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Commentaries and editorials

Saving Columbia Salmon:
Reversing Salmon Decline One Population at a Time

by Paul Lumley
Seattle Times, April 4, 2011

The impending decision by federal Judge James Redden on the Obama administration's Columbia River biological opinion has brought out a host of theorists who have reduced salmon to a series of abstract concepts. These are real fish, navigating a real river. Rather than pondering the theoretical perceptions, the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes have reversed salmon's decline and are doing real work toward a different goal: real and tangible returns of naturally spawning fish. For salmon in the Columbia River, actions speak louder than words.

The tribes' dedication to salmon restoration actions is leading to a reality for salmon that is significantly different than what is often portrayed. We're proud of our fisheries programs, which would not have been possible without federal support, including the Columbia Basin fish accords. Wild spring chinook salmon are returning to renewed ecosystems in the Umatilla, Yakima and Klickitat rivers. Coho in the Clearwater River are now abundant after being declared extinct in 1994. Salmon populations are rebuilding in the Columbia River Basin, and the success of these salmon runs is the direct result of more than 30 years of tribal efforts.

Grounded in our cultural responsibility to care for the resources that provide for us, the tribes' gravel-to-gravel management approach to salmon recovery is twofold: Put fish back in the rivers, and protect the watersheds where they live. Careful management of the tribes' sustainable fisheries, improvements to in-stream passage throughout the Columbia Basin, restoration of native vegetation, biologically appropriate salmon propagation and cutting-edge genetics research are just some of the areas in which we have demonstrated our leadership. The proof is in the numbers.

In their recent commentary in The Oregonian, Reps. Doc Hastings of Washington and Peter DeFazio of Oregon highlighted the Snake River fall chinook, which were rescued from the brink of extinction by tribal restoration programs and careful water management. In 1994, fewer than 2,000 Snake River fall chinook returned to the Columbia Basin. Juvenile fish passage improvements at federal dams, along with the Nez Perce Tribe's modern supplementation program, have led to a fall chinook run that is on its way to recovery. More than 40,000 fall chinook passed Lower Granite Dam in 2010. More then 10,000 of those fish were wild, nearly twice the previous record return since the dam was constructed in 1975. Snake River fall chinook could be the first stock eligible for de-listing under the Endangered Species Act, and the region should prepare for that conversation soon.

Hanford Reach fall chinook, kin to the Snake River run, are a testament to the tribes' comprehensive and long-term advocacy. In the early 1980s less than 20,000 fall chinook returned to the Hanford Reach on the Columbia River. Hanford Reach fall chinook were contending with years of loosely regulated ocean fishing. In 1985, the United States and Canada signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty, challenged ocean fishing management and implemented coast-wide controls on chinook harvest. Today, the Hanford Reach fall chinook population is one of the healthiest in the basin. Supporting fisheries in Alaska, Canada, coastal Washington and the mainstem Columbia River, more than 200,000 fall chinook destined for the Hanford Reach returned to the mouth of the Columbia in 2010.

The tribes placed their treaty rights on the line and made investments in salmon recovery that few were willing to make. We fought for in-river flow agreements to protect unborn salmon; we invested millions of dollars and countless hours protecting and restoring thousands of acres of habitat and thousands of miles of streams. In the end, fish are returning to the spawning grounds, and these are the results that matter.

Judge Redden may issue his long-awaited decision or he may request more work. In either case, one thing is certain: The tribes will continue with their projects that are successfully reversing salmon's decline, one population at a time.

Paul Lumley is a citizen of the Yakama Nation and executive director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Saving Columbia Salmon: Reversing Salmon Decline One Population at a Time
Seattle Times, April 4, 2011

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