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Idaho Considers Ending
Snake River Salmon Season

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, May 3, 2005

Despite bountiful runs in 2001, salmon aren't returning this year

Idaho's anglers would have a banner year if Snake River spring-summer chinook succeeded only in replacing their parents this year.

Fisheries officials say it is too early to predict how this year's run will add up, but they doubt it will match the nearly 200,000 salmon that returned to the Snake River in 2001.

The optimal ocean conditions that brought record returns in 2001 -- when this year's fish were hatched -- have diminished. And salmon advocates and the Bush administration are battling in court over whether enough was done to help the fish during their time in the Columbia River Basin.

As of Sunday, only 533 salmon had scaled all eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers heading into Idaho. Last year, 23,591 had arrived by now, and in the record year of 2001 more than 92,000 salmon crossed Lower Granite

Dam, the last obstacle between the Pacific and Idaho's prime spawning waters.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game fish managers are contemplating shutting down the Snake River salmon fishing season that opened April 23. Washington never even opened its season.

"For the salmon to replace themselves you would expect one salmon to return for each salmon that spawned," said Sharon Kiefer, Idaho Department of Fish and Game salmon and steelhead fisheries manager.

Salmon are a cultural icon and the center of a multimillion-dollar economy that spreads from Tendoy to Alaska. Measures to save them affect a hydroelectric power system that provides most of the electricity for the Pacific Northwest and water that keeps farms green and allows shipping inland to Lewiston.

Federal and state biologists met Monday to decide whether to reduce their estimate of the spring summer salmon return throughout the Columbia River Basin. A report is expected by mid-week.

Two views of recovery clash in federal court

U.S. District Judge James Redden will decide this month whether the Bush administration's plan for saving endangered salmon is adequate.

Federal agencies are spending $6 billion over 10 years on salmon efforts, the most significant program for Columbia and Snake River salmon ever, said Robert Lohn, Pacific Northwest director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency in charge of protecting salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"We are aggressively pursuing strategies that increase salmon returns while still preserving the quality of life those in the Northwest have become accustomed to," Lohn said.

Boise resident Pat Ford leads Save Our Wild Salmon, the coalition of fishing groups, conservation groups and salmon-related businesses that are challenging the Bush plan.

The Bush administration said eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington and Oregon do not jeopardize endangered salmon and steelhead. Administration lawyers argue that the dams were there when the salmon were listed as endangered.

They say the Endangered Species Act requires them to evaluate only the effects of dam operations on salmon, not the dams themselves. They also said the federal government does not need to meet goals that would recover salmon, only keep their numbers stable, under the Endangered Species Act.

They say high numbers of returning salmon since 2000 are enough evidence the fish aren't going to go extinct and current efforts are sufficient.

Ford said this year's returns will demonstrate that salmon are still in trouble. "You test recovery value in the next generation of adults, not the last,'' Ford said.

Ocean conditions are major factor for survival

The fate of salmon lies in the way the wind blows, said Nate Mantua, a research scientist with the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group. Winds affect ocean currents, and ocean currents dramatically change the environment of the ocean where Idaho's salmon live.

Salmon do best in subarctic ocean conditions, in which their major food source, zooplankton, flourishes on nutrients carried from the depths of the ocean by up-swelling currents. When the currents turn the ocean warmer, predators and other fish that compete with salmon are lured north and zooplankton levels drop.

From 1998 through the summer of 2002, Pacific waters were cooler and beneficial to salmon. Conditions were similar to those in the 1960s and early '70s, when salmon thrived, Mantua said.

Since the fall of 2002, ocean conditions have shifted. Now the salmon live in a warmer ocean that is not as optimal for them. However, it is not as warm as it was in the period between 1991 and 1998 when the spring-salmon population dropped to near extinction.

At the same time, drought has continued to plague the Pacific Northwest. That has forced federal officials to collect most salmon at the dams and barge them to the ocean. (Some salmon are barged every year.)

In 2003, the year this run migrated to the ocean after spending two years in the tributaries, flow conditions were good enough that federal officials allowed a larger number of salmon to spill over the dams -- the best way to get young salmon through the dams with the least mortality, Kiefer said.

Snake River salmon run the longest gantlet

Snake River salmon face a tougher migration than the Columbia salmon because they have to get through eight dams instead of just four.

The percentage of adults in the Columbia tributaries that returned compared to their parents reached as much as five times replacement between 1998 and 2003, while Idaho's salmon reached about twice replacement at their peak.

That's why salmon advocates like Ford say removing the four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Washington, including Lower Granite, is necessary for Idaho salmon recovery.

The Bush administration took that option off the table, but it could be back if Redden rules against them.

Diverse opinions make cooperation harder

Sam Whitten, whose outfitting business, River Adventure Limited in Riggins, benefits from liberal salmon seasons, believes we can have salmon and dams. But he says more needs to be done.

"It's such a complex issue," Whitten said. "From the time they leave here to the time they get back, they go through so many people's lives. If you don't scream and yell and shout, nothing happens."

Lohn said bringing all these people together to come up with a plan will be necessary for success.

"Only by engaging in cooperative conservation with citizens around the region will we be able to achieve recovery for endangered species-listed salmon," he said.

That won't happen, Ford said, as long as interests like farmers, shippers and electric power users believe the Bush administration can shield them from making major changes in dam operations. Ford is hoping Redden's decision goes his way, but ultimately he's looking elsewhere for a solution.

"The place the region needs to turn is our own elected officials -- the governors, Congress and the tribes," Ford said. "It may not be easy, but it may be necessary."

Three things to watch for in this year's salmon debate:

  1. How U.S. District Judge James Redden rules in a federal case on salmon recovery in his Portland court. A decision is expected this month.
  2. How many salmon return. This year's fish are the progeny of the record 2001 year class of salmon, yet only 533 fish have crossed the final dam toward Idaho, compared to more than 92,000 by this time in 2001.
  3. What percentage of adults return compared to the number of their parents that spawned. This is the critical measure of recovery.

Rocky Barker
Idaho Considers Ending Snake River Salmon Season
The Idaho Statesman, May 3, 2005

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