It isn’t lead story, above-the-fold banner news anymore. Maybe it should be. We have salmon, a lot of salmon.
In fact, there are so many salmon headed up the Columbia this fall that the daily counts create giggles and gasps among the watchers. The fish ladders are crammed.
Consider this: As of Tuesday, 830,177 adult fall-run chinook salmon have been counted passing Bonneville Dam, the first blockade on their trip upriver, according to the Fish Passage Center. To put that in perspective, the previous record fall chinook count for an entire season, August to December, was 610,000 in 2003, better than the 584,000 in 2004. At the time, those counts made people dance. They were the largest salmon runs since counting began, when Bonneville Dam was completed in 1938. This year’s run absolutely obliterates the record, and it’s not over. Fish are still passing at a rate of 11,000 to 15,000 a day. As recently as last Thursday, 22,000 salmon passed Bonneville. That would have been a jaw-dropping daily count a few years ago, but not now. People are still talking and writing about the 63,870 fish that passed Bonneville on Sept. 9, smashing the daily record by nearly 20,000 fish.
Most of these salmon are the so-called Upriver Brights. Some are headed to the Snake River, or the Deschutes. The vast majority are destined to spawn along the very productive Hanford Reach below Priest Rapids Dam, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia, but nevertheless not free-flowing in the natural sense. Its water levels are carefully watched and controlled by releases from upriver dams to see these salmon survive.
Before the season started the experts, as they do every year, gathered and checked their stats and data and read their tea leaves, and predicted a Upriver Bright run of 434,600 fish. On Monday, reports the Seattle Times, the Technical Advisory Committee met and confirmed their latest prediction of 832,000 Upriver Brights. They were off by more than half, but I don’t think they mind. Remember when naysayers claim that only hatchery fish make this run big, the majority of those fish are wild. The fall chinook count for the entire river system is projected at 1.2 million salmon.
The question when salmon arrive in such numbers, is, how come? Salmon being the supremely political species among all fish, people provide different answers depending on their point of view. For those who have spent the last several decades toiling and spending billions to ease the passage of fish past our many dams and restore tributary habitat, the obvious answer is that they have done a very good job. Thanks to technical innovation, investment and effort dams are now less a hindrance to downstream salmon migrants than ever before. Others point to the added court-ordered spill, the sending of water over dams rather than through turbines, that began in 2006 as the most beneficial factor. Some want more spill, some don’t, and the argument will play out in federal court. Most agree that favorable conditions at sea, where salmon spend most of their dangerous lives, are a major factor. Ocean conditions fluctuate, year to year and decade to decade, and the more food for salmon the more survive to return. Things have been good lately.
Naturally, there will be those who point out that the vast majority of these salmon that bring us such joy are not listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act, and therefore the glee should be tempered by the knowledge that 13 listed species still struggle. Other runs of listed species have come in below estimates. For instance, the Columbia steelhead run was predicted at 322,000 fish total. Predictions by the Technical Advisory Committee were downgraded to around 230,000, which could prove a disappointment for anglers waiting for their chance on the Wenatchee, Entiat and Methow. And naturally, people will point out that even if there are a lot of salmon, before dams there were millions more.
Record runs never end salmon arguments. Scientists, politicians, activists are at work, trying to find answers or plot strategies. You likely will spend a quarter of your power bill on salmon welfare for as far into the future as anyone can see. But, this year, there is something at which to marvel. Nature is incredibly resilient.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.