More chinook salmon passed the Bonneville Dam fish counters this year, 920,000, than any year since the construction of the hydropower dam 20 years ago. However, the record chinook salmon count doesn't mean the fish are out of harm's way.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, the record number of fish migrating past Bonneville Dam may have more to do with ocean conditions than anything else.
Jan Hasselman, a Seattle attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, said based on consistent scientific information coming from both state and federal agencies, ocean conditions go through a predictable cycle, which currently offers the fish a favorable environment.
"Right now conditions for salmon are as good as they can be," Hasselman said.
He explained that ocean conditions will change, and when they do salmon numbers will fall off again.
Hasselman said it's hard to say how long the current ideal conditions will last, although he did note that it should be long enough for needed changes to be made. Changes that will ensure fish numbers continue to rise.
According to Hasselman, the number one issue facing chinook salmon is hydropower dams, although he did note that the fish can get past some dams, such as the dams in the Hanford Reach area.
However, Hasselman pointed to the eight Snake River dams as being a bigger challenge for the fish. In fact, he noted that this year only two female Snake River sockeye made it Red Fish Lake in Idaho this year.
Hasselman said in order to sustain a healthy population of fish in Northwest rivers, scientific data states that there needs to be a 2 to 5 percent return of natural fish every year.
"That's a healthy trend," he said. "That's enough to sustain the population...we're not even close to that."
Hasselman noted there is still a lot of progress to be made, specifically in reference to the Snake River fish populations. He said this is one reason the National Wildlife Federation supports the breaching of four particular dams on the Snake River.
Hasselman explained that the four dams the Federation would like to see breached are the dams that cause the most harm to salmon while providing the fewest number of benefits to people. He said the dams in question provide a very small amount of power and do not provide flood control or irrigation water.
Another issue facing salmon populations is the subject of summer spill. Hasselman explained there are a couple of different ways for fish to get past an enormous hydropower dam, specifically on their way downstream. The first way for fish to pass a hydropower dam is through the turbines, which he described as being the equivalent of making your way through a blender. He explained that the other way fish get past Bonneville Dam is through the spillway, which is water that is diverted around the turbines. "There is a much higher survival rate [this way]," Hasselman said.
The final method used to get fish around the turbines is for dam workers to put the fish in tanks and buckets and drive them to the ocean. Hasselman said initial data suggests this method is successful, although he said it brings up other issues such as not giving the fish a chance to transition into the ocean's salt water.
"Coming through the spillway is the best way for the fish to get past the dam," Hasselman said.
However, according to Hasselman there is talk of eliminating summer spill. He explained that officials at Bonneville Dam are saying that during the summer there are few fish migrating and that the potential profit of running the water through the turbines would be worth it.
"We disagree," Hasselman said, noting that when an animal is on the endangered species list risks, like eliminating summer spill, should not be tampered with.
. Elena Olmstead can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org