The Fuss Over Fish

Lesley Stahl Reports On The Debate On What To Do To Protect Endangered Salmon

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This story was first broadcast on Nov. 19, 2000. It was updated on Wednesday, June 18, 2008.

The federal government has declared a "fishery disaster" area along the U.S. West Coast this summer after the salmon population there went into what's being called an "unprecedented collapse." As a result, the commercial salmon industry, which normally captures 800,000 fish a year, has been shut down and salmon prices are going through the roof.

The cause of the die-off is up for debate: the Bush administration blames warmer temperatures in the ocean where salmon spend most of their lives, but many scientists say man is to blame. Dams and irrigation canals kill millions of salmon as they migrate up and down rivers where they are born and where they return to spawn.

60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl first reported on the disappearing salmon back in 2000, focusing on two rivers in Oregon and Washington - the Columbia and its tributary, the Snake - where salmon were once so plentiful, it was said you could walk across the water on their backs.

The question then - and still today - is whether four dams should be torn down to prevent the salmon's extinction. Under the Endangered Species Act, the government is required not to let that happen. And the lengths the government is going not to let that happen, and the billions they're spending not to let that happen, are staggering.

The measures to protect the fish are so elaborate the observer is left to wonder: who thought this up?

"This whole system [was] built just so that the little baby fish don't have to go through the dam?" Stahl asks, observing an elaborate labyrinth of pipelines set up at a dam.

"Right, in order to keep them away from the turbines," says biologist Doug Arndt of the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dams.

Arndt says the turbines kill about half the fish that go through them. And so 20 million young salmon a year are diverted as they go downstream into specially built raceways and sluices, shot through tunnels, into the pipelines and are then loaded onto barges. The fish are given a lift on a barge, courtesy of the U.S. government.

"We're gonna take all these fish down the river," Arndt explains. "It's gonna be about 300 mile trip. …Take about a day and a half."

Ironically, the well intentioned barging may interfere with the salmon's homing instinct, which is essential to their survival since after their trip down river, they go back up the river as adults to spawn, homing in on the very spot where they were born.

Asked if they're getting hurt, Arndt says, "No."

"This is actually a very, very good system," he tells Stahl.

The salmon are also loaded onto trucks. "They tried airplanes, they tried trucks…different ways of getting the salmon safely to below the hydro electric system," Arndt explains.

To help the fish that aren't barged or trucked get past the dams, the Corps built an artificial shoreline that cost $80 million, and a surface fish collector that cost $200 million. But after two decades of spending, the results are dismal: Coho salmon are already extinct, and runs of Chinook and Sockeye salmon are on the endangered list. To stop the decline, environmentalists are insisting that some of the dams be torn down.

So now Northwesterners are facing a choice between their beloved salmon and their beloved dams.