A fish-eye view of Cougar Dam on the McKenzie River. Photo by Conrad Gowell, NFS Fellowship Program Director

For Willamette Fish, the Work is Far From Done

This week, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was granted a five year federal authorization to lethally remove sea lions at Willamette Falls. While much attention has been given to the impact of sea lion predation on threatened upper Willamette spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead at the falls, it is critical that we don’t assume the troubles are over for these fish.

The last two years have marked the lowest runs of wild, winter steelhead ever recorded in the basin. The reasons for the collapse are rooted in causes deeper than the arrival of the large marine mammals. If we were to look into a magic mirror wishing to see those causes revealed, we would see ourselves and a century and a half of human impacts, not the sea lions, staring back. We must tackle the root causes of wild fish decline in the Willamette if we want to save and recover our iconic runs.

The biggest hurdle to recovery for these fish remains: the twelve high-head dams scattered throughout the Willamette’s tributaries. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, these dams lack effective fish passage, blocking access to hundreds of miles of spawning habitat, while dam operations create unnatural river flows and poor water quality in downstream rivers—problems that affect fish at all life stages. And it's not just fish that are being harmed. Increasing occurances of toxic algae blooms have threatened community and municiple drinking water supplies and declining fish returns have impacted recreation dependent economies and indigenous peoples.

For more than a decade, the Corps has failed to make the structural and operational changes necessary to save Willamette fish—changes which the agency agreed to implement under the Endangered Species Act in order to continue operating the dams. There are feasible and achievable changes that must happen now if we want our fish around for the next decade, much less the next generation.

The need to reform Willamette dam operations is the basis for the lawsuit Native Fish Society is currently pursuing against the Corps. By failing to act to create fish passage, improve water quality, and adjust flows, the Corps’ actions will condemn Willamette fish to the list of extinct species.

But the courtroom isn’t the only venue to achieve change. Oregonians must insist that we hold resource managers accountable for doing what is possible and necessary. We must speak together in advocating for a future that includes abundant, wild fish and healthy, functioning rivers.

It is the need for a collective voice that is leading NFS and our partners to build the Willamette Salmon & Steelhead Recovery Coalition. It is our vision to bring a diversity of voices together to speak on behalf of our rivers and fish. We encourage everyone—conservationists, recreationists, businesses, municipalities, local leaders, and individuals—to join this effort by attending our kickoff event to Rewild the Willamette in Oregon City at 6:30pm, Tuesday, December 4, 2018.

The solutions exist that will stop the decline and recover our fish. Will you join us in ensuring it happens?

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