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Salmon Return to Columbia-Snake

Water over the dam helps bring banner sockeye return to Columbia-Snake

This summer, the Columbia-Snake River Basin is witnessing the biggest sockeye salmon return since at least 1938. The record-breaking run has provided a boon harvest for the region’s sport and Native American fishermen.

Scientists credit favorable ocean conditions along with the court-ordered spill of water over some of the basin’s dams for dramatically swelling the ranks of fish. The increases in spill—won by Earthjustice attorneys—helps many more baby salmon survive their epic migrations from mountain streams to the sea where they grow to adulthood. Scientists also credit this spill with significantly contributing to a chinook salmon return currently 140 percent above the 10-year average.

Unfortunately, the latest federal salmon rebuilding plan for the Columbia-Snake, known as a biological opinion, would cut back spill for baby salmon and foreclose on what scientists say is an even more crucial step for the basin’s fish: breaching the lower four Snake River dams. Earthjustice, representing a broad coalition of fishing, environmental and taxpayer advocacy groups, is currently in court to win a plan to restore salmon that includes breaching these four costly and outdated dams.

For those working to restore vibrant runs of salmon to the Columbia-Snake, this year’s record salmon runs are a glimpse of what could be achieved if we follow science to protect what was once the world’s most productive salmon watershed. But increases in spill alone will not overcome the damage done to the river and restore the Columbia-Snake’s salmon.

The Columbia-Snake Basin—which includes parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Nevada—is now one of the most dammed river systems on Earth. Before the dams, sockeye runs estimates reached 3 million fish, and all salmon runs in the basin numbered between 10 million and 16 million salmon a year. Human-wrought changes to the Columbia have devastated salmon—thirteen populations of salmon and steelhead are officially in danger of extinction. The four remaining Snake River stocks are either threatened or endangered.

Expected changes from global warming—including reduced mountain snowpacks, declining spring runoff and a changing ocean—will only increase threats to salmon. For the sake of our priceless natural heritage, and for the livelihoods of salmon fishing communities from California to Alaska, it is critical that the federal government develop a new salmon rebuilding plan that uses the best scientific and economic information available. Let’s hope the good news brought by the sockeye this summer gives President Obama and Congress the confidence to bring together fishing, farming, and energy interests to tackle the crisis in the Columbia Basin and restore our wild salmon and steelhead to healthy, abundant levels.

Written in July of 2010.