Alanna Mayham

(CN) — In an unprecedented move to address depleting native fish in the Columbia River Basin, President Joe Biden issued a presidential memorandum on Wednesday directing key federal agencies to prioritize available resources and assess further necessary actions for restoration.

Citing the Columbia River Basin as the “lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest,” the presidential memorandum calls for the restoration of the region’s once-abundant populations of wild salmon, steelhead and other native fish that have declined substantially since the mid-1800s and interfered with the United States' obligation to Indigenous treaty rights.

The treaties, signed in 1855, guarantee that members of the Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation will keep the right to fish on reservations and “at all usual and accustomed places” in exchange for land.

The basin’s number of returning adult salmon and steelhead have since become paltry, and despite efforts to preserve the basin’s fish, 13 of those populations are now listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Biden's memorandum specifically acknowledges how federal actions, including population growth, overfishing and dam installation, all contributed to the basin’s dwindling ecosystem — the latter of which has spurred a legacy of promoting dam removal and federal compliance to protect migrating fish. One of the lengthier legal battles, brought by Earthjustice in 2001, will see a stay of litigation expire in 35 days.

“We’re heartened by the commitment the Biden administration is demonstrating in this memorandum to honor obligations to tribal nations and to restore Columbia River salmon to a healthy abundance,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin in a statement. “Now we need to finish the job. NOAA Fisheries has already concluded that the best and only certain way to recover Snake River salmon to a healthy abundance is to breach the four Lower Snake River dams. We need a comprehensive plan to breach the dams and replace their services — and we need it now, before salmon run out of time.”

Whether or not large-scale dam removal is on the table for the Columbia River Basin is unclear. What the memorandum does state, however, is an order for all applicable federal agencies — including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration — to use their existing authorities and available resources for fish restoration and assess what additional authorities and resources they made need.

Federal agencies now have 220 days to assess programs that can prioritize the administration’s obligations to tribal treaties and implement requirements of the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act “to operate, manage and regulate the CRS to adequately protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife affected by the federal dams in the basin in a manner that provides equitable treatment for fish and wildlife with the other purposes for which the federal dams are managed and operated.”

The presidential memorandum arrives a week after the Biden administration agreed to provide over $200 million over the next 20 years from the Bonneville Power Administration to support Native tribe efforts to restore salmon in the Upper Columbia Basin.

In a statement on Wednesday, Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association said the memorandum will require federal agencies like the Bonneville Power Administration “to make the kind of major changes in policy and direction that are long overdue and critical to saving wild salmon steelhead.”

“The memorandum has arrived not a moment too soon,” Hamilton said. “We urgently need major changes in river operations to protect and restore these fish. The future of fishing, along with the economic benefits, hinges on the recovery efforts we put into place today.”

Coincidentally, Hamilton had joined other agency representatives on Wednesday morning to brief the Oregon Senate Interim Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire about the state’s status on salmon and steelhead populations. During that meeting, acting deputy director for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Shaun Clements, made clear that while some distinct populations are doing well — particularly those that benefit from habitat restoration and dam removal — summer steelhead and Chinook salmon on the Snake River are of significant concern.

“Our recent analyses indicate that those populations are potentially heading for extinction,” Clements told the committee regarding steelhead. He said this includes Oregon and Idaho populations, noting that the hydro system there plays a big factor.

“In fact, a recent NOAA report indicated that it would be almost impossible to recover those populations without taking action in the hydro system,” Clements said, later adding that it’s a similar situation for Chinook salmon with a “high risk of extirpation.”