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Conference Focuses on Future of NW Salmon

by Anna King, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, November 15, 2003

PORTLAND -- A record number of fall chinook salmon, 45,884 on Sept. 11 alone, surged past Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River this year.

Most of the credit was given to good ocean conditions, which means more food and less predators for salmon.

But, whether those numbers should be counted as a true sign of improvement was hotly debated between biologists, politicians and industry representatives for most of Friday in Portland.

The Salmon Crossroads conference was sponsored largely by the power companies and public utility districts of the Columbia Basin, many of which view the big returns as some measure of success.

"The public has been told, and has come to expect, that Northwest salmon are a declining resource. But runs are not acting out a destiny of decline," an advertisement for the conference stated.

Few scientists attending the event were willing to say the battle to save the powerful Northwest symbol had been won.

"You have to temper your expectations of what's going on in the oceans," said Bruce Suzumoto, with the Northwest Power Planning Council. "The ocean can turn around at any moment."

When current conditions change for the worse for Pacific Northwest salmon, expect to see big drops in their returning numbers, he said.

And those conditions could change next year or in 20 years, officials said.

In addition, what's good for one population of salmon may not be good for others, said Ed Casillas, program manager for NOAA Fisheries. He said scientists only started to understand the role of the ocean in salmon recovery in the past three years, and should remain cautious.

But if ocean conditions have such a large influence on salmon recovery, why focus on expensive habitat restoration and fish bypass efforts in Pacific Northwest rivers, asked some members of the audience?

"If you don't get them to the ocean, you won't get them back," said Frank "Larry" Cassidy, a Northwest Power Planning Council member.

Many scientists at the conference said a downturn in ocean conditions is just a matter of time, but what that will mean for salmon is less clear.

"We know it's coming so let's prepare," said Gary James, fisheries program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "Let's keep on doing as much or more."

James said he believes freshwater streams and rivers are the only systems humans can have some effect on, and that freshwater habitat is critical to the health of the fish populations when ocean conditions turn poor.

"When my bills are in the mail, I don't go out and work then," James said. "I work all the time. I know those bills are coming."

Management practices for fish, he argued, shouldn't be based on the best years but on the worst years.

Lorri Bodi, of the Bonneville Power Administration, said there is too much focus on what remains to be done, and not enough credit for what has been accomplished.

Instead of celebrating that 80 percent of an agreement on how the Columbia River and its tributaries should be managed has been reached, Bodi said, "We spend a tremendous amount of time fighting on the 20 percent."

By the end of the day, most were willing to poke a bit of fun at themselves.

"I've come to the conclusion that the salmon issue is a lot like the conflict in the Middle East," said Jack Ohman, political cartoonist for the Oregonian. "It might be unsolvable, but it's great for us to all get together and talk about it."

Anna King
Conference Focuses on Future of NW Salmon
Tri-City Herald, November 15, 2003

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