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Salmon Opinion Coming Out Today

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, December 21, 2000

The salmon machine was turned to high spin cycle Wednesday as river watchers tried to react in advance to all-important federal documents to be released today.

Without having seen the redrafted Columbia River operations guide -- officially known as the "biological opinion" -- environmental groups started criticizing it as poor science while river users cautiously accepted its conclusions.

But it's still unknown exactly what "triggers" the National Marine Fisheries Service will use to determine whether to recommend lower Snake River dam breaching to Congress. Also, there are questions about what kind of measures will be required by Northwesterners to recover struggling salmon and steelhead runs.

At the crux of salmon decisions are predictions of how well fish will fare in coming years. Gretchen Oosterhout, a fish model analyst for tribes and environmental groups, said the main model NMFS has used to predict fish recovery is overly optimistic.

Her analysis shows NMFS' model failed miserably to predict fish runs through the 1990s. For example, if the model had been used in 1995, it would have predicted about 7,500 spring-summer chinook spawners in selected Snake River streams in 1999. The actual number was about 650.

"If it performs this badly against the data that we have, why should we believe it's going to predict what happens in the future?" Oosterhout said.

NMFS officials were not immediately available to respond to questions about their model.

Poor models will lead to insufficient recovery actions, said Rob Masonis, with American Rivers environmental group in Seattle. "The level of survival improvements they say will be needed ... will be significantly lower than that what is actually needed," he said. "This gives the region a false sense of security."

Industry groups weren't exactly sounding secure about the future of the multiple-use river system on Wednesday -- but they took heart in the Northwest's renewed interest in hydropower during this winter's power shortage scare.

"Throwing away over 3,000 megawatts of electricity peaking capacity provided by these dams -- enough power to run the city of Seattle -- will not bring the fish back now, nor in five or eight years from now," said Scott Corwin, manager of government affairs for PNGC Power in Oregon.

And Gretchen Borck of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers questioned whether conflicts among hatcheries, harvest levels and protecting wild fish would hamper recovery efforts.

"We are concerned about whether the goals are clearly defined and also whether the performance targets will be achievable," she said.

Mike Lee
Salmon Opinion Coming Out Today
Tri-City Herald, December 21, 2000

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