The Chinook salmon native to the Pacific Northwest are a keystone species — an essential part of our local ecosystem, cultural identity and ocean health.
Since the completion of four dams on the lower Snake River in southwestern Washington in the early 1970s, however, annual wild Snake River salmon returns have dropped by over 90%, according to the nonprofit American Rivers. 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 regional ecosystem by restoring wild salmon migration routes in the Columbia Basin.
Columbia Basin Chinook salmon migratory paths are deeply tied to the Snake River, which meets the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities. 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 is 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 factors leading to the salmon’s decline.
According to a letter signed by over 68 leading scientists last February, regional steelhead trout that do not have to pass through these four dams in their migratory path — one 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 these dams. This, among other data, has been taken as a key indicator that the lower Snake River dams severely limit salmon survival.
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 at risk — 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 factors, from vessel traffic to bioaccumulation of toxins in their body. According to a 2018 study commissioned by the NW Energy Coalition, a key threat to the orcas’ survival is the rapidly disappearing Snake River salmon population. These orcas make annual migrations to the mouth of the Columbia River to feed on salmon migrating out from the Snake River.
We must lobby our political leaders to remove the four lower Snake River dams as soon as possible to save both the Chinook salmon and the orcas who depend on them as a food source. This option is under active consideration by Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray, who are due to release their recommendations for the lower Snake River in July. We must urge our officials to follow the science and remove the dams.
Hundreds of Sammamish and Redmond youth have already signed a letter to our congressional representatives to advocate the replacement of these dams with truly green renewable energy that does not come at the cost of a keystone species. The energy generation alternatives to these dams are numerous, whether solar, wind, geothermal, or more likely, a combination.
We call on all Sammamish residents to support this cause. Adults can contact senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell directly to demonstrate constituent support for Snake River dam removal. K-12 students can contact me to bring salmon activism to their schools.
Renewable energy at the cost of a keystone species is unacceptable. We must replace the Snake River dams with more ecosystem-friendly renewable energy sources. Once the Chinook salmon become extinct, we will never be able to rebuild their population. We must act before it is too late.
Maanit Goel is currently a sophomore at Eastlake High School. To join in this student-led movement to push for the removal of the lower Snake River dams, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.