Introduction: Many salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin will be extinct or nearly so by the end of this century, unless the region makes major changes to improve their survival. The decline of the Columbia’s once-numerous fish runs is well documented. The human activities that have caused the decline of these fish are habitat, harvest, hatcheries, and hydropower. Federal agencies have a fundamental responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to prevent extinction and foster recovery of listed species.
Status of Columbia-Snake Salmon & Steelhead: Many factors have contributed to the decline of salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia Basin. Salmon are extremely hardy, traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles from river to ocean and back. However, they require specific habitat conditions to thrive, including sufficient flows of cool, clean water; gravel beds free of sediment where they can spawn; a healthy nutrient base; and passable migration corridors.
Human activities have been taking a toll on salmon and their habitats for well over a century. Once-plentiful populations were dramatically reduced by over-fishing; the region’s canning industry reached peak production in 1920. Water diversions for agricultural, municipal, and other purposes have reduced stream and river flows. Activities such as logging, farming and urban development have destroyed spawning and rearing grounds. Polluted runoff, in both cities and rural areas, has degraded water quality. Construction of hydroelectric and irrigation dams has created barriers to juvenile salmon migrating to sea and adult salmon returning to spawn. Even hatcheries, intended to compensate for the harm caused by dams, have contributed to the decline of wild fish by introducing diseases, creating competition for food, and diluting the gene pool.
Wild salmon and steelhead runs that once numbered in the millions have dwindled to just thousands or, in some cases, hundreds. Several populations are now extinct. Twelve are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened or endangered, while several others remain reasonably healthy.
History of Salmon Recovery Efforts: Efforts to rebuild salmon in the Columbia-Snake River Basin began as early as 1877 with construction of the first hatchery. As dams were built over the next century, attempts were made to minimize their harm by including structures such as fish ladders to help salmon migrate upriver. They have been supplemented in recent years by improved river flows, spill to pass fish over dams, and barges to move salmon around the dams.
In 1980, the Northwest Power Act created a requirement for a state-directed Columbia basin fish and wildlife program to protect and restore salmon and other fish and wildlife in the basin. In 1985, the United States and Canada signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty limiting ocean harvest of salmon. The federal government has established other harvest limits to address over-fishing. Around the same time, state, local, and tribal efforts began to address habitat restoration through watershed plans.
None of these efforts proved to be enough. Intensified restoration activities began in the 1990s after three Snake River runs were declared threatened or endangered. However, in 1994, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biological opinion requiring changes in hydropower operations to aid the protected species was challenged in court and deemed inadequate.
A new biological opinion issued in 1995 established stronger protections, including increased flows and measures to improve water quality and temperature. It set a goal of adopting a revised biological opinion by the end of 1999. It also committed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare an environmental impact statement on breaching the Snake River dams. The corps issued a draft EIS in December 1999.
The 1995 biological opinion has been amended to incorporate additional protections as several other Columbia and Snake River runs have been declared threatened or endangered - now a total of 12 listed populations.
In December 1999, the nine agencies that make up the Federal Caucus released a draft of the Conceptual Recovery Plan ("All-H Paper") outlining the difficult choices the region faces in recovering listed species.
In 15 public hearings, the Federal Caucus heard from more than 9,000 Northwest citizens. Over 60,000 written comments were received on the Plan and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study and Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The Federal Caucus also consulted with the region’s Indian tribes, who have a special interest in the natural and cultural resources of the basin, especially its fish and wildlife. The message was clear. The people and governments of the region will make sacrifices to save the fish, but they want the burden to be shared and they want actions that will work.
On July 27, 2000, the Federal Caucus released another draft of the Plan (entitled "Draft Basin-Wide Salmon Recovery Strategy") to states and tribes for a 60-day technical review.
On December 21, 2000, the Federal Caucus released the final Strategy (entitled "Final Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy"). In preparing the final Strategy, the Federal Caucus considered the public comments received during the formal comment period as well as additional technical comments from the states and tribes. For a summary of the public comments and responses, along with information on state and tribal comments, see Volume 3 of the Final Strategy (125 pages, PDF, 478 kb). A summary of changes between the July 27th Draft and the December 21st Final (PDF, 250 kb) is also available.
Web page updated on May 2, 2002
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