First Nations groups on the Canadian side of the Columbia River Basin are adamant that salmon runs that have long been blocked by dams in the United States must be restored, potentially in a renewed river treaty between the two countries.
But experts say possible solutions, such as “salmon cannons” that suck fish through a pipe and shoot them out upstream and over obstacles, are all costly and potentially limited in their effectiveness.
Representatives from the Ktunaxa and Syilx Okanagan nations say they continue to bring up salmon restoration in negotiations for a modern Columbia River Treaty and will not stop until a solution can be reached within or outside a new agreement.
The U.S.-Canada treaty regulates the cross-border Columbia River to prevent flooding and generate hydro power. A key component of the 62-year-old treaty is set to expire in September 2024, lending urgency to the ongoing talks.
“I think what we are doing in the fight to bring salmon back is vital to us moving forward,” said Lower Similkameen Indian Band Chief Keith Crow, who is a member on the Syilx Okanagan Nation’s Chiefs Executive Council and the Nation’s lead in the Columbia River Treaty talks.
“And we’re not going to back down, either,” he said.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says much of the migratory salmon run in the Upper Columbia, both in Canada and the U.S., ended with the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state in 1942.
While the Grand Coulee Dam isn’t among four dams built in accordance with the 1961 Columbia River Treaty, First Nations leaders say the talks offer a rare opportunity for them to directly engage American officials about restoring Pacific salmon to the Upper Columbia.
“The salmon hasn’t been a big piece of (the talks), and I’ve been trying to move it forward consistently,” Crow said.
The nation opened its own hatchery near Penticton, B.C., in 2014 to help bring salmon back to Okanagan waters.
The goal, Crow said, is the restoration of natural salmon runs throughout the Upper Columbia Basin.
“We’ve been supplying salmon back to the people for years from our hatchery from the work that we’ve done, but to be able to see them actually swimming freely and coming up the Columbia the way they’re meant to be, I think it’s something I’m hoping I’m going to see in my lifetime.”
Ktunaxa Nation Council Chair Kathryn Teneese said the loss of salmon to the Upper Columbia Basin fundamentally changed communities and their ways of life, since the fish was a staple to traditional diets and held significant cultural value.
“We now have generations of people that have grown up without even knowing that salmon was very much part of our staple diet,” Teneese said. “So, from that perspective, it’s changed who we are. Because one of the things that we say is that we have a word in our language for salmon, but we don’t have access to it.
“We just fill that void with the utilization of all of the other resources off the land that we’ve always used, but there’s just a piece missing.”
Crow said salmon may have comprised up to 50 per cent of traditional Syilx Okanagan diets prior to the region losing its fish runs.
In September, the U.S. pledged more than $200 million over 20 years from the Bonneville Power Administration for reintroducing salmon in the Upper Columbia River Basin.
Crow said he has spoken with British Columbia Premier David Eby about similar long-term financial commitments on the Canadian side.
“Right now, we are kind of doing the best we can with the budgets that we get every year,” Crow said. “So, a long-term commitment would be so much more beneficial. We can get so much more done, I think.”
In June, the province agreed to separate bilateral deals with the Syilx Okanagan, Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Nations so each group receives 5 per cent of the revenue B.C. receives every year from the U.S. through the Columbia River Treaty, funding known as the Canadian Entitlement.
But the challenge in bringing salmon back to the Upper Columbia Basin isn’t limited to funding, experts say.
In 2012, a group of researchers published a report on efforts to restore Atlantic Salmon and other migrating fish species to rivers on the East Coast of North America.
The report found that the effort at three major rivers did not yield “self-sustaining populations in any eastern U.S. river” despite “hundreds of millions” in investment on the construction of hatcheries and fish passages.
“It may be time to admit failure of fish passage and hatchery-based restoration programs and acknowledge that significant diadromous species restoration is not possible without dam removals,” said the report on fish that travel between salt and fresh water.
University of Victoria Biology Professor Francis Juanes was a co-author of the report, and he said that while the topic of fish passage technology among researchers is actively discussed and constantly advancing, studies have shown the only reliable way to fully restore a natural fish run may be a dam’s removal.
Juanes said that when a dam on the Elwha River was removed about a decade ago in Washington state, “you didn’t have to reintroduce (salmon).”
“They came back naturally. In a sense, that is the best way to reintroduce salmon especially to a river system.”
Results on the East Coast where fish ladders were used, particularly the Connecticut River, were not nearly as effective, Juanes said.
“It took so much effort by so many states, and you needed the hatcheries to grow these babies. So, that’s an enormous effort, and the return just wasn’t very good.”
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John Waldman, biology professor at Queens College in New York, is one of the main authors of the report.
Waldman said there is rising belief among grassroots and Indigenous groups throughout North America that dam removals may be the optimal way to restore fish runs, in lieu of the poor results from alternative passages.
“I think there’s one universal theme that has emerged over the last two decades, which is that dam removal is without question the best solution to bringing these fish back again,” he said.
“Fish ladders and fish elevators provide what’s called the halfway measure.
“It looks like to the uninitiated that you have a solution and that it works, but the truth is when you look at the actual performance of many of these fish ladders and fish elevators, not that many fish pass through them.”
The biggest dam removal project in the United States began earlier this year on the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border, where four such structures will come down by next year under a budget of US$450 million.
Discussions on removing four dams on another branch of the Columbia River Basin – in the lower parts of the Snake River – have been ongoing for years, with the U.S. federal government rejecting in 2020 the idea due to possible power-grid destabilization if the hydro electricity from the dams are removed.
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden directed federal agencies to use all available authorities and resources to restore salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin that are “healthy and abundant.”
Biden’s order, however, stopped short of calling for the removal of the dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington state.
The Upper Columbia United Tribes, consisting of five member Indigenous nations in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, said on its website on salmon restoration that while more studies are needed, there have been “encouraging advances” in fish passage technologies such as floating surface collectors and salmon cannons to get past tall dams without the structures’ removal.
But such technology, Waldman said, is unproven in being able to support a large, natural fish migration.
“I think this is a quarter-way measure, not even a halfway measure,” he said.
“You see them emerging once in a while, and somebody gets wind of it on TV, and some late night comedians make fun of fish being shot through these these cannons. But no one’s ever ramped them up to be at a level that would sustain a natural level of migratory fish.”
But Juanes said such options may be necessary if dam removals are not possible, even if they may add stress to the salmon population and make them more vulnerable to diseases.
“For one, that’s a very costly thing to do,” Juanes said of fish-passage technology. “For two, it causes stress to the animals. I can imagine that this cannon is not a happy moment for the fish, but maybe it’s better than it dying below the dam.”
Crow, for his part, said he understands “there’s no way of getting around the fact” that dams such as the Grand Coulee remain in the migration path, posing a monumental challenge to restoring salmon migration routes.
But he said the reintroduction of salmon runs to the Upper Columbia Basin is important enough to warrant effort and funding.
“There are lots of options out there, but what is going to be the most efficient and least impactful to the salmon, and they can still get back up? That’s the key,” he said.
“I’ve been taught to think seven generations down. So, I’m looking seven generations ahead of decisions that I make today: How is it going to influence or how is it going to impact my great-great-grandkids?”