By Rob Masonis
The recent release of the final federal recovery plan for Snake River Spring/Summer Chinook salmon and steelhead is a milestone in the decades-long effort to reverse the precipitous decline of salmon and steelhead runs in the Snake River system. The Snake was historically the most productive region in the Columbia Basin for spring/summer chinook and steelhead, producing 40% of the Columbia Basin’s spring/summer chinook and 55% of its steelhead, and is deservedly a major focus of wild salmon and steelhead recovery efforts.
TU, with many partners, has been working for over a decade to improve habitat in Snake River Basin rivers and streams, and has a strong interest in seeing those efforts succeed in rebuilding wild salmon and steelhead populations.
We commend NOAA Fisheries and the other parties who were involved in the recovery plan’s preparation. The plan provides a good description of the current state of Snake River salmon and steelhead, identifies major threats, and lays out various strategies and actions that could contribute to recovery. However, the plan raises as many questions as it answers. It acknowledges that its recommendations are not a prescription for recovery of these species, which support multi-billion dollar commercial and sport fishing economies as well as tribal cultural traditions.
The Snake River Basin recovery plan is massive, consisting of thousands of pages. We have not yet had time to digest all of the information it contains, but a few takeaways bear emphasis.
First, it is focused on the goal of rebuilding wild chinook salmon and steelhead to the point at which they no longer require protection of the Endangered Species Act; it is not a plan to rebuild populations to abundant, resilient and fishable levels, which is a higher goal.
Second, the plan does not identify specific actions needed to delist river-specific populations of wild salmon and steelhead. Instead, it more generally describes the threats faced by wild salmon and steelhead in different areas of the Snake Basin, and the types of remedial actions that are being taken and could be taken to address those threats.
Third, the plan makes clear that while substantial progress has been made improving habitat in the Snake’s tributaries, very large fish survival improvements need to be achieved downstream as salmon and steelhead migrate through eight large dams and slackwater reservoirs on their journey to and from the Pacific.
Fourth, habitat, hatchery and harvest actions need to be better integrated so that hatcheries and harvest are managed in concert with habitat restoration to advance recovery of wild fish, not impede it.
The new federal recovery plan is a welcome step forward in the complex process of bringing back wild runs of spring and summer Chinook salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River system. While it is not a clear and detailed roadmap, it does affirm the efficacy of the types of habitat improvement efforts TU has supported and invested in, as well as the need to take a hard look at other strategies going forward.
TU looks forward to continuing to work with NOAA Fisheries, the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, the affected tribes and many other partners who share our commitment to recovering healthy, fishable wild Snake River salmon and steelhead populations. As the alarmingly low returns to the Snake River Basin in 2017 reveal, we need to move forward expeditiously if we are to succeed.