The end of 2019 saw increased federal funding for Columbia River salmon hatcheries, the latest attempt in a line of legislation to boost the region’s stock of the valuable fish.
A spending package passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December set aside $57.5 million for salmon preservation, including $22 million specifically for chinook and steelhead in the Columbia River.
The allocation to regional programs — part of the Mitchell Act, a 1938 law that helps guide protection and harvest of salmon from the Columbia River Basin — is the largest amount to be set aside for the program in five years.
For Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, the package marks her latest attempt in a series of incremental efforts aimed at boosting salmon runs without resorting to such drastic measures as breaching Columbia or Snake River dams. The congresswoman is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
“Now that my sea lion bill has been signed into law, I am working with members from both political parties to take the next critical step: protect salmon habitat and increase hatchery production,” Herrera Beutler said in a media release.
“I’m pleased we advanced this funding to bolster salmon in our rivers. Working together, we can protect the precious salmon resources we cherish so much.”
In referencing her sea lion bill, Herrera Beutler was pointing to a piece of legislation she championed during her last term. The bill revised the Marine Mammal Protection Act to permit Washington, Oregon and Idaho governments, as well as select Pacific Northwest Tribes, to kill sea lions in certain circumstances. It was a response to booming populations of Steller and California sea lions gathering and eating salmon at Bonneville Dam and other choke points.
Herrera Beutler introduced the bill in April 2017 and it was signed into law in December 2018.
“We’re not anti-sea lion. We’re just for protecting a Pacific Northwest treasure: salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and other native fish species iconic to our region,” Herrera Beutler said upon the sea lion bill’s passage.
“Simply put, this measure cuts through the bureaucratic red tape, streamlines the permitting process, and allows states and tribes to rapidly respond to remove sea lions from areas they pose the most threat to salmon recovery.”
Cutting through red tape is a difficult task when it comes to responding to immediate challenges in Pacific Northwest river systems.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration are currently working on a new environmental impact statement for 14 federal sites along the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The document is set to be completed no later than September 2020. It’s the first such study in 27 years.
The sites are connected in an enormously intricate, delicate web — minor changes to one could cause a domino effect downstream. Adjustments are made slowly and deliberately.
But lately, steelhead and chinook have dominated the conversation around river management in the Pacific Northwest, and the conversation has grown more urgent. Puget Sound orcas, who count on a healthy salmon stock for food, are on the brink of extinction.
One grieving whale memorably carried her dead calf on her head for more than two weeks in 2018, leading Washington Governor Jay Inslee to announce a recovery plan.
Among the governor’s proposed solutions was permitting more water to be spilled over the region’s dams, helping young salmon reach the ocean.
For some, Inslee’s plan doesn’t go far enough. Two tribes, the Yakama Nation and the Lummi Nation, are calling for the removal of three dams along the Columbia River. Removing the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day dams, they assert, would support salmon recovery and help the dwindling orca population.
Herrera Beutler is adamantly opposed to removing or breaching dams as an option for salmon recovery. Following a proposal from Inslee to study possible breaching of dams in the Snake River, she wrote to Port of Vancouver commissioners reminding them that the cost of such a policy would be “staggering.”
“As you know, the Columbia and Snake rivers account for 40 percent of all hydropower across the United States and generate over 60 percent of energy in the region,” Herrera Beutler wrote. “Those who have called to breach or remove our dams do not have the best interests of Vancouver residents in mind, they do so without proper study or scientific basis.”
The Mitchell Act
Mitchell Act funds have been instrumental in constructing and improving the region’s salmon hatcheries — Abernathy, Skamania, Washougal and Bonneville Hatchery have all received money through the federal program since Congress began annual allocations in 1946.
All told, the budget helps operate 62 hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin, with an annual release of more than 63 million juvenile salmon and steelhead. Past years have seen Northwest hatcheries receive between $12 million and $22 million.
The program has received its own share of controversy, particularly from fish conservation groups who argue that increasing the stock of salmon raised in hatcheries compromises the wild salmon population. In 2016, the Wild Fish Conservancy filed an injunction against the National Marine Fisheries Service in an attempt to freeze Mitchell Act funds. The group withdrew the injunction the following year.