5 things we’ve learned about the Pacific Northwest’s endangered salmon

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20 years later, Idaho's salmon are still in danger of disappearing forever

The salmon of the Northwest are the stuff of legends. Pioneers talked of rivers so thick that they were tempted to cross on the backs of the fish. But times have changed, the fish's numbers have plunged, and 13 species were placed on the endangered species list by 1995. Climate change and our network of hydropower dams have helped thwart attempts so far to find a sustainable solution. And it's possible some of our strategies - including our reliance on hatcheries - have backfired.

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Research, tenacious advocates and $16 billion have lifted Columbia and Snake salmon from the brink of extinction, but we have yet to figure out a sustainable plan to save the fish that provide food and millions in business and ecological benefits.

Each year, young salmon and steelhead travel the many miles from the Idaho creeks where they were born to the Pacific Ocean. Mature adults make the trip in reverse, returning home to spawn. They pass through dams that generate carbon-free electricity and along rivers that farmers near Lewiston still use to ship grain to Pacific Ocean ports.

Over five months in 2017, we traveled the Northwest to introduce you to these fish, the rivers they and the region’s residents depend on, and the challenges we face together. Here is what we learned.

▪  Wild salmon are better off than they were in the late 1980s, when they were put on the endangered species list. Now, at least, there are more of them. Devices built to help salmon spill over eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers have made the trip easier. But in the past decade, the naturally spawning salmon in the Snake River Basin have not been able to replace themselves, even with good ocean and river conditions.

▪  Conditions in the Pacific Ocean aren’t stable — they change in a cycle, with some years more ideal than others for salmon. From 2014-16, a low period in the cycle coincided with an unprecedented “blob” of warm water, greatly reducing the chances of survival for salmon. Scientists say poor conditions will continue for at least the next three years. That could be enough to put Idaho’s trophy steelhead and the Sawtooth Valley’s sockeye salmon back on a path to extinction. The overwhelming majority of fisheries biologists in the Pacific Northwest say removing four dams on the Lower Snake River would be enough to reverse the downward trend for all Snake River salmon and steelhead.

▪  The Pacific Northwest has a surplus of electrical power, and those Snake River dams are not the vital energy sources they once were. But they still are critical sources of power during times of peak demand, and for backing up wind and solar plants. The Bonneville Power Administration sells the energy they produce at above the market rate, in part because of fish and wildlife mitigation costs.

▪  Managing salmon as a commodity, to be fished and consumed, has hurt their genetic fitness and their ability to adapt to a changing climate. We flood the North Pacific with less-robust fish raised in hatcheries. Our fishing methods can harm more-threatened salmon in the pursuit of healthier species.

▪  Climate change will mean warmer rivers, a smaller snowpack and less water naturally flowing through Idaho and the Northwest in the late summer and fall. Changes over the coming decades will have a profound impact on salmon, as well as our own food and power production. But high-elevation spawning habitat in Idaho may give salmon a refuge, and hope for their survival if they migrate at the right times of year and we give them an easier path.