I've been reading about proposed fishing closures and the political maneuvering behind it, and my blood boils. Why? Because it's more about politics, who has power and who doesn't, and who has large lobbying resources.
You've heard of peak oil ... well, based on catch rates, peak salmon occurred a bit more than 100 years ago and it's been downhill ever since. Counting salmon as they pass dams indicates we're well past the peak of the bell curve, heading toward smaller and smaller numbers. Given that fishing has become more and more regulated and catch quotas smaller and smaller, what's the problem?
Back in the 1930s when Bonneville Dam was still on the drawing boards, lower Columbia River fishermen predicted the demise of salmon runs as a result of damming the Columbia. In the last 50 years, big dams plus habitat destruction and plain old poisons have taken their toll. The Bush administration's James L. Connaughton, chairman of the Whitehouse Council on Environmental Quality, however, says that hatcheries and harvest are the problem facing endangered salmon, not hydro or habitat.
More than 100 years ago, over fishing with fish wheels and fish traps made modern gillnetting look like emptying the ocean teaspoon by teaspoon. Then harvest was a problem, so farsighted people built the first salmon hatchery near Chinook. While we've learned a lot about better ways to operate hatcheries, that doesn't mean we should throw the baby fish out with the bath water. Connaughton's view isn't surprising; he is also partly responsible for the so-called "Clear Skies Initiative," that allows old coal-fired electrical plants to avoid updating their pollution control devices.
A bystander like me (who has no economic or even recreational interest in fishing) can see the obvious: Big dams kill immature salmon as they head downstream to the ocean, clearcutting leads to siltation which buries gravel beds that provide spawning habitat, and an influx of agricultural and industrial chemicals and poorly treated or untreated human sewage have all combined to damage salmon viability.
Before Bonneville Dam, the Northwest was a relatively untrammeled landscape ... except for the incredibly devastating clearcutting that ravaged the low elevation temperate rainforests of the Coast Range and the Cascade foothills. I have photos of the hills near Brownsmead where my great-grandparents arrived from Finland. The hillsides were shaved and bare of any green living thing. But salmon somehow survived.
It is really the influx of population and the growth of industrialization in the Pacific Northwest that has had the most deleterious effects. It's true that there are undammed rivers that don't have healthy runs ... but look at where they're located: heavily populated urban areas with all the related water quality impacts.
Ironically, almost everything we humans have done to damage fish runs can be reversed and the easiest steps will have the largest positive impacts. In other words, like many problems we face, there is low-hanging fruit we could pluck if we have the political will. My first choice, in terms of low-hanging fruit (as always) is the removal of the four Lower Snake dams for the following reasons: We know how to remove dams. "Stake-holders" and decision-makers are relatively small in number compared to the welter of landowners, households, and industrial plants that would need to act cooperatively to restore habitat. Finally, there are straightforward alternatives for every dam function: Grain can be transported to Washington's tri-cities by rail instead of barges, irrigation pumps can be placed lower in the river, and energy conservation could easily offset the 5 percent of the Northwest's power supply produced by the Lower Snake dams.
One argument against dam removal (like the argument against spilling water during fish migration) is that it would reduce the amount of excess power available for the Bonneville Power Administration to sell to California (which at least has strong energy conservation policies) and southwestern states (which typically don't). As long as electricity is cheap, like everything else in a market economy, there will be no incentive to change behavior.
This isn't a new controversy, but what surprises me is the stance of our southwest Washington representative to Congress, Brian Baird, who usually seems to study complex issues carefully. For a rep who is sensitive to environmental issues, he doesn't seem to have studied this one very thoroughly ... or he's bending to pressure from those who prefer leaving the lights on instead of eating fish for dinner. Of course, I have to remember that compared to the adherents of big hydropower, fishermen are low hanging fruit.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco and the daughter and granddaughter of men who fished for a living.