New plans chart recovery path for Snake River Chinook salmon and steelhead

December 2017

NOAA Fisheries today released two final recovery plans for Snake River salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), charting a path for recovery of three species that historically represented more than half of all Chinook salmon and steelhead returns to the Columbia River system.

The recovery plans for Snake River fall Chinook salmon, spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead complete the blueprint for recovery of all ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin.

single steelhead underwater

Steelhead. Photo: Mark Capelli, NOAA Fisheries

“The plans tell us what we need to do to recover these fish that carry so much importance and meaning for the tribes and other communities of the Pacific Northwest,” said Barry Thom, Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “The next step is to deliver on the goal of recovery, which will take help and support from across the region. I’m confident that’s now within our reach.”

The three species each traverse hundreds of miles and up to eight major dams to return to different parts of the Snake River system at different times of year. Spring/summer chinook return in the spring and summer to spawn in the high reaches of the Snake’s tributaries; fall Chinook salmon return in the fall to spawn in the river’s main stem and largest tributaries; and steelhead return throughout the summer and fall to spawn in the farthest reaches of the Snake’s smallest tributaries.

several spring chinook underwater

Spring chinook salmon. Photo: Michael Humling, USFWS

Snake River fall Chinook salmon have rebounded strongly from a low of only 78 natural-origin fish returning in 1990, with an average of more than 10,000 returning to spawn in recent years. The new plan estimates that the species now stands within decades of full recovery. Snake River spring/summer Chinook and steelhead have also returned in rising numbers in many areas, but many populations remain at high risk, the plans estimate.

The recovery plans outline comprehensive strategies to boost survival throughout each species’ life cycle, from reduced predation on juvenile fish to repair of degraded habitat and updated hatchery practices. They also specify strategies to address the impacts of climate change.

For example, habitat improvements can help cool streams and keep them safe for fish, while dam operations help control river temperatures as fish migrate. Federal agencies are also planning to increase the spill of water over dams in 2018 to evaluate potential improvements in juvenile fish survival, as directed in a court order.

The recovery plans describe the ongoing development by federal agencies of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) evaluating alternatives for operation of federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, including the possibility of breaching one or more dams on the lower Snake River. The plans summarize earlier scientific analyses of dam breaching and increased spill but defer any recommendations to the EIS process, which is expected to conclude in 2021 with a decision on actions that may improve fish survival.

“Many people are focused on dam breaching, but the recovery plans look beyond that for recovery opportunities at all stages of the salmon and steelhead life cycle,” said Michael Tehan, Assistant Regional Administrator NOAA Fisheries’ Interior Columbia Basin Office. “Right now we know the ocean is not favorable for salmon, but that’s largely beyond our control. We’re focused on improving survival at those stages where we know we can make a difference.”

The ESA requires recovery plans for listed species, and NOAA Fisheries developed the two final plans with wide input from other federal agencies, tribes, states, local watershed groups and many more of those contributing to salmon and steelhead recovery. The plans are voluntary, not regulatory, and rely on cooperation and support from across the region to advance recovery.

For more details and to read the final recovery plans, visit

Home Page photo: Myers Photo