It's time we had a real, open, honest conversation about saving our beloved salmon—and why that honorable goal does not begin and end with U.S. hydropower.
Rest assured, we believe preservation of our salmon population is a significant and worthy ambition. Salmon are essential to tribal and non-tribal communities across the Northwest, for cultural, economical and recreational needs. They play a key role in ecosystem health, from our oceans, to streams and forests.
While some vocal critics resort to a "blame the dams" approach when discussing salmon population decline, hydropower's track record in robust fish mitigation activities is fairly solid.
Did You Know?
- Thanks to hydro technologies such as fish ladders, turbine bypass systems, fish screens, spillway weirs and other technology, fish survival rates at dams are now between 93 and 99%. These rates are comparable to those of free-flowing rivers.
- We've had three consecutive years of improved salmon returns. In 2023, the numbers of spring Chinook expected back to the Columbia River tributaries are the best in a decade, due primarily to colder ocean conditions. Forecasts show Columbia River summer returns will reach 120% of the 10-year average. Bonneville Pool Hatchery "tule" Chinook are predicted to have a strong return, representing 149% of the 10-year average.
- Pacific Northwest energy ratepayers (customers of Bonneville Power Administration) have funded $7.6 billion in fish and wildlife protection since 1981. This cost amounts to roughly 24 cents of every dollar of BPA's power revenues.
So What's Harming Our Salmon?
Even 100% dam passage rates and robust mitigation efforts could be totally upended if salmon can't survive threats such as:
Hostile Oceanic Conditions
The most significant threat to salmon and steelhead relates to climate and its impact on ocean currents and temperatures. The young fish are extremely vulnerable and spend most of their lives in salt water. Warm ocean conditions shift the balance of predators and prey and expose them to deadly threats. Oceanic conditions are so critical to salmon survival that scientists predict adult salmon returns to the Columbia River based on these conditions when the young fish migrate out to sea.
A study published in the science journal Fish and Fisheries, by Dr. David Welch, revealed that Chinook salmon survival has dropped by 65%, on average, over the last 50 years in rivers along the whole West Coast of North America. Dr. Welch noted, "We were shocked to discover that the survival of salmon across British Columbia or in the Puget Sound is now as low or lower than the reported survival of Snake River populations, which everyone thought had terrible survival because of the dams." This 50-year decline in the population of salmon coincides with same timeframe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change referred to as a period of 50 years of unabated ocean warming.
Salmon need cold water to survive, and their survival is threatened when water temperatures rise above 68 degrees. The water flowing from hydroelectric dams actually stays colder than undammed portions of the Snake River Basin, according to a 2020 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
California Sea Lions
Sea lions prey on endangered salmon as they migrate up the Columbia River. Sea lions are an overabundant predator, and their population has exploded from several thousand in 1972 to more than 300,000 today. At least 1,000 of these husky salmon hunters prowl in the Columbia River's spring fish runs below Bonneville Dam. The sea lions devour the salmon we've worked to protect, despite our contentious efforts to improve fish survivability and boost dam passage rates to as high as 99%.
The fish are so commercially viable and culturally desirable that fishing restrictions often fail, due to commercial and recreational fish harvesting.
Salmon face perils from pollution, including 6PPD, a highly toxic preservative found in old car tires that is carried into waterways during heavy rains. They also face threats from insect-killing chemicals that contain carbaryl and methomyl, among other contaminants including drugs and microplastics.
As many as 14 colonies of predatory birds have been devouring juvenile salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River. They eat millions of migrating fish every year.
The Bottom Line
All of these factors are significant when addressing the health and stability of the entire salmon ecosystem. This is why we believe policymakers should consider a large-scale approach to salmon recovery, one that considers hydropower's successes and that doesn't destroy critical dams or put the bulk of financial responsibility on America's energy ratepayers.