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Fishermen calling for an improved salmon recovery


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 flows.

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 of Engineers.

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 Conservation Council.

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 curtailed.

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, among others.

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 aluminum industry.

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 Bonneville Power.

"We have a high confidence that what we're doing is actually benefiting both fish and wildlife,'' she said.

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 year's end.

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 Fisheries.

"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, www.nwpcc.org





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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