Damning Salmon? An Ecological and Native American Perspective, Part 4

Jan 5, 2021

This week on Sustainable Idaho, we talk to Russ Thurow, a Fisheries Research Scientist for the U.S Forest Service. We discuss the current management techniques and their challenges, contextualize the current Salmon population against historical numbers and look to the future for Salmon in Idaho.  

Credit Russ Thurow releases a fish

This week, we are starting of the episode with a true story. The story of lonesome Larry. In 1992, a single sockeye Salmon made an epic 900-mile journey from the Ocean, up the Columbia and Snake rivers. Traveling against the current, he climbed over 6,500 feet of elevation and passed eight dams. Along the way, Larry managed to avoid bears, eagles, and mountain lions, before he eventually arrived in Idaho’s Redfish Lake to spawn. Sadly, when poor lonesome Larry got to the lake, he realized he was the only salmon to make it. He had no body to spawn with and he thought his arduous journey was in vain. 

Lonesome Larry’s story, illustrates the dire nature of salmon populations in Idaho. Salmon populations are teetering dangerously close to extinction. As we have explored for the last few weeks, salmon are ecologically vital and economically and culturally significant for people.

Whilst Larry thought his heroic journey was in vain, it in-fact was not. Biologists were able to capture and Milk Larry and use his sperm to fertilize the eggs of female Salmon that made it to redfish Lake in future years. However, perhaps Larry’s biggest contribution was bringing awareness to the critical need for Salmon recovery in Idaho.

To explore this issue, we talked to Russ Thurow, a Fisheries Research Scientist for the U.S Forest Service. We discuss the current management techniques and their challenges, contextualize the current Salmon population against historical numbers and look to the future for Salmon in Idaho.  

Russ started by explaining that to fully understand the dire situation surrounding the Idaho Salmon population, you first must understand the historical population. Furthermore, in order to understand recovery, we have to understand historical abundances. There is a term called the shifting baseline syndrome, which essentially means that we tend to judge our resources based off our contemporary experiences. This is dangerous because it means that we under estimate the actual production potential of salmon, as well as setting an unrealistically low recovery goal. To help give background, Russ explained that the Columbia Basin was once the most productive Chinook habitat in the world, and in 1805 Lewis and Clark wrote that the Salmon numbers were, “all most inconceivable”. If you think about the for a minute, Lewis and Clark saw millions of bison, antelope and deer when coming across the great plains, yet struggled to come up with a word to describe salmon abundances. The historic populations are estimated to be anywhere from 10-16 million adult entering the Columbia every year.

In order to understand Salmon populations, we also have to understand what Salmon need to survive. Russ told us that Salmon need Natal habitat, which is fresh water spawning and rearing habitat, an estuary and an ocean, and a suitable migration corridor to and from the ocean. Yet, while this is what salmon need, this isn’t what they are getting. Federal management agencies have coined the 4 – H’s, when trying to understand Salmon population decline. They are habitat degradation, excess of harvest, hatchery programs that have negatively impacted wild populations, and finally the hydro systems.  However, that one H is particular is the cause of the decline, that being the hydro system.

The problem is, altering or even removing the dams is a contentious issue, with a variety of stakeholders on each side of the argument. But for those trying to save Salmon from extinction, the dams leave them battling a difficult task with their hands tied behind their back. And as a result, their management efforts are forced away from the dams – the very issue that science suggest is the major problem.  

From a biological standpoint the issue is clear. The dams and their obstruction to the migration corridor is the major problem for Idaho’s Salmon. However, in Idaho, the dams are important for irrigation, recreation and for barging. Undoubtedly, this is a complex and multi-faceted issue – but this is where rigorous science works best. By unequivocally demonstrating that dams are the number one cause of Salmon population decline, science can begin to foster public and political motivation to not only remove the dams, but also mitigate against the negative side effects – such as finding irrigation solutions for farmers and improving transport links to reduce the need for river barging.

Russ has done a fantastic job in explaining the role of science within Salmon recovery. However, science is only as powerful as our ability to effectively communicate it to the public and decision makers. Next week on Sustainable Idaho, we speak to Mike Larkin, retired Idaho Fish and Game Biologist, about the practical steps being taken to mitigate the impact of dams, the role of Salmon hatcheries and the broader issue of climate change.

Thanks to Russ Thurow this week. You can listen to Russ’s full interview with Sustainable Idaho on the KISU website. Join us next Tuesday at 7.35 am for more Sustainable Idaho.