Citing science done by many of its members, the American Fisheries Society said this week that breaching the lower Snake River dams is needed to guard against the extinction of wild salmon and steelhead in the basin and to better improve their odds of recovery.
The group’s governing board adopted the position at its annual meeting Wednesday. The Western Division of AFS approved dam breaching on the Snake last month and has done so multiple times in the past, dating back to 1999. But this week marked the first time the national organization of fisheries professionals has taken a position on the topic that has been debated regionally for three decades.
“This is a major fisheries issue and we thought we should sort of be on the table, and it was important to take a stand,” said Drue Winters, policy coordinator for the Bethesda, Md., based organization.
The four dams between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities were built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s and 1970s. They produce hydroelectric power, make it possible to ship commodities like wheat from Lewiston to Portland, Ore., and provide irrigation to a small number of farms near the Tri-Cities.
The dams were built with fish ladders that allow adult salmon and steelhead to swim upstream and reach their high-elevation spawning grounds in Idaho and parts of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. Offspring of those fish must navigate through and around the four dams and four more on the lower Columbia River to reach the Pacific Ocean, where most spend one to three years before returning.
Fisheries scientists say the dams present a number of challenges. The migration of juvenile fish is significantly slowed and they must contend with a host of predators in the slackwater reservoirs behind the dams. They also suffer injury and fatigue with each dam passing. Both juveniles and adults can be harmed by elevated summer water temperatures exacerbated by the dams. According to a statement released by the organization, wild fish numbers are equal to just 1% to 2% of historic populations. Wild populations of Snake River steelhead, spring chinook and fall chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Snake River sockeye are listed as endangered.
“Scientific studies continue to show that breaching the four lower Snake River dams would provide greater certainty of achieving long-term survival and recovery of native wild fishes more than any other measure or combination of measures without dam breaching,” reads a portion of the statement.
It notes the dams provided services that would need to be replaced and doing so will take time. The group mentioned that Pacific Northwest politicians such as Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, and Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington have weighed in on the topic with varying levels of support for breaching and or finding new ways to produce power, ship grain and irrigate crops in the absence of dams.
Winters said the society will distribute the statement to policy makers in the region and on Capitol Hill. At some point, she said the group is likely to organize a briefing to key congressional staffers in Washington, D.C.
“We would get scientists to come to talk about (the statement) and … why we feel like this is the best long-term solution for healthy and harvestable wild fisheries in the Snake River system.”
Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a report that the dams must be breached if wild Snake River salmon and steelhead are to be restored to healthy and harvestable levels.