Dams vs. Salmon

Dams vs. Salmon:  An Ongoing Debate

Dams vs. Salmon, in 2012, the Elwha River Dam on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State was demolished, rekindling a debate that has been brewing for some time between dams and salmon.

Dams vs. Salmon
Elway River photo courtesy of NOAA

The lines, however, are not as clearly drawn as you would suspect.  Though no one disagrees that derelict dams constitute fish barriers that lower salmon populations, local tribes, government officials and environmentalists alike can see the good in functional dams with properly installed fish ladders.   From a fishing standpoint, there are good reasons to be both for and against dams as well. Here is a primer to the big players regarding dams vs. salmon, and their take on the debate’s key arguments.

The Players in the Dams vs. Salmon Debate:  Who is Involved?

Environmentalists:  Dams vs. salmon, or at least fish habitat, has been a pet issue for environmentalists with nationwide exposure since Edward Abbey’s novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang was first published.   From a habitat standpoint, salmon need uninterrupted lengths of moving, cold water to breed and continue to exist.  Dams fail that on two counts by creating both a physical barrier for fish to swim, and puddling the flowing water behind the dam into a lake, which is unsuitable spawning habitat.  The more current emphasis on green energy sources has some environmentalists re-thinking dams vs. salmon.  Hydroelectric power is one of the best examples of a non-fossil fuel power source today.

Tribes:  Many of the Pacific Northwest Tribes, due to some clever forethought by chief Seattle, maintain as a treaty right a federally enforceable say in any action that may affect the population levels of salmon and trout.  They take this right seriously, and have been actively working in many different venues to ensure that salmon populations maintain harvestable levels for their subsistence and commercial fishermen.  This is a double-edged sword for some tribes, who maintain that though most dams should be removed, the extra water supplies that have resulted from dammed reservoirs have been used to create hatcheries that contribute to re-stocking lost salmon populations.  Additionally, salmon ladders at dams create opportune locations for salmon return counts that can lead to better population numbers for estimating quotas on fishing seasons.  Therefore, their take on dams vs. salmon is usually that of a case-by-case basis.

Industry:  Dams mean cheap, abundant power, which makes a great place for businesses to build.  Pulling dams means more abundant salmon populations in some streams, which is good for the fishing/tourism industry.  Though they mostly side with keeping the dams that bring them cheap power, the gain in the tourism industry from pulling derelict dams is a win for business as well.

Municipalities:  Though much of the Western portion of the Pacific Northwest has plenty of water, salmon streams that head east of the coastal mountain ranges are often dammed to create enough of a water supply to support a community.  Their concern with removal of all dams is that the water, though critical for salmon survival, is also critical for theirs.  Dams vs. salmon is a newer issue in the Eastern portions of the PNW, as many of the populations have needed reintroduction so far up the river system.

Dams vs. Salmon a Complicated Issue

As you can see, dams vs. salmon is a complicated issue, and the benefits to the fishing community exist on both sides of the coin.  A

dams vs. salmon
Another WA dam removal project is the Condit damn on the White River Photo by Melissa Shavlik

place with cheap power means a vibrant industry and easy infrastructure to get to your favorite fishing locales.  It means a lot of great amenities when you are done fishing for the day, if you want to be in the city.  Dams also mean a water source for keeping hatchery fish highly populated.  Pulling derelict dams, like the one at the Elwha, allows for struggling salmon populations to have more stream to cover, fewer obstacles like a salmon ladder for weakened fish before they can spawn, and a more pristine stream environment.  As the old saying goes, dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t.

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