Let’s be clear: The five conservation groups that threatened to sue the state of Idaho over this year’s steelhead season weren’t the reason Idaho anglers might not have been catching any fish this year. Blaming these groups is about as reasonable as blaming the doctor who recommends surgery for a patient in critical condition.
Idaho’s wild anadromous fish are in a last gasp for survival. All four stocks of our native salmon and steelhead are headed to extinction in spite of hundreds of millions of federally mandated dollars being spent on ineffective and inessential recovery methods that don’t address the real problem. After three decades of the most expensive species recovery project in history, including introducing billions of hatchery fish into our rivers, all our wild fish are trending downward – toward the vanishing point. The hatchery fish provide a measure of false cover for what is really going on: Fish are disappearing from our rivers. It is now known that the hatchery stocks help drive the wild fish to extinction. We could have a total collapse of the system. In fact, we almost have it now.
It is this failure of those with power over our rivers — most particularly Bonneville Power Administration — to do what is necessary to allow fish to survive that finally resulted in a season closure. Not just in Idaho but along the entire Columbia River. Fishing for salmon and steelhead on 360 miles of the Columbia is only a memory — this year anyway — and the rivers upstream from the Columbia are next in line.
The only way enough fish can make it out of Idaho’s superb spawning grounds to populate the downstream environment and then return home to repeat the cycle is if some of the concrete obstacles to their migration are removed. Since the four Lower Snake River dams produce power that is almost entirely unneeded by the grid, they are the obstacles whose removal common sense and fiscal responsibility demand. It’s long past time to consider this necessary step.
Closing, or even limiting, the sport fishing season is the last thing anybody wants. And it’s true that, in the big picture, the impact of sport fishing on wild steelhead is small. But in a crisis situation, every tiny cut is one cut too many. Every straw contributes to breaking the camel’s back.
That fishermen and women are disappointed, frustrated and angry is understandable. But their frustration needs to be turned on the government decision makers who have brought us to this insupportable fish shortage.
Not only do the dams block fish passage, but they also turn free-flowing cold water into lethally warm, murky slack in their impoundments. The Snake River from Lewiston to its confluence with the Columbia is 140 miles of seasonally tepid reservoir. Fish have a hard time locating any current and become disoriented, exhausted and vulnerable. Even those lucky 20 percent or so that survive the dams and reservoirs succumb more easily to the myriad other challenges that lie in their path.
If you want more fish in our rivers, insist that our leaders take meaningful action. Join the drumbeat calling for dam removal. Instead of fishing season closures, let’s have abundant fish in our rivers. The most effective means to restore our fish is by removing the four inessential, outrageously costly lower Snake River dams. They, not lawsuits from environmental groups trying to recover healthy fish populations, are what stand between us and a fishing future.
Gretchen Biggs is a former licensed Idaho river guide who is a part-time resident of Idaho and a full-time appreciator of wild fish.