momentum for a once-in-a-generation energy transition. Energy experts agree that proposals to date for restoring the lower Snake River and removing the four aging and outdated dams will involve significant federal financial packages that would help replace and improve the services that the dams provide. Most important, with smart investments, we will be moving toward climate goals and ensure that replacement costs do not unduly fall upon public power ratepayers.
For decades, we’ve watched as some of our elected leaders take the road of least resistance. It has benefited fewer and fewer and comes at a high cost for the communities that rely on salmon runs. The time for change has come. We expect true leadership, not misinformation campaigns and fear mongering.
The lower Snake River dams have outlived their use. For just 4% of the region’s energy, they do much more damage than good. It’s no longer fiscally responsible or environmentally feasible to continue to rely on the lower Snake River dams. As a fisherman from Eastern Washington, I’m deeply grateful to the Biden Administration for its work with tribes, fishermen and conservationists to put the Northwest on the right path.
Dan McDonald is the president and board chairman of Yakima Bait Co., based in Granger, Washington. He works with his daughter; she represents the fifth-generation family connection to the company.