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Feds Define a Finish Line for Northwest Salmon Recovery

by Associated Press
Capital Press - May 3, 2002

SPOKANE, Wash., (AP) -- Salmon once returned to the Columbia River system in the millions. By the 1990s they were returning to some streams only in the hundreds.

The federal government would like to see 146,450 return to spawn each year, give or take a few. If those numbers can be achieved, the National Marine Fisheries Service would consider removing Columbia River salmon and steelhead from endangered species protection.

The "productivity targets" were released in April after years of studies. Few sides are happy. Environmental groups say more wild salmon and steelhead are needed to ensure survival of the species. Businesses interests contend the targets are too high and cannot be achieved.

"Obviously we think they are good numbers," said NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman from Seattle.

Until the targets were released, the long-running struggle to restore wild salmon runs lacked a finish line, Gorman said.

"It was like telling someone to cut a stick of a certain length, but we didn't tell them what length," he said.

While NMFS insists the numbers are interim and could be changed, the Northwest Power Planning Council is already using them as planning targets as it seeks to balance salmon recovery with the region's electricity needs.

Groups that represent business interests criticize the requirement that only wild fish be counted. The vast majority of returning salmon each year are hatchery fish, which the government considers genetically inferior.

"If they want all-wild fish, there's not too much hope of getting those numbers," said Dick Ewing, a Methow Valley advocate for irrigation water users.

The Sierra Club believes the salmon targets are not high enough, spokesman Chase Davis said in Spokane.

"Full salmon recovery means harvestable numbers of fish," Davis said. "We are not there."

There are seven runs of salmon and steelhead in the interior Columbia Basin that are listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government.

Salmon are also endangered in the Puget Sound and in the Lower Columbia-Willamette rivers, and NMFS plans to release targets for those areas later this spring.

Under natural conditions, salmon and steelhead are born in creeks, rivers and mountain lakes, then migrate to the Pacific Ocean. A few years later, surviving fish make the reverse trip as adults, to spawn in the streams of their birth.

For centuries the annual runs provided food and a social framework for Northwest Indian tribes, who celebrated the return of the fish as a sign of nature's abundance.

By the 1990s some rivers and streams had fewer than 100 salmon returning to spawn each year. In all the 1990s, only 18 sockeye salmon made the 900-mile migration to three lakes in Idaho's Stanley Basin.

While there are numerous reasons for the declines, including overfishing in the oceans, disease, climate change and other factors, much of the recovery attention has focused on modifying or removing four big dams on the Snake River.

That has made salmon recovery a contentious issue throughout the Northwest, especially as drought has limited the amount of water in the river systems.

Farmers who count on irrigation water -- plus barging companies, utilities and other businesses that depend on high river flows -- all have a stake in the decisions. So do Indian tribes whose treaties with the federal government promised salmon runs would be maintained at fishable levels.

In order to qualify for delisting, salmon returns must reach the targets at least four out of eight consecutive years, NMFS said. That's to prevent a year or two of unusually high returns leading to delisting.

Ewing said any salmon targets must account for wide variations in how many fish return each season. Long before the dams were built, salmon runs could still vary widely from year to year. Ewing said.

"Indians and early settlers used to starve because of no salmon," he said.

Bob Bugert of Wenatchee, Gov. Gary Locke's salmon coordinator for Eastern Washington, said it is important that salmon return to many streams.

"We don't want them all in one basket, or in one stream," Bugert said. That's why NMFS set targets for each river or stream in the Columbia River system, Gorman said.

Pat Ford, executive director of the advocacy group Save Our Wild Salmon, believes the targets are far short of the ultimate goal.

"We believe the Northwest goal and the federal goal should be getting harvestable runs of wild salmon, so salmon can be used by people in the region," Ford said in a telephone interview from Boise. "That would be much higher numbers."

by Associated Press
Feds Define a Finish Line for Northwest Salmon Recovery
Capital Press - May 3, 2002

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