Guest Opinions

A tale of two salmon conferences, and the need for science-based solutions to save our fish

Kurt Miller
Kurt Miller

The room fell silent when U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson called for putting “all options on the table” to help restore salmon populations to Idaho. Many people were shocked and – fairly or not – walked away with the impression that his speech was an implicit call for Snake River dam breaching.

In the past four months, I’ve attended two conferences in Boise focused on restoring salmon populations to Idaho. During April’s Andrus Center Conference, referenced above, Simpson shared a powerful vision of Idaho’s Redfish Lake tinted red again with adult salmon.

When I attended the Idaho Consumer-Owned Utility Association meeting, a different sort of vision was shared. This vision encouraged us to question our assumptions about salmon and dams.

One of the keynote speakers was David Welch, a respected oceanographer and marine biologist from British Columbia.

Using the best available government data, Welch found that rivers up and down the North Pacific Coast are seeing very similar percentages of returning adult Chinook salmon. The decline in survival is everywhere – it is not just a Columbia or Snake river problem.

Welch’s research on this topic has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. That said, it is still significant because few scientists have compared salmon survival in rivers from Southern Oregon to Alaska, particularly with reference to populations in the lower Snake River.

The Puget Sound, for instance, is reporting notably worse adult return rates than the Snake River. Things aren’t much better for the Fraser River in Canada (no dams) and even pristine rivers of SE Alaska, where they are observing large declines in their runs as well. (There are many stories in the Canadian and Alaskan press confirming these trends, even as far away as the nearly pristine Yukon River).

These outcomes indicate that dams, like those on the lower Snake River, might not be the cause of struggling salmon populations after all. Something much more widespread is occurring. To quote Welch, “The salmon don’t have one ecosystem. They have multiple ecosystems, and there is so much we don’t know about what is actually happening in the ocean.”

In May, at the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission Workshop in Portland, many scientists echoed similar findings; changing ocean conditions are clearly harming salmon. Also see a New York Times article from February with the headline, “The World Is Losing Fish to Eat as Oceans Warm, Study Finds.”

On the surface, the two Boise conferences could not have had less in common – one seemingly pointed at dams, while the other clearly said we need to learn more about what is happening in the ocean. If you dig deeper, however, these conferences had important commonalities.

Both conferences brought together leaders from across Idaho, they both showed the desire of Idahoans to work together to solve problems, and they both focused on finding effective solutions that work for communities and the environment. We encourage these solutions to be rooted in science for the good of all involved.

Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit group. NWRP represents customer-owned utilities, farmers, ports and business across the Pacific Northwest, including in Idaho.

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