How not to save salmon


For centuries, killing predators was to fish and wildlife management what leeches were to medicine. By the mid-20th century, even the dullest minds in government had figured this out.

But duller minds were yet to come. Enter the administration of George W. Bush. In 2008, it is hawking control of salmon-eating birds, fish and mammals as if this were Dr. Kickapoo’s Elixir for Rheum, Ague, Blindness and Insanity.

Virtually the entire scientific community agrees that if the four nearly useless Snake River dams remain in place, Columbia and Snake river salmon stocks will go extinct. Even Bush’s National Marine Fisheries Service has admitted this. Mostly because of these dams, the system’s cohos are already extinct, sockeyes functionally extinct and 13 stocks in 78 populations are threatened or endangered.

Yet last October, the Fisheries Service released its draft Columbia-Snake salmon plan that calls for a surge in the war on predators. The surge, together with barging young salmon, increasing hatchery production and all the other bells, whistles and tweaks that have failed so spectacularly in the past, will cost $800 million every year. By comparison, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates the cost of breaching the dams at $1 billion.

There is no legal alternative to saving and restoring Columbia-Snake river salmon. The Endangered Species Act requires it. U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, who declared the Fisheries Service’s previous plan illegal in 2005, and its amended version illegal in 2006, has threatened to vacate the administration’s current plan, in which it trots out the ancient predator-scapegoats -- squawfish, Caspian terns and sea lions.

Squawfish, or “pikeminnows,” as the PC fish police have attempted to rename them, proliferate in dam-made dead-water where they eat ocean-bound salmon smolts, especially the ones milling around as they strive to figure out the nearly non-existent current, and those injured or disoriented by passing through turbines.

Although no bounty system anywhere has ever worked, the Bonneville Power Administration is funding the biggest one in history. Implementing this counter-insurgency are Oregon and Washington. “How can YOU save a salmon? Go fishing!” proclaims the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, calling to mind the equally brainless bumper sticker popular in Idaho and Wyoming: "Save a Deer. Kill a Wolf."

For your first 100 squawfish you get $4 each; then $5 each. When you hit 400 fish, the bounty rises to $8. Catch a tagged squawfish and you collect $500. Last year, taxpayers paid out almost $1.3 million in squawfish bounties. Yet the squawfish population remains healthy and stable: In 2000, bounty hunters killed 187,596 fish; seven years later they killed 190,870.

Squawfish are natives. But what are the feds and states doing about the alien smallmouth bass that also proliferate in the tepid impoundments and that also eat smolts? Nothing; they’re popular with license buyers who almost always release them.

Then there are those pesky sea lions. Because salmon out-swim them in the open sea, the fish aren’t their natural prey. But sea lions are quick to take advantage of unnatural situations. So they've learned to travel 140 miles up the Columbia River and chow down on adult salmon butting into the Bonneville dam. Last March, the Fisheries Service granted Oregon and Washington permission to annually kill 85 sea lions.

But there are also those voracious Caspian terns, which see the salmon hatcheries on the lower Columbia as the world’s biggest bird feeders. By 1998, 18,000 terns were nesting on dredge-spoil dumps. Because they were also eating wild fish, the Fisheries Service and the Corps of Engineers set about moving the colonies to another spoil dump closer to the Pacific. But the birds continued to proliferate. Now the feds plan to move them yet again, this time to six new locations, including an island the Corps will build for them on an inland reservoir. Projected cost for the first year: $2.4 million.

Suppose the Bush administration prevails against squawfish, sea lions and terns. Is it then going to pacify the rest of nature? Will it attack cormorants, which eat more smolts than sea lions and terns combined? And what about orcas and those smolt-swilling walleyes and coastal cutthroat trout?

One gets the impression that if seismic activity threatened an obsolete dam, our federal government would try to rearrange earth’s tectonic plates. On the Snake River, we can save dams or salmon -- not both. The administration knows this. Its war on predators is based on deception. There can be no end and no victory.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine and lives in Vermont.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

May 15, 2008 03:03 PM

Your comment begining with "virtually the entire scientific community" thinks the Snake dams should be removed is erroneous.  While no one would disagree that an unimpeded river is good for fish, credible scientists aren't calling for removal of these dams as a strategy for recovering listed NW salmon and steelhead.  Removal would only affect 4 of the 13 listed species, one of which is in a safety net hatchery program, and would add  5.4 million tons of CO2 to the air every year (according to an independent analysis by the NW Power and Conservation Council).  Not a very good outcome for fish, or humans for that matter! Further, harvesting of Snake River fish occurs at rates approaching 50% and is a documented factor limiting listed stocks recovery, including sockeye. If you want salmon recovery, the place to look, especially given the investments and improvements made in hydro and habitat iarenas, is hatchery and harvest reforms.

May 17, 2008 05:29 PM

You misread my piece.  I didn’t report that virtually the entire scientific community “thinks the Snake dams should be removed.”  I reported that it thinks the dams will cause Columbia/Snake River salmon stocks to go extinct.  Even the National Marine Fisheries Service has admitted this.  “Species” are not listed, stocks are listed.  Your numbers are wrong, and hatcheries are hardly “safety nets.”  Removing the dams will add no CO2.  Replacing the tiny about of energy they produce with fossil fuel and continuing to squander energy instead of conserving is what will add CO2.  I’ll grant that harvest is a factor (though a minor one compared with dams).  Finally, hatcheries are another reason salmon are in trouble.  Hatcheries abrade fins, which salmon need in the wild.  And they select for everything wild salmon aren’t--domesticity, early runs (because managers take the earliest eggs in order to fill space), tolerance of crowding, and surface feeding (which makes them vulnerable to avian predators).  Best,

Ted Williams

May 20, 2008 11:12 AM

Mr. Ted Williams,       I agree with you. I grew up in Idaho a quarter mile from the Snake.  I fished the Snake Up until I joined the Navy. I am currently stationed in Washington and have been reading/watching the news on the declining Salmon and Steelhead.  I love to fish for salmon and every year the restriction and licenses are getting worse and more expensive.  Something needs to be done.  In the military we learn to improvise, adapt and overcome.  With all the money that the tax payers put into trying to save the salmon and we need to look a different solution at trying to save a natural food source that most everyone depends on.  Nobody eats the cormorants, terns, squaw fish/pike minnow, seals, or sea lions.  There should be a bounty on all of them like the squawfish/pike minnow, especially in the areas like the Columbia river and on all big river run areas where the salmon produce the most.  All this talk reminds me of how they wanted to introduce wolves back into Idaho and I know it ticked off a lot of farmers, ranchers and hunters just save the wolf from extinction, well that worked very well and now the numbers are strong and the farmers/ranchers/hunters are at a loss to the wolves killing livestock, elk, deer etc.  Oh buy the way we don't eat the wolves either.  We also need to rid of the dams or make better fish ladders.  The salmon are just to damn important to us for recreation and food!! 

Re: How not to save salmon
Aug 14, 2008 03:02 PM
Some common sense here: First and foremost, man is just too ignorant to successfully control mother nature. That said, it's a lot better to take a series of smaller steps in the right direction than to come up with a grand plan that's bound to fail.

While Snake River dams may not be large electric generators, many of the lower Columbia dams are. Sea lion troubles do not extend to the Snake dams; Bonneville and Cascade locks - yes. When Sea lions begin to take kegged up adult fish at the dam base and in the fish ladder - which I'll argue is an unnatural situation (albeit man-made), it's time to destroy them - and this goes beyond just salmon - they also take mature sturgeon. This goes for other species that heavily congregate on an 'at-risk' species - OK like cormorants, etc.. I'd like to point out that only Stellars are still at-risk. California sea lions number near 250,000 animals along the west coast. And Pacific NW Fur Seals are also in abundant supply. We need to take a hint from the French and snails and start making trouble-maker species into food of some sort.