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Salmon Recovery Comes of Age

by Jeffrey P. Koenings
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 2008

Early last summer, the outlook for salmon fisheries appeared dire up and down the West Coast. To the north, Canadians braced for one of the weakest Fraser River sockeye runs since the 1940s. To the south, the collapse of the Sacramento River chinook run had already dashed any hope of an ocean fishery off the California coast and most of Oregon.

Here in Washington, our most pressing concern was the prospect of low coho returns to the Columbia River Basin, prompting a variety of conservation measures early in the season.

But as it turned out, coho salmon -- as well as chinook and sockeye -- returned to the Columbia River in relatively high numbers, while major runs in California and British Columbia were weak as predicted.

The fact that ocean conditions have improved for salmon off the Washington coast may be one reason why our runs fared better this year. But I know the commitment made to salmon recovery across our state also has a lot to do with it.

For the past decade, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been working with other state, tribal and local partners to create a system of stewardship for wild salmon that provides protection and support throughout their lifecycle. Fisheries co-managers call it "gravel-to-gravel" management, extending from the gravel streambeds where salmon first emerge as fry, out to the open ocean where they feed and mature, and back to the gravel of their natal streams where they return to spawn.

This comprehensive approach to salmon recovery is paying off. Of the salmon runs we monitor, more than 80 percent of those listed under the federal Endangered Species Act increased in abundance on the spawning grounds last year. Meanwhile, we have created dozens of sustainable salmon fisheries around the state that provide fishing opportunities targeting abundant hatchery-reared salmon while providing protection for natural runs.

Several new initiatives undertaken this year will go a long way to ensure gravel-to-gravel stewardship for our state's native salmon runs in future years.

In recent years, nearly half of all chinook salmon caught in fisheries off the coast of Alaska and British Columbia originated in Washington waters. More than a third of those fish were wild salmon, many listed under the ESA.

Last May, I helped negotiate a new agreement under the Pacific Salmon Treaty that will require British Columbia and Alaska to reduce their harvest of southbound chinook salmon by one million fish over the next 10 years. If the new agreement receives final federal approval, it will greatly increase the number of chinook salmon that return to spawn next year in watersheds from Puget Sound to the upper Columbia River.

In a separate agreement, a federal court recently approved a 10-year plan that provides a new framework for fisheries in the Columbia River Basin. That plan, approved after years of negotiations with treaty tribes on the Columbia River, will ensure that harvest rates are proportionate with each year's salmon runs.

Interceptions of Washington-bound salmon are of special concern because most fisheries in Canada and Alaska are not designed to distinguish between hatchery-reared salmon and wild fish threatened with extinction. By contrast, our state has been a leader in pioneering fishing strategies that provide protection to wild salmon while allowing fishers to harvest abundant hatchery fish.

The groundwork for today's "mark-selective" salmon fisheries was laid a decade ago, when hatchery crews around the state began marking millions of young hatchery fish so they can be identified on the fishing grounds. That has made it possible to establish fishing rules that require anglers to release wild, unmarked salmon, greatly reducing mortality rates for native fish in recent years.

Fishery management is just one aspect of salmon recovery. Risks to salmon posed by habitat loss, hatchery operations and hydroelectric dams are also key issues being addressed through our state's effort to restore native salmon runs to healthy levels.

All these factors are addressed in recovery plans developed through regional partnerships with watershed groups to recover ESA-listed salmon populations throughout the state. Six regional plans have received federal approval so far, including a far-reaching strategy approved last year for recovering depleted chinook salmon runs in Puget Sound.

The Puget Sound plan includes major estuary-restoration projects now under way in the Nisqually River Delta, the Skagit River Delta and in the Skokomish River Delta in Hood Canal. These efforts, in conjunction with the newly formed Puget Sound Partnership, will result in a healthier Puget Sound that can produce and sustain far more juvenile salmon.

Hatcheries produce the vast majority of the salmon harvested in the Pacific Northwest, generating significant economic, recreational and cultural benefits for our state. But hatchery fish can also pose risks to wild fish, ranging from genetic mixing to competition for food. That has sparked an ongoing series of reforms, designed to prevent hatchery fish -- and the facilities that produce them -- from interfering with wild salmon.

In 2004, an independent group of scientists appointed by Congress recommended more than a thousand changes in state hatchery operations in the Puget Sound region and on the coast. Since then, DFW has addressed more than 800 of those issues, and continues to improve state hatchery operations commensurate with available funding.

Next year, Washington and Oregon plan to start realigning hatchery production in the lower Columbia River Basin to provide greater support for wild salmon and steelhead. These changes, too, are consistent with recommendations by the congressionally appointed Hatchery Scientific Review Group.

Since the 1930s, hydroelectric dams have brought dramatic changes to the Columbia River Basin and to the salmon runs that once returned by the millions to spawn. As part of the state's salmon-recovery effort, DFW has worked closely with partners throughout the region to ensure that the federal hydroelectric system contributes its fair share to the job of restoring runs affected by those facilities.

The centerpiece of this effort is a mitigation plan called the Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion -- or "BiOp," for short. That plan, now before U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland, includes significant new provisions for fish passage, hatchery reform, monitoring, adaptive management and financial support for habitat restoration throughout the basin.

That plan, developed after years of negotiations, is far superior to any proposed before, and I believe the time has come to put the fish-friendly measures it proposes into action.

That is already happening at five dams operated by public utility districts on the upper Columbia River. Over the past five years, DFW has finalized cooperative agreements with PUDs in Grant, Chelan and Douglas counties to adopt conservation plans stipulating that their hydro operations will have "no net impact" on salmon in future years.

In the 10 years I have spent as DFW director, no issue has been more important, more central to the work of the department, than salmon recovery. Today, thanks to the collaborative efforts of people throughout our state, the foundation for a gravel-to-gravel system of salmon management is solidly in place.

But protecting and recovering wild salmon runs requires an ongoing commitment. Especially now, as we see more signs that our efforts are succeeding, I only hope our state will stay the course and maintain its commitment to this important work.

Jeffrey P. Koenings, Ph.D., recently resigned as director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after serving in that position since 1999.
Salmon Recovery Comes of Age
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 2008

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