Thanks to hydroelectric dams, overfishing and changing ocean conditions, many of Washington’s wild salmon populations are on the brink of extinction. Would removing some of the dams on our rivers save the salmon before it’s too late?
Seth Caswell is in love with Seattle’s farmers’ markets. And for good reason: The 38-year-old Seattle chef, who cultivated a strong following while cooking at Phinney Ridge’s Stumbling Goat Bistro, is dedicated to working with local and regional foods. His menus reflect this, with ingredients such as purple haze carrots from Oxbow Organic Farm in Carnation and fresh chevre from River Valley Ranch in Fall City, for instance.
Caswell, who left the Stumbling Goat last summer, plans to continue following the locavore movement when he opens his own restaurant, Emmer, on South Lake Union this spring. He gets his wheat from Bluebird Farms, a sustainable and organic eastern Washington grain grower. His shellfish hails from Taylor Shellfish in Shelton. But there’s one local food that Caswell—or any other chef, for that matter—cannot serve to his diners: wild Columbia River salmon.
Caswell is a big fan of that iconic Northwest fish—big enough, in fact, that he has joined with other local chefs, fishermen and conservationists in assisting Save Our Wild Salmon, a conservation coalition, in its efforts to convince Congress to restore salmon habitat.
“For the Pacific Northwesterner, whether you’ve moved here recently or whether you can trace five—or even 100—generations of family in the region, the salmon is the icon of our open waters, and wild and free ecosystems,” Caswell says.
That belief has connected him—and the offerings on local menus—with a controversy that continues to split the state’s residents: how best to save the once-plentiful wild salmon from the Columbia River and it’s major tributary, the Snake River.
On the other side of the state—hundreds of miles from Seattle’s farmers’ markets—is the Ice Harbor Lock and Dam. It’s hard not to feel small here. The dam, which spans the width of the Snake River nine miles east of Pasco, in southeastern Washington, is a joyless gray monolith. But it’s also huge. The dam’s massive concrete wall stretches over a half-mile to the opposite bank. Its crown bristles with high-voltage electrical wires. Its 10 spillways rumble and thunder with whitewater, and a shroud of mist drifts over the sagebrush and grasses of the surrounding Palouse.
Since construction was completed in 1961, the dam has proven adept at three things: generating hydropower; maintaining a slackwater reservoir on its upstream side—all the better for barges, which use this river to ship wheat downstream from Lewiston, Idaho—and making life difficult for salmon. Very difficult.
Ice Harbor—and the three other federal dams on the lower Snake River—is equipped with fish ladders, which allow mature, returning salmon to migrate upriver with reasonable success. But juvenile salmon, who must navigate downstream, aren’t so lucky.
Most of the Snake River’s salmon spawn in tributaries in northeastern Oregon and in the mountains of Idaho, where pristine, unharmed habitat still exists. Juvenile salmon typically spend the first four to five months of their lives in their native streams before migrating en masse downstream in May and June. When they encounter the dams, those fish are either propelled through massive turbines—where they stand a small chance of surviving—or swept through spillways, where the odds of survival are similarly slim.
In the mid–19th century, nearly 5 million Chinook and sockeye migrated through this stretch of ri