The misdiagnosis that’s harming fish recovery Predation by sea lions, harbor seals eating away at Chinook restoration efforts

By Gerald Baron
Research Director, Save Family Farming


Wheat growers and other farm producers throughout our state are well aware of the great harm that would be done to farming, power generation, and greenhouse gas emissions if the lower Snake River dams are removed. But what they may not realize is if that disaster should happen, it will do very little to restore the runs of Chinook salmon.

Chinook are the salmon of greatest concern, and Chinook are uniquely affected by two very harmful ocean factors. One is ocean warming, particularly in the North Pacific. The other is the massive amounts of predation targeting Chinook, mostly in our local northwest Washington waters. Scientific studies make these simple facts very clear. Habitat, while critical for salmon, is not the limiting factor today. Salmon recovery advocates calling for dam removal and other habitat solutions are actually harming Chinook recovery. It’s as if you go to the doctor with a stomachache, and they amputate your leg. Your stomach still hurts, and now you can’t walk.

There are numerous studies and data that point to what is being called “the great misdiagnosis.” These are documented in an extensive report prepared by Save Family Farming, which can be found at A quick review of key reports and studies makes the situation clear.

River systems without dams are faring worse than the Snake River. This is documented by Kintama Research from Canada. They studied numerous Chinook-bearing river systems from Alaska through Washington and found that all were suffering from reduced numbers of Chinook, and that the Snake River was doing better than many, including those without any human-created obstacles.

Except for Chinook, Pacific salmon are at record numbers, and the commercial fishery is in crisis because of the resulting low prices. Numerous scientific studies show how the “Blob,” an area of the North Pacific with elevated temperatures, affect Chinook. Other species, such as sockeye, benefit from a warming ocean, but the unique lifecycle of Chinook means their survival and reproductive success is harmed by it.

Chinook production, both hatchery and wild production, nearly doubled between 1975 and 2015. This was documented in a study published in Nature led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Brandon Chasco. The Snake River dams are among the very best at allowing fish passage, and NOAA reports all these dams exceed the target of 96% survival. 

Dam removal advocates, and the media reports that take them at their word, say that salmon numbers are 10% of what they were before the dams went in. This is completely wrong and dishonest. It’s true that prior to 1860, millions of salmon returned to the Columbia and Snake rivers. In 2000, wildlife and fish biologist John McKern reported that over 1 million returned to the rivers and 2.4 million in 2014. These numbers need to be compared to 1939, the first official salmon count, when the returning salmon were fewer than 500,000. Overharvesting and habitat loss by that time had greatly reduced numbers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on stream habitat recovery, including about 1,000 miles of riparian buffers, on Washington streams. But, as the Washington State Conservation Commission reported in 2013, these successful restoration efforts have not resulted in significant returns of salmon.

Chinook production is up, massive habitat improvements in salmon streams have been made, fish passage allows near 100% survival, and yet, Chinook numbers remain comparatively low. Ocean warming is one critical factor, which may take many years to improve. Predation, however, is possibly an even greater cause for concern, and it is something we can do something about now.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council reports that fish-consuming birds eat up to 35% of Upper Columbia River smolts — juvenile fish — as they make their way down to the Pacific. A smolt running the gauntlet of hungry birds, such as terns and cormorants, may make it to salt water, but now they face an even greater challenge: harbor seals and sea lions. 

These mammals are protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, an example of well-intended legislation with disastrous unintended consequences. The Chasco study documented that since then, predators of Chinook have increased, in some cases, by many times over. Killer whales target the largest adult Chinook and have more than doubled to about 650 whales in 2015, consuming the most Chinook biomass — 11,000 metric tons. Harbor seals come next, but consume far more numbers because they target smolts entering the ocean from the rivers. From Alaska to California, harbor seals consume 27.4 million Chinook, a nearly 10 times increase compared to the 3.5 million Chinook eaten by these hungry animals in 1975.

Of greatest concern to those wanting to see Snake and Columbia river Chinook return is the fact that by far, the most harm done to Chinook returns is in the Salish Sea, that area between the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, or what used to be called Northern Puget Sound. Here, harbor seals have increased from 8,600 in 1975 to 78,000 in 2015. Of all Chinook consumed by harbor seals in the North Pacific, an astounding 86.4% are eaten in this small area alone –– 24 million Chinook!

Much attention has been paid to the plight of the Southern Resident killer whales. Unlike their Northern and resident neighbors, this pod does not prey on harbor seals. Their “picky eater” habits, as called by a leading marine scientist, means that harbor seals do not have a natural predator in this area, accounting for the huge increase in consumption. There’s not enough Chinook to feed both mammals, and the seals are winning.

A reasonable question is why the many advocating for dam removal are not aware of the two primary causes of Chinook recovery disappointments. They are aware, but these causes are ignored for one reason: money. The focus on habitat has resulted in hundreds of people employed in what might be called the salmon recovery industry. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on habitat alone. Over $24 billion was spent on fish passage. Take the focus off habitat, and a great many jobs will be lost, along with the political influence that comes with fighting for an iconic endangered species. To return to the doctor and misdiagnosis analogy, it is as if the doctor found his livelihood depends on removing limbs and not curing stomachaches.

The inappropriate focus on habitat as the only solution to Chinook recovery is an issue that can unite farmers and growers across the state and region. False claims of habitat problems are at the root of many issues facing farmers. In Eastern Washington, particularly southeast Washington, dams may be the primary concern. But in Whatcom County, farmers are being forced out by the state adjudication of water rights. Claiming farming affects habitat and tribal treaty rights, the state is suing all water rights holders. The impact on farmers was shown in a recent documentary called “Losing the Farm.” In Skagit County, salmon advocates are trying to undermine the dike and drainage infrastructure essential to keeping farmland productive. The call for massive buffers on all streams and ditches in our state that repeatedly shows up in Olympia is another example of misguided recovery solutions based on the misdiagnosis.

Farmers and growers have the opportunity to unite around a very positive message. They have been leaders for years in salmon protection and recovery efforts, even while advocates work to put many out of business. There are positive steps to be taken to restore the Chinook, such as working with all salmon recovery groups to focus attention on the disastrous consumption of Chinook in the Salish Sea by out-of-control predators. Increasing awareness of the great misdiagnosis is something all concerned about farming can and should do. Uniting to help recover salmon by drawing attention to predation would be a great and positive step forward.