Damning Salmon? An Ecological and Native American Perspective, Part 5

Jan 8, 2021

This week on Sustainable Idaho, Scott and Rachel conclude their five-part mini-series on Salmon in Idaho. Mike Larkin, retired Idaho Fish and Game Biologist, brings attention to what is being done to help restore Salmon populations and how climate change ties into this conversation.

Credit USBR.GOV

Last week on Sustainable Idaho, we heard the striking story of Lonesome Larry. Larry was the only sockeye salmon that successfully returned to Idaho’s Redfish Lake in 1992. His story highlighted the dire state of salmon populations within Idaho, and the desperate need for action.

We also sat down with Russ Thurow, a fishery research scientist for the US Forest Service, to talk about what Idaho 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. Last week, Russ made it clear that the major problem is the lack of a suitable migration corridor. Simply, this is because of the eight dams that exist along the Columbia and Snakes Rivers.

So far in the series, we have discussed what salmon need for survival, but this week we are exploring what is being done to help restore Salmon population and how climate change ties into this conversation.

Mike Larkin, retired Idaho Fish and Game Biologist, told Sustainable that we need to address two key factors, if we want to save the Salmon. The first is to remove the dams, and the second, is to tackle climate change as a society. However, both of these issues are daunting, politically sensitive and have economic implications.

We started by asking Mike, if he believe that the dams will be removed in the future?

Mike explained that environmental, social and economic interests now support Dam removal. From an environmental stand point, removing the dams would restore the river corridor and improve the ease of Salmon migration both upstream for the adults and downstream for the juveniles. From a social and cultural perspective, removing the dams and restoring the salmon run would help preserve and protect Native American culture. Finally, the high maintenance costs, including the constant need for dredging, and the improving efficiency of alternative energy sources (alternative to the hydropower produced by the dams), suggest that dam removal could save the tax payers money.

However, in the previous weeks we’ve learned that dams are important for a number of stakeholders, most notably farmers. Mike told us that farmers don’t want to lose the dams because they help provide both irrigation and a transportation (through barging).  However, Mike explained that this isn’t a sustainable situation. Although subsiding one industry can be beneficial, the dams are having drastic negative consequences and as such we need to seek solutions that both consider all stakeholders.

We also heard from Mike that climate change is threatening Salmon populations? But why?

Mike explains that climate change and role in increase water temperatures is having an effect on salmon, both in the marine and the fresh water stages of their lifecycles. In the ocean, climate change and ocean acidification is having pronounced impacts on ecosystems. Altering food webs, disrupting nutrient dynamics and ultimately affecting the food sources for Salmon. In the freshwater environment, climate change is increasing the river water temperature – and this is killing the Salmon. They need cold water to survive. And the problem is, human modifications to the river corridor, is also increasing the water temperature. As we deforest the riparian area along the riverbanks, we remove the natural shade and increase erosion, which makes the river shallower and warmer. Not the mention, the slow-moving water in reservoirs behind dams, which is also much warmer than natural river temperatures.

Right now, we are band aiding the issue of the dams and climate change by introducing hatchery fish into the system. Hatchery’s represent a temporary solution, and is currently providing the only opportunity for anglers. But this isn’t sustainable for long tern salmon survival, and doesn’t promote a self-sustaining and genetically diverse natural salmon population.  Finally, we asked Mike, what our listeners can do to get involved in this issue?

Mike stated that the most effective actions that we can take as individuals, are to write to our elected officials and make a case for the removal of dams in a manner that mitigates the adverse repercussions for farmers.

If we can give salmon a fighting chance they will return. Salmon have the ability to spawn in large numbers, we just need to give them the opportunity.

Thanks to Mike Larkin, this week. You can listen back to Sustainable Idaho and additional content, including full interviews with Mike and Russ, by vising KISU and navigating to the sustainable Idaho program link