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It's Not All Doom and Gloom for Salmon and Steelhead;
They've Thrived for Years

by Roger Phillips
Bellingham Herald, April 30, 2011

Anglers have enjoyed respectable fish runs for a decade.

I can't remember way back to the "good ol' days" of salmon and steelhead runs in Idaho. I'm not old enough, and chances are good that neither are you.

But I know they're better now than they were 35 years ago. I am thankful for that and even optimistic about the future.

In 1974, Lower Granite Dam was completed about 25 miles downstream from Lewiston. It was the last of the eight dams that fish returning from the ocean must cross before reaching Idaho, and Lower Granite marked the beginning of the post-dam era for salmon and steelhead runs.

Fish counting started at Lower Granite in 1975, and I figure it's a good point in time to look back and see how Idaho's fish runs have fared since then. 1975

2010 Comparing only two years in salmon/steelhead history is dubious because fish populations fluctuate from year to year, but when you go back 20 years and look at the 10-year averages, similar patterns emerge.

Let's compare the 10-year averages between 1980 and 1990 with 2000 to 2010

We've also seen some amazing runs in the last decade, including post-dam record returns at Lower Granite for chinook (194,608 in 2001), steelhead (323,697 in 2009), sockeye (2,201 in 2010) and coho (4,629 in 2009).

If I were investing in anadromous fish, which we all are through our taxes and power bills, I would be pretty happy with the direction they're moving. Not satisfied, but at least there's progress.

It hasn't come cheap. Billions of dollars have been spent restoring salmon and steelhead runs, not to mention millions spent in court as industry, environmental groups and government agencies battled over what's best for salmon and steelhead.

That battle will continue next month when federal judge James Redden hears arguments from a host of attorneys over how best to manage the Columbia and Snake rivers and their dams.

Some folks spout a lot of doom and gloom about the future of salmon and steelhead. I agree they're hardly on the yellow-brick road to recovery, but as an angler and a person who cares deeply about those fish, I'm happy to acknowledge the progress.

This isn't a simple math game. It's grounded in my reality and that of many other Idahoans.

We've enjoyed steady and reliable steelhead and salmon runs that have provided anglers with tens of thousands of fish to catch and brought millions of dollars to Idaho's rural communities.

I've devoted countless hours and thousands of dollars fishing for steelhead in Idaho rivers. It's not a pastime; it's more of an obsession.

I've stood in frigid rivers for hours and gotten skunked, but I've also had some of the most memorable moments of my long fishing career. Salmon anglers have enjoyed a similar bounty. This year will mark the 12th consecutive year of salmon fishing.

In recent years, anglers have had fishing seasons for spring, summer or fall chinook, and they have been able to catch salmon from Lewiston to Stanley.

While hatchery salmon and steelhead runs have seen the bulk of the improvements, some wild fish numbers have also improved.

In 1994, the first year wild steelhead were counted separatedly from hatchery fish at Lower Granite, 8,885 wild fish crossed the dam. Then in 1997, the year wild steelhead were listed under the Endangered Species Act, 8,991 returned.

Fast forward to 2010 and 61,278 wild steelhead crossed Lower Granite. They return to most of their native waters that aren't blocked by impassable dams and spawn in pristine wilderness rivers that have nurtured them for eons.

The work is far from over. No wild salmon or steelhead species is recovered enough to remove it from the Endangered Species Act, but, frankly, that doesn't seem to be anyone's priority.

I say that because there are no hard numbers for when any of these runs are "recovered," and no one in the political world seems very concerned about it.

So the current situation of protecting wild fish and harvesting hatchery fish (at least for sport anglers; tribal anglers can catch both) will remain the status quo for the foreseeable future.

The dam-building era was tough on salmon and steelhead, and sockeye and coho runs could still be snuffed if river and/or ocean conditions turn against them.

A few back-to-back drought years or poor ocean conditions could reverse decades of hard-earned gains.

I'm certainly not giving the dams a pass. Even the best runs of the post-dam era pale in comparison to historic runs, which brimmed with millions of fish returning from the ocean. The Northwest would be a better place if people hadn't gotten so dam crazy in the mid-1900s,

As much as I would love to turn back the clock and get a do-over on the Columbia and Snake rivers, it's not going to happen.

The dams are a reality we have to face, and if it takes a court decision and billions more dollars to recover wild salmon and steelhead, so be it.

But I won't let that political morass ruin my appreciation for good salmon and steelhead runs and the joy they bring to Idaho anglers and others.

So for all of you anglers wrapping up your steelhead fishing season or anticipating the salmon season, may you have tight lines now and in the future.

Related Pages:
This Season of Salmon Brings Hope and Perhaps Legal Closure to Idaho by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 4/22/11

Roger Phillips
It's Not All Doom and Gloom for Salmon and Steelhead; They've Thrived for Years
Bellingham Herald, April 30, 2011

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