Columbia River Wild Salmon Runs Face Regulatory Hurdles, Political Indifference

Ronald Holden

Think of the Columbia River’s wild salmon run as an inexhaustible Salmon Mine, says Seattle restaurateur and environmentalist Duke Moscrip. He’s written an open letter to President Trump asking for the White House to direct its federal agencies to stop stalling and restore the salmon runs.

It may be a tough sell at a time when the Trump administration seems intent on cutting back its support for public resources, from fish to National Parks.

Here’s a look at the battlefield.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration own and operate 11 massive dams on the Columbia, built over the past 80 years to generate power and provide irrigation water east of the Cascade Mountains. (Another 275 smaller dams on tributaries also provide power and irrigation.) The dams have made life (and sex!) difficult for salmon, especially, because adult salmon return from years at sea to spawn in the streams where they were born. The dams provide fish ladders to avoid blocking the fish by a solid wall of concrete, but even the best mitigation systems have had limited success. Meantime, juvenile salmon don’t take the ladders on their migration downstream; if they can’t use the dam’s spillway, they get sucked through the dam’s power-generating turbines.

The Columbia is the fourth-largest river in North America by volume (after the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the St. Lawrence), and mightiest on the west coast. It drains a watershed the size of France; its salmon run once rivaled that of Alaska’s wild rivers. Today that run is endangered.

We should never assume that things will remain constant. Before the Thames silted up, 300 years ago, 70-lb salmon were common in London. Wild Columbia River salmon, caught with spears and nets by Native Americans at promontories along the river a century ago, are today similarly threatened, according to independent organizations like Long Live the Kings.

So now comes Moscrip, a former stockbroker turned restaurateur, who wants to make sure London’s fate doesn’t befall the salmon of the Columbia River. Moscrip, a former high-school basketball star, was an early investor in Seattle’s original waterfront restaurant, Ray’s Boathouse, at a time, in the mid-70s, that restaurants serving fresh fish were an anomaly; he went on to build a series of seven chowder houses, mostly in choice seafront locations, that specialized in wild and sustainable seafood.

The situation on the Columbia River is perilous: the salmon–which provided a steady diet for Native American tribes for centuries–have fallen victim to a string of mammoth hydroelectric dams. While the dams provided the Northwest with cheap electric power (one tenth what a kilowatt hour costs in, say, New York), and allowed eastern Washington farmers to irrigate arid lands, the fish were not so lucky. Tens of thousands of families moved to cities built along the Columbia, but millions of salmon died off.

One big issue: the dams were controlled by the Corps of Engineers, which back then (and still today) sees its primary role as power generation and flood prevention. The Corps could have allowed for increased water to be spilled during the annual salmon migrations, for example, but declined repeated entreaties to do so.

Over time, too, several of the dams on the Columbia were no longer useful, especially smaller, older dams without adequate fish ladders. The obvious answer (to environmentalists and conservationists at any rate) was be to breach those dams, and that’s where things stand today. All the parties are waiting for a plan, an environmental impact statement that sets out specific actions and holds the various agencies accountable.

A year ago, environmentalists called for breaching four longstanding dams on the Lower Snake River. Doing that, they maintain, would help restore salmon habitat and, in turn, provide more salmon for human consumption as well as for the endangered population of Killer Whales in coastal estuaries that feed on the salmon.

Federal judge Michael H. Simon, who sits in Portland, last year rejected the government’s plan for offsetting the damage that dams in the Columbia River Basin pose to salmon; he ordered the government to come up with a new plan by March, 2018. Judge Simon declined to dictate specific options for the government but he noted that a proper analysis under federal law “may well require consideration of the reasonable alternative of breaching, bypassing, or removing one or more of the four Lower Snake River Dams.”

The Snake River is the Columbia’s largest tributary, and, with the system of locks maintained by the Corps of Engineers, allows ocean-going barges to navigate some 465 miles inland past eight dams as far as Lewiston, Idaho, to load grain. NBC News sent a crew to the oldest of the four dams, Ice Harbor, for a report summarizing the situation.

The hydroelectric dam building boom in the Pacific Northwest in the past century drove dozens of salmon runs to extinction and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars to try to save the fish that remain.

The notion of taking out any one of the dams on the Lower Snake river (let alone all four) would have been mind-boggling a couple of decades ago, but the falling cost of solar and wind power has changed the economics of electric power. So has the concept of locating power-generating turbines on riverbanks rather than across the entire span of the river, along with tubes (rather than fish ladders) to help salmon bypass existing dams.

Moscrip is frustrated by the endless debates, which have been going for decades. He compares exploiting the salmon resource to drilling for gold, but points out that a gold mine only lasts a decade or so whereas a “salmon mine” is sustainable indefinitely.

It can “produce $600 million worth of economic benefit to the country per year and provide 20,000 jobs without any cost to the public,” he wrote in his open letter to President Trump. The resource is endangered, however, and is headed for extinction unless the federal government acts decisively.

So Moscrip spent $4,000 to take out an ad in the Seattle Times calling on the President to take action. (So far, no response.) “It is outrageous what is happening,” Moscrip argues. “If salmon could speak, they would weep and ask why are you driving us to extinction and taking the Killer Whales with us?”

The fate of the remaining Columbia River salmon is complicated by tensions between recreational fishermen, commercial gill-netters, and Native American tribes (whose treaty rights to half the fish was reaffirmed by a federal judge in 1974). As things stand today, most of the Columbia River salmon on the market comes from tribal fishermen.

Unable to source wild Columbia River salmon for his restaurants, Moscrip’s response is for Duke’s to sell wild salmon from Alaska. And it’s not cheap. Without the hidden subsidies of industrial farming that allow McDonald’s to sell burgers for 99 cents, Duke’s has to charge $36 for an 8-ounce filet of wild Alaska salmon, substantially more than other restaurants that serve farmed fish.

Moscrip has invested heavily to promote the singular benefits of “wild” seafood. In addition to his $4,000 Open Letter, he and his executive chef have produced a handsome cookbook titled As Wild As It Gets, and his menus extol the virtues of wild seafood.
The key, says Moscrip, isn’t science but marketing. “Only 2% of the audience will understand the science, but almost everyone can understand the importance of saving the salmon. It’s an emotional connection.”

Ronald Holden is a Seattle-based food writer. His latest book is Forking Seattle.