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Commentaries and editorials

On the Recovery of
Snake River and Columbia River Salmon

by Frank Rue, Commissioner Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Testimony to Federal Caucus, Petersburg, Alaska, March 9, 2000

I want to welcome you to Alaska and thank you for holding this public hearing in Juneau, and for the other hearings you are holding in Ketchikan, Sitka, and Petersburg.

The recovery of Snake and Columbia River salmon is of great interest to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the people of Southeast Alaska. Several of the federal options presented for recovering these fish stocks could affect the livelihoods of many in the region, particularly, those living in our small coastal communities that are dependent on sustainable fisheries.

Our comments are the result of reviewing the many recent documents produced by the federal government concerning the recovery of Columbia and Snake River salmon, the Corps’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the study of the John Day Drawdown, the Federal Caucus’s All-H Paper, and the thousands of pages of supporting documents.

First, I would like to briefly address the Corps’ documents and then turn to the All-H Paper. ADF&G will be submitting more detailed comments in the future.

ADF&G biologists reviewed the summary document for the Corps’ John Day Drawdown Phase I Study and disagree strongly with the recommendations of the report. ADF&G believes the potential fish and fishery benefits have been greatly underestimated by the Corps. We believe the analytic approach taken with regard to the potential benefits to the ESA listed and non-listed stocks was faulty, biased, and used unsubstantiated assumptions that completely under-estimated potential fishery benefits.

We believe that it is in all our interests to ensure that a realistic approach be taken to estimating those benefits. When ADF&G biologists use realistic data concerning the production of fish, the results are much different. In fact, they estimate that a drawdown could possibly result in the de-listing of the Snake River fall chinook. - a major step forward even before you begin to consider the benefits of decreased travel time, reduction in predators and improvement in water quality that are likely to result from a drawdown.

Furthermore, the public comment period should be extended given the fact that the actual study has not yet been released.

In the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Lower Snake River the Corps did not designate a preferred alternative. However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was clear: only the restoration of a natural river ecosystem, including a healthy riparian corridor would provide those mitigation measures most important to anadromous fish. The Department of Fish and Game supports their analysis of the impacts of the various alternatives on Snake River salmon and agrees that removing portions of the dams, the Natural River Drawdown Alternative, is the best alternative for anadromous fish.

The Corps’ five-year study says that breaching the dams offers the best chance to restore fish populations to healthy levels. It also notes that the other alternatives presented offer only about a 50-50 chance of success and are "much less likely to yield recovery."

The US Fish and Wildlife Service notes that the Maximum Transport Alternative would have little, if any, effect on the listed fish populations because the percentage of fish presently transported is already high. They also note that the Surface Bypass/Collection Alternative would have little, if any, effects on the listed fish populations. Again, our review of the many documents persuaded us that this is true.

Turning to the All-H Paper. ADF&G agrees with the concept that harvest, hydropower facilities, habitat restoration, and hatcheries all have roles to play in recovering the Columbia and Snake River salmon. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that as far as Snake River salmon fisheries are concerned, harvest is already fulfilling its role and further cuts will not get us closer to Snake River salmon recovery. You must look to the other H’s to recover these fish.

Further harvest restrictions are not a viable option to recover these salmon. Such actions would not recover fall chinook and would do nothing for the other species, spring/summer chinook, sockeye, and steelhead. We find it baffling that the federal government would put forward an alternative that would severely cut Southeast Alaska’s ability to catch any chinook salmon, while providing virtually no recovery benefits for the listed stock.

Our biologists have worked for over a decade to get Pacific Salmon Treaty Agreements that included abundance based management coupled with escapement goals and habitat restoration. The new harvest reductions and abundance-based management regime of the 1999 Pacific Salmon Treaty, fishermen are already fulfilling their role in recovery of these fish stocks. Fishery impacts on Snake River fall chinook were already reduced by over 50% before the new PST management regime. The Biological Opinion recently issued by NMFS gives the green light to northern fisheries managed in accordance with the PST - stating that these fisheries will not endanger the listed salmon.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages the fisheries of Alaska to ensure the long-term health of fish populations. The people of Alaska expect this; in fact they depend upon it. We take this responsibility seriously. If we believed that any reasonable additional conservation measures by the Department of Fish and Game were warranted to ensure the recovery of Snake River fall chinook, we would step forward to help.

The continued discussion of further harvest reductions for Snake River salmon is a waste of time simply because not much progress toward recovery can be made through further reductions. Rather federal agencies should move on to what the science shows may best help recover these stocks: breaching dams, habitat restoration, and augmented flows. It is time to look to the Pacific Northwest for further solutions to the recovery dilemma facing Columbia and Snake River salmon.

It is as clear as an unobstructed stream, that the dominant cause of mortality for all salmon populations in the Columbia River system, including the Snake River fall chinook, is the web of dams that have so changed the watershed as to make spawning, rearing and migration a lethal experience for anadromous fish. The biological opinion on the hydropower system, adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1995, acknowledged this by permitting the dams to kill from 62-99 percent of the migrating smolt and 39 percent of the returning adult salmon.

I urge the federal agencies to move forward with a real recovery effort for the ESA listed fish in the Snake and Columbia River without delay. Viable solutions have been presented that include removing the earthen parts of the four lower Snake River dams, habitat recovery, and increased water flows.

The position of the Department of Fish and Game, however, is clear: the best chance for recovery of these fish is a return to the natural river. Further reductions in Alaska harvests will not recover Snake River chinook salmon. Fishermen are already doing their part.

Thank you.

Related Sites:
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Endangered Salmon Recovery

Frank Rue, Commissioner Alaska Department of Fish and Game
On the Recovery of Snake River and Columbia River Salmon
Public Testimony to Federal Caucus, Petersburg, Alaska, March 9, 2000

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