As salmon die, a traveler plants seeds of rage

  • Charles Ray

    Cynthia Hunter

McCALL, Idaho - Another 1,000 miles, another month gone by. As relentless as the wild salmon he hopes to save, Charles Ray climbs into his weathered brown truck and each month travels about the same distance the fish must navigate between the Pacific Ocean and their spawning grounds in central Idaho. Many of his work days begin at 4 a.m. and end in a sleeping bag somewhere on the road.

"What keeps me going is rage," says the lanky 42-year-old former logger and electrician, a native Tennessean who first came to Idaho in 1976 to work for the U.S. Forest Service. "I'm not willing to stand along the Salmon River 10 years from now and explain to my kids why there are no salmon in the Salmon River."

For the past three years, Ray has spearheaded the Wild Salmon Project for Idaho Rivers United, a nonprofit organization that stimulates grass-roots attention on state and federal water policy issues.

Idaho coho were declared extinct in 1986. Ray focuses his efforts on protecting steelhead, and Idaho's four remaining strains of salmon: sockeye, on the federal endangered species list since 1991, and spring, summer and fall chinook, which were listed as threatened in 1991 and uplisted to endangered this year. These sea-going freshwater fish, known to travel as far as Japan, are dying from threats in their own backyard waters.

On his two-lane journeys across Idaho, often accompanied by his 11-year-old son Alex, Ray speaks about salmon with anyone who will listen: potato and sugar beet farmers in Twin Falls, party-goers in wealthy Ketchum, fly-fishers on eastern Idaho's Upper Snake River, town groups in Challis, elementary schoolers in Boise. He struggles to rout modern salmon myths that he's heard so often he can recite by heart: "It's too late to save them. It'll cost too much to save them, we can't afford it. They've been driven to extinction from over-fishing by the Indians, commercial fishermen, or Asian drift-net fishermen. We don't know what to do to save them."

Fifty years ago, before the construction of eight dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers, 10 million to 16 million wild salmon and steelhead entered the mouth of the Columbia to spawn, according to the Northwest Power Planning Council.

About half were headed to Idaho. Some 970 miles from the Pacific, crimson tides of 10,000 sockeye returned to their namesake Redfish Lake in the Stanley Basin north of Sun Valley. The runs provided the state with an important sport fishery, embodied Native American life and religion, and served as an essential link in the food chain for other wildlife.

Today, because of declining salmon populations, the state has not had a general statewide sport-fishing season for salmon since 1978. The tribal fishery is severely restricted. Many birds and mammals have lost an important food source. In 1994, fewer than 4,000 spring and summer chinook returned to Idaho. About a third of those were wild fish.

At Redfish Lake, candlelight vigils are held each year for the few sockeye who survive the journey home. Of seven Idaho lakes (five in the Stanley Basin) that once bore sockeye, only Redfish still sustains an annual run of salmon. In 1992, one sockeye returned to Redfish Lake; in 1993, eight; in 1994, one.

(Seventeen adults reared in captivity were put back in Redfish Lake at the vigil this year. And the captive breeding program has produced 12,000 young sockeye that will migrate to the ocean next spring.)

Ray calls it "an environmental, cultural and economic tragedy': habitat degradation, water pollution, poorly managed fish harvests, unscreened irrigation diversions and dams.

"Nearly four years after the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act, we have the lowest run in history," he says in disgust.

Many of the myths Ray battles are nurtured by the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which operates the dams, and downstream industries, including aluminum companies, investor-owned utilities, and barge shipping companies. Ray says they are "trying to squeeze every nickel of revenue out of the river system at the expense of the salmon."

Despite public perception and the near-extinct runs, he believes the fish can be saved.

"I know the fish can come back. Science and numbers tell me that, but the flame is flickering. Either we can kindle that flame or the hydropower dams will snuff it out. This is a critical year," he says. "The 1995 migration season is going to be the last until at least the turn of the century that we have a decent number of juvenile fish leaving Idaho."

Unlike other endangered and threatened species that may only deliver two offspring a year, however, the salmon has an incredible fertility rate, laying some 4,000 eggs at a time. "All we have to do is get out of their way. The salmon will do the rest."

In a theater in Ketchum, Ray stands in the dark before a projector with his tray of slides. In the audience sit about 50 local residents: members of Idaho Rivers United, concerned citizens and the curious. Ray is talking salmon as he does week after week.

"Here's what a dam looks like to a juvenile salmon (or smolt) heading downstream." With eight clicks of the slide tray, aerial views appear of dams and the reservoirs behind them. Ray explains how critical spring runoffs are now harnessed in 350 miles of reservoirs and dams. For the migrating fish, the death rate is high. Some 80 percent of juveniles perish before reaching the ocean, and 40 percent of returning adults die as they attempt to cross the dams.

Before the dams clogged the rivers, smolts could expect to reach the Pacific in seven to 10 days, riding the high-water spring runoff. Explains Ray, "To have a healthy adult population we must first get the juveniles downstream." The longer it takes to reach the ocean, the fewer smolts make it.

Referring to the reservoirs as "pools of death," Ray explains to the group in Ketchum how the smolts face delays in migration. Warmer water, pooled in the still reservoirs, leave them more vulnerable to disease and predators. They risk winding up in the turbines as they seek the greatest water flow. Additionally, these time lags disrupt a smolt's physiological transformation from freshwater to saltwater fish.

In a failed attempt to remedy the problem, BPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dams, began capturing and barging smolts around the dams in 1968. Salmon and steelhead continued to decline.

Ray strongly believes the best blueprint to save the fish is Gov. Cecil Andrus' Idaho Plan, designed by a team of Northwest biologists and hydrologists. The plan calls for changes in harvest, hatcheries and habitat, and most importantly, a seasonal release from lower Snake River reservoirs, where numbers of juvenile salmon die en route to the sea. From mid-April to mid-June, such drawdowns would increase river velocity and flush smolts through the runs more quickly.

Ray estimates that modifying the dams would increase consumer electric bills from 1 percent to 3 percent.

"We have to make a choice," Ray says. "We must choose to do all we can to save these fish, to recover them, because if we don't make that choice, the choice will be made for us: extinction."

Recently, a congressional task force headed by Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the BPA wastes millions of dollars on subsidies and a failed nuclear power program - and ignores an urgent need for action to save salmon.

The House Natural Resources task force said BPA should divest itself of fish and wildlife functions, passing them to tribal and state fish and wildlife agencies.

Ray is delighted that "someone in Congress finally had the courage to expose BPA's shortcomings." As one of the many salmon advocates who gave DeFazio a sense of the salmon crisis at hearings around the Northwest last October, he felt considerable satisfaction.

In Ray's McCall office, where the walls are adorned with salmon posters, fishing rods and a bumper sticker that reads WILD SEX FOR WILD FISH, FREE THE SOCKEYE, son Alex sits at a desk making a list of what comes to mind when he thinks of salmon.

In pencil, he writes, "Jumping up waterfalls. Big. Wishing there were enough to fish for them." When asked what about salmon is most important, he replies shyly, "Keeping them alive."

The writer is lives in Boise, Idaho, and contributes to various national magazines.

For more information contact Wendy Wilson at Idaho Rivers United, P.O. Box 633, Boise, ID 83702 (208/343-7481).

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