Snake River salmon recovery plans for Chinook, steelhead put in place

Published on
December 31, 2017

NOAA Fisheries adopted in December two Endangered Species Act (ESA) recovery plans for three different species in the Snake River basin. The recovery plans, which NOAA is required to adopt by the ESA, have the goal of delisting regional spring and summer Chinook and steelhead as well as fall Chinook salmon.

NOAA had already adopted a recovery plan for regional sockeye salmon, which are protected by the ESA alongside the other three species targeted by the new plans. 

“This is the last plan, so we now have Endangered Species Act recovery plans for the all the threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead species in the whole Colombia Basin,” said Rosemary Furfey, the salmon recovery coordinator for NOAA. 

Scientists are bullish on the possibility of the fall Chinook salmon coming off the protected list in the coming years. Recent fall Chinook runs have topped 50,000 fish, after dropping below 100 in 1990, according to figures cited by the Idaho Statesman.  

“With the fall Chinook plan, that population is actually viable, and looks very promising for the foreseeable future,” Furfey said. “We’re not saying exactly how many years but we could potentially delist. It’s on a very good trajectory.”

The spring and summer Chinook and steelhead, however, are facing a tougher road, complicated by  vast geographical scope that is being altered by human activity. Because of the complexity of the situation, Furfey said one of the hallmarks of the recovery plan is the ability to adapt as scientists learn more about critical uncertainties.

“We’re giving you the best actions right now, but given the vast geography and the science we still have to learn on some of these populations, we cannot give you every action. It’s just the reality. This recovery plan is a living document,” Furfey added. 

As an example of critical uncertainty, Furfey pointed to high mortality rates of ocean-bound smelt in the Upper Salmon River. Scientists don’t know what it killing these fish before they reach the first dam they encounter, but they will be able to adjust the recovery and as studies continue. 

Furfey added that the plans are part of ongoing, decades-long efforts by scientists, residents, and others in the Columbia and Snake basins. 

“There is a lot of important work happening to address these important limiting factors and threats. We have partners, land managers, citizens, that are working on this and have been working on it for 20 years. It’s not as though the recovery plan now begins that process of recovery. It’s already been happening. It took a long time to degrade the system, and it’s going to take a long time to get these functions back,” she said. 

Snake River salmon and steelhead face numerous obstacles to survival, including dams, natural predators, agricultural run-off, and warming waters. Warmer waters from recent long hot summers have bumped up temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers. And higher up, spawning fish in smaller tributaries are struggling in warmer waters from a lack of shade and fewer cool deep pools, among other issues.  

Contributing Editor reporting from Seattle, USA

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