The chinook salmon native to the Pacific Northwest are an essential part of our local ecosystem, cultural identity and ocean health, as a keystone species in our region.
Since the completion of four dams on the lower Snake River in southwestern Washington in the early 1970s, however, fall chinook populations in the Snake River have dropped by 90%. In order to mitigate the impending social, cultural and economic consequences that will come if these fish continue to die off, we must take every step possible to preserve a healthy Pacific Northwest and coastal ecosystem through the restoration of wild salmon migration routes in the Columbia Basin.
Columbia Basin chinook salmon migratory paths are deeply tied to Snake River, which meets the Columbia River in southwestern Washington. These fish begin their lives in the Snake River and then migrate downstream through the Columbia River out to the Pacific Ocean, where they mature into adults for three to five years. Once they have reached adulthood, these salmon swim back upstream through the Columbia River and into the Snake River, where they spawn and renew the cycle with the next generation.
Under current conditions, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for these salmon to survive this journey, let alone thrive. While there are numerous anthropogenic factors affecting these fish, the data shows that the four dams on the lower Snake River are one of the largest. While removing these dams alone will not solve the problem, the science supports that it will make it much more manageable and dramatically slow population decline. To prevent total extinction of the Snake River chinook salmon, and the resulting consequences, the mountainous migratory hurdle of the Lower Snake River dams must be eliminated.
There is irrefutable evidence that the presence of the four Lower Snake River dams plays a major role in the catastrophic population decline of the Snake River chinook salmon. According to a letter signed by over 68 leading scientists across the Northwest and the nation in February of this year, regional steelhead trout who do not have to pass through these four dams in their migratory path out to the Pacific and back, a migratory path which otherwise closely parallels that of the Snake River salmon, have had an annual population growth more than double that of salmon that have to cross the dams. This, among other data, has been taken as a key indicator that the Lower Snake River dams are a highly significant impediment to the survival and yearly return of the Snake River’s chinook salmon.
We must remove the Lower Snake River dams now. Not only to save the Snake River chinook salmon, but also for the sockeye and steelhead species that inhabit this river.
As a direct consequence of the dams’ effects on these keystone fish species, the ecological security of Washington’s coastal and Salish Sea ecosystems are fundamentally dependent on the dams’ removal – particularly the security of our local Southern Resident orca population. Southern Resident orcas, found along the Western Washington Coast and throughout the Salish Sea, are already at risk due to a variety of anthropogenic factors, from vessel traffic to bioaccumulation. A key threat to their survival is the rapidly disappearing chinook salmon, a species which makes up 80% of their diet. These orcas, though native to the Salish Sea, make annual migrations to the mouth of the Columbia River to feed solely on salmon migrating out from the Snake River farther inland.
In fact, there are at least 135 animal species in the Pacific Northwest which heavily depend on the health of chinook salmon populations - 136 if you include humans. The Snake River dams affect more than just salmon and orca species; they have the ability to catastrophically impact the ecological balance of both the Columbia River Basin and our portion of the Pacific Ocean, and in turn our communities that depend on ocean health for a strong economy, seafood, recreation and more.
That’s why I, in conjunction with the Sammamish Youth Board, have drafted a petition to urge our local legislators to remove the Lower Snake River dams, and why I am calling on all youth boards throughout the state to stand with us and all those communities most disproportionately affected by the issue. I call on these youth boards to sign our letter of commitment for this cause, to reinforce the importance of removing these dams in order to preserve our already dwindling regional salmon populations. Though we will have to rebuild new clean energy sources once the dams are taken down, we must remember that once the chinook salmon become extinct, we will never be able to rebuild their population.
Maanit Goel is a high school sophomore from Sammamish, Washington. He serves as the chair of the Sammamish Youth Board, and works with regional, national, and international environmental groups, including EarthEcho International, of which he serves on the global Youth Leadership Council to work to protect the world’s oceans.
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