What You Really Pay for Salmon
May 22, 2002

Maria Tomchick

We know all too well the reasons given for not removing dams from the Columbia and Snake Rivers: the rivers wouldn't be as navigable, there'd be less water for irrigation, it would impact energy supplies, we'd lose reservoirs that are now used for recreation, etc. The biggest argument, however, is the financial one: it would cost too much--both in removing the dams and in addressing the impact on farmers and energy ratepayers.

A new study, however, focuses on the costs of keeping those dams in place.

Last week, the Northwest Power Planning Council released preliminary data on the cost of running six salmon hatcheries in the Columbia River basin.

The report breaks the cost out by the number of hatchery fish that return each year to spawn. For the first time ever, the public can see that it costs $64.37 for the Spring Creek National Hatchery in Washington to produce a single fall chinook, while it costs a whopping $7,437.50 for the Eagle Creek Hatchery in Idaho to produce a single sockeye salmon. It's astonishing that no one has done the math before now.

Who pays for the hatcheries? There are over 100 in the Columbia River basin. A handful are owned by Indian tribes, but most are paid for by a combination of federal funds (your taxes), the Bonneville Power Administration (more of your taxes), and utility companies (your electricity bills and, in the case of public utilities like Seattle City Light, more of your taxes). Because hatcheries are managed by different utilities, tribes, and agencies, it's easy for one group to claim that a single hatchery is worth the money spent on it, and that it is ultimately cheaper than dam removal or habitat restoration. But when the figures are multiplied by 100, the costs become astounding.

And there are other costs not figured into the study. For example, fish biologists and environmentalists know the cost that hatchery salmon take on wild salmon runs, but this goes unacknowledged by US government agencies, forestry companies, utilities, and farmers. Hatchery-bred salmon compete with wild salmon for food and habitat. Hatchery salmon, raised in a protected environment and fed antibiotics, often interbreed with wild salmon, making a river's salmon run less able to adapt to disease and predators.

In fact, in the 126 years that hatcheries have functioned in the Colombia basin, they've failed miserably in the one goal that is the very reason for their existence: to restore salmon and steelhead runs. We know that habitat restoration works. We also know from examining rivers where dams have been removed that dam removal works. And we know that hatcheries fail.

It's past time to cut off the funds, turn off the tap, and close the hatcheries. The Oregonian newspaper estimates that over $80 million per year in federal funds and electricity ratepayer fees alone are poured into the hatchery system. That's a lot of money that could be used to tear down dams, help farmers plant crops that require less irrigation, and buy out those farms that couldn't exist without the dams.

It doesn't even have to happen all in one year or in five; it took us more than 100 years to get to this point. But we need to start reversing course now, while there's still a few fish left to save.