Fishermen calling for an improved
ASTORIA — On a recent
foggy evening near the mouth of the Columbia
River, fisherman Jim Wells was joined by just four
other boats, a far cry from the crowds seen during
the heyday of commercial salmon fishing.
A drastic decline from the promising spring
chinook returns of the past five years has
commercial, tribal and sport fishermen alike
criticizing recovery efforts for endangered and
threatened salmon. Some blame poor ocean
conditions for the lower returns, while others
point to farmers' irrigation for reducing river
All fault the
hydropower system, proving once again that the
fish-vs.-dams debate is far from settled.
"There are several different things that affect a
salmon stock, but by and large, the single biggest
thing is the hydropower system and how it's
operated,'' said Steve Fick, a commercial
fisherman and owner of a cannery.
More than 400 dams have been built in the
258,000-square-mile Columbia River drainage,
including 14 dams on the mainstem Columbia in the
United States and Canada.
The steep fall of the Columbia from its start in
the Canadian Rockies in its course to the Pacific
Ocean — an average of more than 2 feet per mile —
and an average annual runoff of about 198 million
acre-feet made the massive hydrosystem possible.
Today, dams produce as much as three-quarters of
the region's relatively cheap electricity.
The development came with a price. Dozens of fish
runs in the Columbia basin have been listed as
threatened or endangered under the Endangered
Species Act. Billions of dollars have been spent
on recovery efforts, with the federal government
shelling out roughly $600 million each year to
improve habitat and fish returns.
Yet for all that money, little is known about the
anadromous fish. Born in fresh water, the fish
face peril from dams, water quality, water
temperature, low stream flows and predation. Ocean
conditions, too, are cyclical, opening fish to new
barriers before they return to the river to spawn.
Spring chinook returns on the Columbia have
fluctuated wildly for decades, from a recent low
of 10,194 fish in 1995 to a high of more than
390,000 in 2001, according to the U.S. Army Corps
Conservation groups worry that the federal
government's recent approaches to salmon recovery
prove it is not a priority.
President Bush has opposed any talk of breaching
four dams on the Snake River, the Columbia's
largest tributary, to aid salmon recovery.
However, the proposal is again gaining steam as
the potential for a shift in power in the next
presidential election draws closer.
The four Snake River dams produce an average of
1,300 megawatts annually, enough power to serve
the city of Seattle but far less than some other
dams in the region.
In addition to the lost power, breaching could
pose problems for grain growers who rely on barge
traffic made possible by the dams. In 2003, 37
percent of all U.S. wheat exports were shipped on
the Columbia, according to the Northwest Power and
Fish advocates also have widely criticized a new
federal plan for managing the river for dams,
though they scored a victory Thursday with a
judge's ruling that the plan violates the
Endangered Species Act.
The plan treated dams as part of the environment,
which fish advocates feared could preclude
requiring utilities to make changes that keep dams
from killing fish. The plan also acknowledged the
decline of salmon, but found that dam operations
simply should not increase the rate of decline.
"It's the first time we had seen a plan that
actually allows a species to go extinct,'' said
Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for the
activist group Save our Wild Salmon.
Cordan praised the judge's ruling, but said
concerns remain about the current administration's
understanding of the requirements — and benefits —
of the Endangered Species Act.
"This is a fish that provides real jobs for the
region,'' she said. "To allow this fish to go
extinct, allows communities to go extinct.''
Opponents of the plan have proposed that water be
spilled over the dams this summer, as well as
increasing flows, to help juvenile fish
downstream. They fear severe drought conditions
may lead to a repeat of 2001, when the government
declared an energy crisis and spills were
The Bonneville Power Administration, the federal
agency that markets the power produced at 31
federal dams on the Columbia River system, has
estimated spill alone would cost $100 million in
lost power revenue this summer.
That could translate to rate hikes of up to 3
percent, said John Fazio, a senior systems analyst
for the Northwest Power and Conservation council.
"We should really look at how much of a difference
does the spill make,'' he said. "Are we really
getting a significant increase in survival?''
Scientists for both sides disagree on that point,
For its part, Bonneville notes that much has
changed since 2001. Roughly 3,000 megawatts of new
generation from other sources is available, while
demand has declined about 2,000 megawatts because
of economic recession and the collapse of the
The agency's activities for salmon recovery are
guided by the advice of the council, as well as
federal, state and tribal fish and wildlife
managers in the region, said Sarah McNary, senior
policy adviser of endangered species for
"We have a high confidence that what we're doing
is actually benefiting both fish and wildlife,''
NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that oversees
both recovery efforts and commercial harvests, has
not yet said if it plans to appeal the judge's
ruling. The agency plans to release recovery plans
for different regions of the Columbia basin by
But under the Endangered Species Act, recovery for
salmon is undefined. In a legal sense, recovery
means the species is no longer in danger of going
extinct, but there is no specific number of fish
that equals recovery — a point that will continue
to be up for debate.
The act also has no provisions for an endangered
species that continues to be harvested for food,
said Bob Lohn, regional director of NOAA
"A decision of how many fish you need to produce
in order to have healthy harvests is not addressed
in the recovery plan,'' he said. "But of course,
it's a goal.''
In the meantime, salmon fishing was closed on the
Columbia this spring — a move that wreaked havoc
on all aspects of the industry, including tribal
fishermen who harvest salmon for ceremonial
purposes and sustenance.
One sportfishing guide refunded $10,000 — half his
fee — to 57 customers who canceled in just two
weeks, said Trey Carskadon of the Northwest
Sportfishing Industry Association.
"They told him that they've had it with the
uncertainty of these runs. They don't really want
to come back,'' Carskadon said.
Turned away from the Columbia, sport fishermen
anchored their boats six-wide at one spot on the
nearby Willamette River.
On the Net: NOAA Fisheries Pacific
Northwest Region, www.nwr.noaa.gov/; Bonneville
Power Administration, www.bpa.gov; Northwest Power
and Conservation Council,