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By Glen Spain, Jeremy Brown, Joel Kawahara
Another serious threat to the Columbia river fishery is the proposed construction by the U.S. Army Engineers of Ice Harbor and three other dams on the lower Snake river between Pasco., Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho, to provide slackwater navigation and a relatively minor block of power. The development would remove part of the cost of waterborne shipping from the shipper and place it on the taxpayer, jeopardizing more than one-half of the Columbia river salmon production in exchange for 148 miles of subsidized barge route.... This policy of water development, the department maintains, is not in the best interest of the over-all economy of the state. Salmon must be protected from the type of unilateral thinking that would harm one industry to benefit another.... Loss of the Snake River fish production would be so serious that the department has consistently opposed the four-phase lower dam program that would begin with Ice Harbor dam near Pasco.
-- From the State of Washington Department of Fisheries Annual Report for 1949.
The Washington Department of Fisheries prediction about the devastating impact on fisheries of four more mainstem dams on the Snake River (the Columbia Rivers largest tributary) was remarkably prescient. These four lower Snake River dams (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite) were simply four dams too many. They are also economically marginal operations even as dams the relatively minor economic benefit they provide was never justified, and the economic damages they have perpetuated on west coast salmon fishing dependent communities and economies, as predicted, has been devastating. However, over the next several months, we have a golden opportunity to push for a real salmon recovery plan that does something about these problems.
The four lower Snake River dams were not built because of either good science or sound economics, but as a result of decades of persistent Congressional lobbying by Idaho development boosters and land speculators. Even the Army Corps of Engineers, in a comprehensive report in 1933, and then again in 1938, concluded that additional projects proposed for the Snake River would never even pay for themselves as projects, even ignoring major losses to fisheries damages. (1)
The lower four Snake River dams generate relatively little power (less in fact than could be saved by reasonable conservation measures), provide little or no irrigation water (only one provides any at all, and then only for about 20,000 acres that could just as easily be supplied by wells), and no flood control whatsoever. The only major benefit any of these four dams ever provided is heavily subsidized river barge transportation, and then only between Pasco, WA (the original barge terminal before the dams were built) and Lewiston, ID. Even these transportation benefits can be cost-effectively replaced by railroads which, were it not for the large federal barging subsidy, would actually be much cheaper.
The four lower Snake River dams were constructed by Congressional fiat, over the intense objections of commercial fishermen, Tribes, state agency biologists, coastal communities and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Salmon can apparently survive the impact of the four lower Columbia main stem dams, but these four additional Snake River dams were truly a short-sighted effort to harm one industry to benefit another that can no longer be justified.
Salmon declines in the Columbia have accelerated to the point where today nearly every mile of the Columbia River is impacted by dams, and nearly every stock of what was once the largest salmon river system in the world is also now under federal protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Wild salmon runs from the Columbia River, once 10-16 million strong, have been reduced to only about 2-3 percent of those numbers today (less than 400,000 wild fish). (2) Nearly half of this historical production was in the Snake River, now most of it lost behind the four lower Snake River dams. The only exception to this rule of declines are the fall chinook runs of the Hanford Reach. Not surprisingly, the 51 miles of the Hanford Reach is also the only portion of the Columbia-Snake River system still left free-flowing and undisturbed by hydropower dams.
The west coast salmon fleet once freely ranged the coasts from mid-April until at least the end of September. Unfortunately, those kinds of seasons are no more. Conservation measures necessary to protect weakened Snake River fall chinook increasingly constrain salmon fishing all the way south to below Point Reyes, California. Columbia-driven fishing constraints have also hit the Southeast Alaska salmon fishery hard, with near closures in some past years. Columbia Basin-origin salmon harvested in Southeast Alaska still account for as much as 30 percent of the total salmon harvest in that region. Washington State has also been particularly hard hit. In 1994, 1995 and 1996 there was no non-treaty troll season at all on the Washington coast, since this fishery depends in part on a mix of Columbia and Snake River stocks, and only a short spring fishery in the years 1997 and 1998. These constraints, made necessary by the continuing destruction of these Columbia-Snake River runs from loss of habitat and loss of river flows, have cost our entire west coast salmon fleet much of its economic viability.
Historically, the Columbia Basin produced an escapement estimated at 11 to 16 million adult salmon each year, with an average of 13.5 millions adults. The total personal income impacts value of these historic runs, assuming a 50 percent harvest rate and converting to 1998 dollars, was conservatively estimated as part of the analyses associated with the 2000 Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) Biological Opinion at approximately $500 million/year. (3) This bounty could have supported as many as 25,000 family wage, fishing-based jobs, added to the economies of communities all the way from Central California to Southeast Alaska. However, during the 1990s, the economic value of Columbia-based salmon fisheries dropped to as low as $2 million, only slightly improved today. (4) The difference between those two numbers -- nearly $500 millions/year at 25,000 jobs is what the industrialization of the Columbia River has cost our industry and our fishing communities.
Columbia dam-driven declines of salmon have affected nearly every salmon port on the west coast, and unfortunately will continue to do so until problems with the Columbia River dams are truly addressed. However, no fishery has been as hard hit as the once prosperous Lower Columbia gillnet fleet. The five year annual average of salmon landings in the Columbia River gillnet harvest for the time period 1920-25, for instance, was 29,771 pounds. By 1994 it was down to a mere 25.2 pounds (a whopping 99.999 percent loss), reflecting a season only open for a few hours. Though slightly improved since, thanks to better ocean conditions, no industry can survive intact with that kind of instability. Since the 1920s the once booming fishing industry in the Port of Astoria has collapsed almost entirely, and the number of fish processors in Astoria has gone from more than two dozen to one, working part time, and getting most of its product from outside the region. The impact on that community, of course, has been reflected in massive unemployment, stressed social services, an abandoned city center, massive population out-migration and devastated fishing families problems we all know far too well.
As every fishermen knows, because so many salmon stocks we depend upon intermingle at sea, our industry is regulated on the basis of weak stock management, with the weakest stock becoming the weakest link or limiting factor for all other harvest opportunities. In California, for instance, one of the weakest limiting stocks, on which many harvest constraints are based, is Snake River fall chinook, now so weak that this stock is listed as threatened with extinction under the federal ESA. In other regions other depleted Columbia-origin stocks trigger similar closures.
Snake River fall chinook range widely, far south into California waters and far north to Southeast Alaska. However, the recent Columbia-driven salmon conservation standards imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) apply to all ocean fisheries. As a consequence, salmon fishermen all the way down to Central California have experienced reduced opportunities to harvest other stocks, particularly otherwise abundant California Central Valley stocks, in order to protect south-migrating Snake River fall chinook. (5) This is because the fundamental weak stock management principles by which fisheries are governed require that the weakest stock is always the limiting factor, as the weakest link in the management chain.
The same is likewise true in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. In all four states, declines in these weakest stocks (Snake River fall chinook and others) have pulled many boats out of the water earlier and greatly shortened fishing seasons over the years. All these declines are directly traceable to the problems caused by the Columbia River and Snake River dams. The only real difference between regions is in which stock triggers which constraints. Columbia and Snake River salmon primarily contribute to northern fisheries. Snake River fall chinook, however, is an exception. This south migrating stock has long been part of the California salmon fishery.
The bitter irony is that, with recent years of relatively good ocean conditions, some of these otherwise harvestable hatchery runs are now returning in greater numbers. However, because the wild stocks are still seriously depressed in the Columbia, and will remain so until the federal agencies adopt a true salmon recovery plan, our salmon fleet still has to forego most of those harvest opportunities. This is a huge annual indirect economic loss that has never been adequately totaled, but is thought to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income each year.
There are also even more subtle indirect economic impacts that have been just as devastating to our future markets in the long run. For example, years of declining west coast salmon harvests have led to a direct decline in our overall production as well as less year-to-year reliability while consumer demand has remained strong. This has increased the opportunity for foreign salmon farms to fill this production vacuum, gain western market share, and drive down ex-vessel ocean harvest salmon prices from $5.31/lb. in 1979 to as low as $1.55/lb. in 2002. (6) Adjusted for inflation the loss is even greater.
Nor is the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to blame for most of these constraints. Weak stock management principles, required under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, is what is driving most of these harvest curtailments. The ESA only provides a mechanism for protecting and hopefully someday restoring what is left.
Restoring Snake River salmon is essential to restoring our viability as independent businesses as well as restoring economic security to beleaguered coastal communities. Mismanagement of federal power dams, partial dewatering of rivers and decades of destruction of spawning and rearing habitat in the Columbia-Snake River Basin both directly and indirectly affect the salmon fishing economy of the whole west coast, including British Columbia.
Additionally, salmon declines in the Columbia have dramatically affected fishing communities in British Columbia and Alaska. The link is migrating salmon.
Harvest of salmon from the Columbia Basins north migrating stocks generated more than $600 million (US) to the British Columbia economy as recently as 1989, and have always accounted for a large part of all B.C. salmon harvests. Columbia River fish are, in fact, the replacement fish that B.C. looks to under the Pacific Salmon Treaty in order to balance out the B.C.-origin fish harvested in the U.S. Southeast Alaskan fisheries.
When fish do not survive the Columbia-Snake River dams, British Columbia and Alaska are the biggest losers. Prior to the completion of the lower four Snake River dams in 1975, the Snake River fall chinook were far more abundant in both B. C. and Alaska than they are today. By the 1990s, however, these declines (exacerbated by poor ocean conditions) caused those Snake River stocks to plunge dramatically. This led to a massive inequity between the number of B.C.-origin fish lost to Alaska fisheries and the number available for B.C. replacement harvests targeting those from the Columbia that swim north into B.C. waters. This growing inequity was a major factor in the collapse of the Pacific Salmon Treaty and the resumption of often bitter fish wars between Canada and the U.S. through much of the 1990s.
The original Pacific Salmon Treaty had said little about efforts to conserve and protect these stocks. When the Pacific Salmon Treaty was finally renegotiated and signed on 3 June 1999, it therefore contained much stronger fish conservation standards, including a U.S. national guarantee of Safe Passage for fish to and from their spawning grounds, particularly in the Columbia.
Unfortunately, since 1999 those Pacific Salmon Treaty fish conservation provisions have been systematically ignored or violated by the U.S. through its continued failure to come to grips with massive salmon mortalities caused by the Columbia River dams, particularly in the lower Snake River. The U.S. federal governments continued negligence in addressing these problems is once again putting the Pacific Salmon Treaty at risk.
As then Alaska Governor Tony Knowles stated in an unusually blunt letter on the Pacific Salmon Treaty to the Oregon and Washington State Governors, dated 22 October 1999:
There is no question that the federal government and the States of Oregon and Washington have not come to terms with the real problems facing wild Pacific salmon: restoring the great salmon rivers of the Northwest. There is a great political and economic pressure to do nothing with the rivers and shift the political problem onto the backs of the salmon harvesters.
Scientists agree that fisheries are not causing the problems with salmon in the Northwest. Oregon biologists estimated the dams are responsible for up to 93 percent of total mortality on Snake River fall chinook. Alaska biologists note 70 percent of the river miles between the ocean and the spawning grounds for these fish have been converted to reservoirs. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) allows the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to kill 62-99 percent of the juvenile Snake River fall chinook and nearly 40 percent of the adults. Instead of Safe Passage, these wild chinook salmon must survive a killing field of dams, turbines and reservoirs. As we all know, Alaska fisheries barely scratch this salmon population, accounting for only three tenths of one percent of the human-caused mortality. Clearly, fishing is not the problem . It would be irresponsible for us to allow the salmon fishermen, who made tough sacrifices and strong commitments to save salmon in the new Pacific Salmon Treaty, to be victims of the failure to restore salmon by restoring rivers and providing Safe Passage.
The problem Governor Knowles foresaw is precisely what has happened to date. In spite of some recent strong fish returns (thanks to very good but ultimately unsustainable ocean conditions), wild salmon stocks from the Columbia continue a downward death spiral, and salmon harvests from Central California to Southeast Alaska have been progressively cut to keep Columbia River dam operations just as they are. The current Bush Administrations Columbia River Salmon Plan, in fact, allows up to an 81 percent mortality in the dams for some stocks as incidental take, all the while calling for closing out fishing opportunities to save a relative handful of these same fish.
Yet fishing is simply not the main problem. Agency biologists estimate that all commercial, Tribal and recreational fishing combined accounts for only about 5 percent of all human-induced Columbia River salmon mortality while the dams account for as much as 85 percent, and on Snake River fall chinook stocks even more.
In other words, your fishing jobs are being sacrificed so dams that should never have been built in the first place can continue to kill millions of Snake River salmon in turbines and slack water reservoirs. Meanwhile, the juvenile and adult fish mortality caused by the Columbia and Snake River dams has been virtually ignored.
The current Administration has only made things worse. As recently as June 2004, for instance, the Bush Administration has started systematically dismantling Columbia River water spill programs and other ways to flush fish around hydropower turbines and out to sea safer and faster. Abandoning the spill strategy, which is a requirement of the current Salmon Plan, will kill an estimated 15,000 additional adult fish (some of them endangered or threatened stocks) to save about 10 cents per month per Northwest household in electricity costs.
In making its economic calculations on restoration costs, the Administration also continues the practice of charging the fish (and only the fish) for water deemed lost to power production simply by leaving it in the river. No other river water users (such as irrigators or barge transportation companies) get billed for wasted water and lost power production just because some water still has to be left in the river to satisfy those requirements. The Administrations policy is all about political power and greed, not biology or fairness or true economics. The fishing industry pays the bill for these savings through diminished catches, reduced seasons and devastated communities.
The Bush Administration has vowed never to remove Columbia River dams, however obsolete or destructive, and whatever the costs of alternatives, yet it refuses to develop or fully fund any of the alternatives. Instead the Administration is undercutting salmon protections, in the Columbia and elsewhere, in every way legally possible and changing the laws requiring salmon protections where it must in order to escape that obligation (see June 2004 FN, Speaking Truth to Power: A Look at the Administrations Abysmal Fisheries Record, available on the Web at: www.pcffa.org/fn-jun04.htm).
ISSUING A NEW SALMON PLAN UNDER COURT ORDER
The federal governments Columbia and Snake River Salmon Plan was so bad, in fact, that last May 2003 it was tossed out by a Federal District Court Judge as arbitrary and capricious. This lawsuit was brought and supported by many of our commercial fishing organizations, who have helped lead the charge for salmon-based reforms in the federal hydropower system.
In other words, the federal agencies (particularly NMFS) are now under Court Order to rewrite the plan so that it passes both biological and legal muster. This process gives us a golden opportunity to convince the Administration, through public pressure and good science, to craft an effective Columbia River Salmon Plan that really leads to recovery, and which makes a meaningful difference to our industry and the future of salmon-dependent fishing communities.
There are also an increasing number of members of Congress, from both political parties, who see the need for a stronger Columbia River salmon recovery plan as well as some serious rethinking of the Administrations current (and now legally invalid) plan. As an example, 107 members of the House of Representatives are currently co-sponsoring the bi-partisan Salmon Planning Act (H.R. 1097) to help chart out long-term Columbia and Snake River salmon solutions.
The Salmon Planning Act (SPA) can significantly inform ongoing discussions about restoring important salmon stocks in the Columbia Basin. The Act does not require the removal of any dam, but would generate reliable information about the economic, engineering, and energy implications surrounding any necessary future decommissioning or partial removal of the four lower Snake River dams (a step that many scientists say may ultimately become necessary if salmon are to survive). The Act also would provide preliminary authorization to the Army Corps of Engineers to remove these dams if federal agencies all agree that such an action is necessary. The Act would also chart out ways to protect the interests of the agricultural communities in the upper Snake Basin, and to replace barge transportation systems on the river with other comparable means of shipping products to markets. These are all reasonable steps to take in order to plan for future contingencies as well as to gather the information necessary to make truly informed decisions about salmon restoration options in the Snake River.
Last October 2003, 118 members of the House of Representatives also signed on to the bi-partisan Blumenauer-Petri salmon letter asking President Bush to ensure that all the options for salmon recovery remain on the table for discussion and analysis during the current Biological Opinion re-write process, including potential changes in the hydropower system up to and including selective decommissioning. Looking at all options only makes sense. A similar Senate letter is in preparation and needs your support.
A draft version of the new Salmon Plan is due out in August 2004 for public comments. YOUR COMMENTS ARE IMPORTANT AND WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE. When fishing industry folks tell the federal agencies who make decisions on these issues that these decisions will affect their livelihoods and their communities, it has a strong positive impact on making better policy. It also means a lot to elected public officials, many of whom are watch-dogging this process.
Here are some specific things you can do to help work for a Columbia and Snake River salmon recovery plan that improves coastal fishing opportunities, and rebuilds the future for salmon fishing dependent communities that need abundant, healthy and harvestable salmon populations from the Columbia Basin:
You can join the Columbia and Snake River Campaign mailing list by sending them an email request to: email@example.com. You can also drop them a postcard asking to be kept informed at: Save Our Wild Salmon Columbia Campaign, 424 Third Avenue West, Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98119, or call Joseph Bogaard at (206) 286-4455.
Also keep in touch with your local fishermens association for current information, or go to the PCFFA Home Page at: www.pcffa.org. And also, as always, subscribe and read Fishermens News and other industry trade publications to help keep yourself better informed on this and other important fishing industry issues.
The voice of the fishing industry is important! Make sure it is heard! Let people know how Columbia and Snake River salmon declines have affected fishing industry livelihoods and communities from California to Alaska. Lets demand that the federal agencies who got us into this mess move forward on fair, effective and lasting solutions.
Glen Spain is the Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens Associations (PCFFA), the west coasts largest organization of commercial fishing families, and has been working for more than 17 years on west coast salmon protection issues. The PCFFA Northwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone to (541)689-2000. PCFFAs web site is at: www.pcffa.org.
Jeremy Brown (email@example.com) is a salmon troller and longliner from Bellingham, WA. He is active in several commercial fishing and conservation organizations and a 2002 Food and Society Policy Fellow.
Joel Kawahara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a long-time salmon troller working off the west coast and a Board member of the Washington Trollers and Alaska Trollers Associations. He is also one of the fishing industry Board members of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.
Footnotes to Above:
(1) For a history of the Snake River dams project, read River of Life, Channel of Death, by Keith C. Peterson (1995, Confluence Press, Inc.). The Corps of Engineers studies are cited at pages 88-90.
(2) Northwest Power Planning Council, March 1996.
(3) Radtke, H.D., Davis, S.W., Johnson, R.L., Anadromous Fish Economic Analysis, Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District, June 1999.
(5) Preseason Report III, Analysis of Council Adopted Management Measures, April 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, Pacific Fisheries Management Council, Portland, Oregon.
(6) Review of 2002 Ocean Salmon Fisheries, Pacific Fisheries Management Council, Portland, Oregon, February 2003.
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