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Fish Scales

by Editors
In Our View, The Columbian, January 3, 2004

Salmon recovery carries costs,
but so does salmon extinction

The National Marine Fisheries Service didn't have much choice this week but to concede that current efforts to save wild salmon on the Columbia-Snake river system are deficient. After all, a federal judge concluded exactly that more than six months ago.

Yet fisheries officials couldn't bring themselves to admit what even some of their own data suggest: that elimination of four Snake River dams may be the only way to put 12 threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead stocks on a path to recovery.

The existing recovery strategy, adopted by the Clinton administration, specifically avoids calling for the breaching of Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams. Instead, the plan seeks to engineer the recovery of salmon -- many species of which are at less than one-tenth of their historical numbers -- by improving habitat, modifying hatchery practices and barging young smolts around the dams.

Unfortunately, habitat upgrades have been minor and piecemeal, and some fish biologists believe that the only good hatchery is a closed hatchery. As for barging juvenile salmon, the National Marine Fisheries Service itself has concluded that a high percentage of those fish die soon after transport.

Such shortfalls prompted the fisheries service this week to place salmon-recovery progress in the "yellow zone," somewhere in that huge area separating success from disaster. As Bob Lohn, the agency's regional director, told the Associated Press, "There's still room for improvement, but given a more realistic schedule, we believe the agencies can complete the progress they committed to make."

That might be wishful thinking. The region's salmon strategy has already been found wanting by U.S. District Judge James Redden. Last May, the judge ordered the Bush administration to scrap the Clinton plan and come up with something that really saves fish. A new plan is due by summer, but Bush has gone on record opposing dam breaching.

Without question, carving new channels around the four Snake River dams would have economic consequences for the Pacific Northwest -- but far fewer than many might imagine. The dams do absolutely nothing to prevent flooding and contribute only a fraction of the region's hydroelectricity supply; their main function is to turn Lewiston, Idaho, into a port city. Yet a 2002 RAND Corp. study concluded that breaching the dams would actually produce a net economic benefit, partly because of the millions of dollars that would no longer be spent to barge fish.

Saving the salmon won't be cheap -- but neither will losing them. The Bush administration has an opportunity to do what the Clintonites would not: be honest about the tradeoffs, and stop pretending that the mess we humans have made of the Columbia-Snake river system can be wished away.

Fish Scales
The Columbian, January 3, 2004

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