SILCOTT ISLAND – Hundreds of salmon advocates launched dozens of boats on the Snake River here Saturday in what has become an annual event to show support for breaching the four lower Snake River Dams.
Participants and organizers of the “Free the Snake Flotilla” pointed to this year’s dismal steelhead run and the curtailment of the annual harvest season on the sea-run trout as evidence a new and bold approach to salmon recovery is needed. Just more than 1,000 steelhead have been counted at Lower Granite Dam this summer, compared to a 10-year average of nearly 21,000.
The run has been pummeled by poor conditions in the Pacific Ocean for the past two years that also have wreaked havoc on sockeye salmon and, to a lesser degree, spring chinook. Wild Snake River chinook and steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and Snake River sockeye are endangered.
Breaching advocates say the $15 billion spent over the past two decades to restore spawning habitat, reform hatchery and harvest practices and to make it easier for juvenile and adult fish to pass the dams have made little difference in the face of warm sea surface temperatures.
“This river is bankrupt,” said Brett Haverstick of the Friends of the Clearwater environmental group during a short presentation before the flotilla slipped into the river for a short round-trip paddle. “There is a crisis going on here and we lack the political will to do the right thing.”
The colorful fleet included sleek flat-water kayaks, multi-person canoes, whitewater rafts, dories and a few power boats. Some were adorned with banners advocating dam removal. One sported a replica southern resident killer whale that salmon advocates claim are in danger of going extinct in part because too few salmon are produced by the Columbia River to support their winter feeding forays along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Another featured a giant sockeye salmon, the Snake River’s most imperiled anadromous fish.
Removing the dams and restoring the lower Snake to a free-flowing river would tip the scales in favor of both salmon and orcas, according to the participants. The rally is intended to demonstrate the level of support for such action.
“We have a lot of people here that are coming together in support of removal of the dams,” said Elliott Moffett of the Nez Perce Tribe and the environmental group Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment. “It’s becoming very evident that the dams are part of the problem – or the problem – and they need to be removed for recovery of the species.”
The Rev. Thomas Soeldner of Valley Ford, Wash. – a board member of Earth Ministry, a faith-based environmental group – said dam removal could transform the Snake and Columbia basin into “the largest salmon fishery in the United States.”
The retired Lutheran pastor said the planet is telling us a new environmental approach is needed.
“As long as anyone can remember we have been trying to control nature. It’s time for us to learn to live with nature and find our place in it rather than try to overcome it or manage it,” he said. “We are finding, in very difficult ways today, that it doesn’t work. There’s got to be a new way or the Earth will find a new way for us.”