Writing this column was a collaborative effort by local fishing outfitter and guide Rusty Bentz and myself, in response to Steve Pettit and Richard Scully’s Aug. 14 column.
Thank you, Mr. Pettit and Mr. Scully for furthering the debate about our steelhead and chinook salmon. We all want more fish returning to Idaho waters. How best to do that remains an open question.
In the era of increasing electrical demand, it is unlikely that the lower four Snake River dams will be taken out any time soon. There is little support for Rep. Mike Simpson’s proposal among Northwest representatives in Congress, so we should concentrate on things we can influence.
Two facts are indisputable: More fish returned to Idaho in the first 14 years of the 21st century than any comparable period in the 20th century, and if we breach the four dams, we lose our ability to catch and transport smolts.
In 2001, and again in 2009, more than 600,000 adult steelhead returned over Bonneville Dam. This was no coincidence, because in 2000 and 2008, we had one of the highest percentages of steelhead smolts ever barged from Lower Granite Dam, 96 percent and 83 percent respectfully. Six years after barge modifications in the 1990s, the returning spring chinook counts went from the lowest number to the highest ever recorded.
If you believe, as Mr. Pettit and Mr. Scully do, that barging does not work, you should read an analysis dated April 9, 2020, by Joe DuPont of the Idaho Fish and Game. On Page 5 of his report, he shows where barging is better for steelhead the vast majority of the time and at no time is it worse. The same goes for hatchery spring chinook. These are the two most important fish for sportsmen in this region.
Much of what Pettit and Scully say is wrong or doesn’t make sense. Where did the early harvest rates of 64 percent for salmon and 54 percent for steelhead below Bonneville Dam come from, since there is no way of counting fish before crossing a dam. Also, according to an Army Corps of Engineers study (Water Temperature Data 1952-56), water temperatures were significantly warmer in the free-flowing lower Snake River during the summer than they are now.
As far as the smolt-to-adult ratio (SAR) is concerned, Pettit and Scully compare the John Day and Yakima rivers to fish returning to Idaho. This is not a fair comparison: The further you get from the ocean, the harder it is for fish to make it back, thus resulting in a declining SAR.
Furthermore, the wild run average from 2000-09 was almost equal to 1938-47 when only Bonneville blocked fish from returning — 117,000 steelhead versus 127,000 in the earlier period.
Our understanding of the 1983 study comparing barging to in-river migration on the Tucannon River was that some fish actually returned to the Tucannon. Even if Pettit and Scully are correct about the number of returning steelhead to the Tucannon, an 11-to-1 barged-to-in-river advantage at Bonneville Dam is eye-popping. Also, barged steelhead do stray more, but if that is so bad, why in the past couple of years have we been releasing smolts from the Clearwater drainage into the Salmon River and releasing smolts from the Salmon River drainage into the Clearwater River?
When so many steelhead and spring and summer chinook returned in the first part of the 21st century, Oregon State University did a study that concluded that hatchery steelhead were competing with wild steelhead. That study has been largely discredited, but the idea lives on with the curtailment of production of anadromous hatchery fish. Hatchery steelhead are being killed by Washington fisheries when they migrate up streams in Asotin County. It is illegal to catch a hatchery steelhead in the Grande Ronde River and not kill it. Returning adult hatchery spring and summer chinook are being killed or prevented from spawning in certain streams by Idaho fisheries.
Spilling water over the dams does not work for smolts. In 2017, one of the highest run-off years was coupled with extra spill ordered by Judge Michael Simon. The result was the worst out-migration for our smolts ever recorded, according to The Columbia Basin Bulletin. Smolts tend to travel down the center of the river and are attracted to moving water, so most went over the spillways plunging 70 to 90 feet into water super saturated with nitrogen and died. Or they were eaten by sea gulls as they lay stunned on top of the water.
The number of returning steelhead and salmon is a result of how many wild and hatchery smolts we can get to the ocean. For this to happen we need to maximize hatchery production and continue to maximize barging, which gets the smolts below Bonneville with a greater than 90 percent survival rate as opposed to a 20-40 percent if they leave them in the river. In low water years, we should be barging every steelhead and spring and summer chinook smolt. Bonneville Power just purchased more than 1,000 acres of land below Bonneville to make a sanctuary for smolts. This is the kind of action we need to return more fish to Idaho.
While we are not professional biologists like Mre. Pettit or Mr. Scully; we believe the barging argument is overwhelming. The Corps has steadily improved barging with chillers and degasification capabilities and are working on different strategies to cut down on straying. Most Corps biologists have a different view of what works than do Pettit and Scully. We share the Corps’ view.
Let us look closely at what gave us the big runs of the 21st century and try to duplicate it. It is time to move out of the 20th century thinking and let the best science rise to the top.
Dugger retired as a journeyman carpenter from Clearwater Paper. He lives in Lewiston.