Among outdoor enthusiasts, the Pacific Northwest is known for its iconic salmon and steelhead that once thrived in the waters of the Columbia River Basin. At the turn of the 19th century approximately 10 to 16 million wild salmon and steelhead would return to the streams, rivers and tributaries of this basin spawning the next generation. Today, they number in the tens of thousands when returning to the Snake River in Idaho – the largest tributary to the Columbia River.
The dramatic population decline has taken a significant toll on the region’s heritage and outdoor recreation communities who once relied on returning salmon and steelhead. The economic impact of recreational fishing among these four states surpasses $5.6 billion, supporting approximately 42,000 jobs. If all stakeholders would work together, just imagine the economic benefit and cultural resurgence this region would experience if we return to the wild salmon and steelhead populations of the past.
Many in the region are well aware of the challenges that exist for wild salmon and steelhead. They range from changing climate conditions, to land development, to hydroelectric dams which act as physical barriers to returning populations that need to renter the basin’s cool, clean moving waters to successfully spawn. While dam breaching can be a politically contentious topic, it also has shown tremendous success in other parts of the Pacific Northwest in restoring salmon runs.
This problem is not new. Over the past several decades approximately $16 billion has been spent to accomplish this goal with little success. The good news is, national and state leaders are looking for new solutions.
U.S. Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho’s Second Congressional District understands this challenge well. He has gone so far as to say, “I am going to stay alive long enough to see the salmon return to healthy populations in Idaho.” This bold statement is welcome news to the recreational outdoors industry, environmental interests, and for restoring the cultural significance of these species. Rep. Simpson has positioned himself as a powerful and pragmatic ally who is motivated to see a plan put into place which restores salmon populations.
Interest in tackling this issue is also on the mind of Idaho Governor Brad Little, who created a Salmon Workgroup tasked with bringing all interests together. Governor Little has stated, “Helping salmon thrive and fostering a strong Idaho economy that produces good jobs are not mutually exclusive; both need to be preserved … I remain opposed to dam breaching, but I’m confident my Salmon Workgroup will come up with new, pragmatic solutions that assure healthy salmon populations and thriving rural river communities in Idaho.”
Rep. Simpson’s and Governor Little’s interest in solving this issue is great news. We look forward to supporting all parties involved, and we ultimately believe all options – including dam breaching – must be on the table to have a comprehensive solution.
We must start the conversation now on restoring wild salmon and steelhead populations. If not, we will never restore this region’s iconic species before they are lost to history.
Danielle Cloutier is the Pacific Fisheries policy director with the American Sportfishing Association. Christy Plumer is the chief conservation officer at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
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