By Doug Austen and Helen Neville
August 11, 2023
As policymakers debate the future of the dams on the Snake River, the American Fisheries Society (AFS), the leading fisheries professional society in the United States, and Trout Unlimited, one of the nation’s foremost aquatic conservation organizations, are compelled to set the record straight.
Public policy decisions should be grounded in the best available science. Science tells us that we must remove the lower four Snake River dams to save critically at-risk populations of wild Snake River salmon.
The basin’s native salmon and steelhead hover on the brink of extinction. Today, only 1-2% of historic wild salmon and steelhead return to the Snake River to spawn above the four lower Snake River dams. Climate change will continue to worsen the outlook for these coldwater species. Ensuring access to this high-elevation habitat is the best opportunity to promote broad-scale population recovery in the face of warming waters.
Proposals to breach the four lower Snake River dams have a long history, but the subject has become more critical as these populations approach important extinction risk indicators, as emphasized in a 2021 report by the Nez Perce Tribe. The report warns that 42% of Snake River spring summer Chinook salmon have reached a threshold where extinction is highly likely.
AFS is a scientific organization of over 7,000 professional fishery scientists and resource managers, many of whom live and work in the western U.S. and have long-studied salmon and their declining populations.
Since its’ origin in 1870, AFS has engaged on critical policy issues that affect fisheries when the science is clear and consistent. Each AFS policy statement is grounded in decades of peer-reviewed scientific studies, considered, and voted upon by AFS’s board that represent a range of fisheries disciplines and all political affiliations.
Because the science is clear and compelling and the situation is urgent, in January, the AFS Board took action to support breaching the lower four Snake River dams.
Salmon and other anadromous fish move between the upriver spawning and rearing habitats and the ocean and back again. Because of the dams, migrating fish face a series of slow reservoirs with water that is often too warm for them, with concentrated predators at each dam; for out-migrating smolts, the trip downstream now takes 10 times as long as it did naturally, greatly exacerbating exposure to these impacts.
Fish that make it through the dams may arrive injured, stressed, and weakened, for many leading to “delayed mortality” once in the ocean.
Even when ocean conditions are favorable for their survival, the impacts of the stressful passage prove too much for these fish, which is why decades of science has pointed to the need to reduce these stressors and bolster access to coldwater habitats in the Snake River.
But why is breaching necessary — can’t we invest in alternative approaches? Restoring healthy salmon populations will require a change in approach. Since the 1980s, numerous strategies, like barging, retrofitting the dams or supplementing stocks with hatchery-raised fish, have been attempted with little or no success.
Despite spending billions on recovery, these species continue to decline, affecting both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, other imperiled species, tribal rights, and commercial and recreational fishing.
While dam removal is not easy, we urge stakeholders to pair this essential action with other innovative solutions that have been proposed to allow fish, local communities, and industries to thrive.
Notably, the Penobscot River project in Maine was accomplished by a combination of breaching, fish passageways, and increased power production for different dams, such that total hydropower production was maintained while restoring fish runs. It is possible to find solutions that support industry, communities, and fish.
As we consider the future of our Northwest salmon and the communities that rely on it, we must make decisions grounded in scientific evidence. As returns continue to decline, decision-makers at all levels must take swift and decisive action to breach the lower four Snake River dams.