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'Happy Days are Here Again' for Salmon, Run Counts Predict

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, April 9, 2000

When Columbia River tribes gathered at the Celilo Village longhouse this weekend for the annual first salmon ceremonies, it was with an extra bit of passion.

For the first time in years, they have something to celebrate - the resurrection of the Columbia River spring chinook run.

More than 130,000 of the revered fish are expected to pass Bonneville Dam this season - the largest return of upriver "springers" since the late 1970s.

Five years ago, returns were so low that Columbia River tribes could only catch 500 spring chinook for ceremonial and subsistence use. This year, they likely will get to catch upwards of 10,000 fish, about four times more than last year.

"In that sense, there is much more to give thanks for this year," said Chuck Hudson at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

It's a few weeks too early to tell if the runs will be as big as forecasted. And there are still big questions about the health of wild runs. But the promise of a good season held through the first few days of counting returns at the dams, and enthusiasm is sweeping well beyond tribal offices.

"There are gangs of salmon moving out of the Portland area and they are going to take over ... the eastern part of the state," said a giddy Bruce Lovelin at the Columbia River Alliance in Portland. "It's the beginning of good times ahead. Happy days are here again."

The cheer for spring salmon started last year when very high numbers of "jacks" - early returning males - were counted up and down the system. High jack counts usually indicate strong returns the following year.

As this migration season starts, the salmon boom seems to be widespread and state predictions are for solid to excellent steelhead and fall chinook runs in the Columbia Basin.

This spring, Umatilla tribal leaders have predicted a decade-high 3,500 spring chinook in the Umatilla River, up from 13 fish when the run was reintroduced in 1988, according to the tribal newspaper.

And the run size forecast for upper Columbia spring chinook is 28,000, compared with a return of 7,400 last year, said Jim Cummins, state fish biologist in Yakima.

"We are looking at a considerable improvement," he said.

About 2,000 spring chinook a day are crossing Bonneville Dam. At that rate, it will take less than three weeks to equal last year's count.

There are many reasons for this year's success. One appears to be that the ocean has improved for salmon after 20 years of relatively warm and hostile conditions for fish, according to some regional scientists.

But Lovelin also argues that the increase is in part because of improvements in Columbia Basin dams, paid for with millions of dollars of energy ratepayer money.

"We need to take some credit for it," he said.

Also, tribes point to their new-era hatcheries, such as the one in the Upper Yakima River Basin.

These new facilities appear to be doing a better job of preparing fish for the real world. This spring, the first jacks will return to the Yakima from tribal supplementation efforts, and starting next year, the full run should boost Yakima returns even more.

Another popular explanation is that this year's returning salmon migrated to the ocean in a year when river water temperatures were better than normal, Hudson said.

Tribes have pushed for breaching the Lower Snake River dams so the river more often runs at a lower temperature, like it did when this year's class of fish swam to the ocean.

Lovelin, however, said the strong returns warrant a new look at drastic options such as dam breaching.

"It's got major policy implications," he said. "The case (for dam breaching) gets harder and harder to make when the salmon start coming back."

But Cummins warned against making too much of the big increase because the vast majority of the fish are hatchery-bred, not wild.

"I am not saying anything pro or con about dam breaching, but wild runs are extremely low and some stocks are dangerously low," Cummins said.

"The fact that we have some strong hatchery runs this year is not a flaw in the dam breaching argument."

Also, warned Cummins, this year's big jump may be followed by a big dive next year.

"It's part of the up and down cycle that we live with," he said.

Mike Lee
'Happy Days are Here Again' for Salmon, Run Counts Predict
Tri-City Herald, April 9, 2000

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