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Commentaries and editorials

Dams are Becoming a Red Herring
in Salmon Debate

Editorial, The Times-News, September 23, 1999

Some people would like to simplify the salmon debate down to a single question: To breach the dams, or not to breach?

We'd like to suggest more basic solutions. Give Idaho's struggling salmon a fighting chance against their natural predators, and give them some cover from the tribal and commercial angling that takes a bite out of the population.

Endangered species preservation doesn't get much more basic than that. It doesn't make any sense to allow endangered salmon to be harvested. And it doesn't make a lot of sense to lock up the region in a debate over dam breaching until the basics are taken care of.

Beyond Idaho, salmon have to avoid the maws of opportunistic sea lions and nesting Caspian terns, then battle around tribal gill nets and commercial fishermen. Gill netters take endangered salmon along with other, more plentiful runs of ocean-going fish. And sea lions and terns don't discriminate between endangered fish and those that aren't.

It is a matter of changing our nature, and then tweaking nature. Salmon fishing can be curtailed. It would be a new political fight, but a worthy one. It would be opposed, of course, by the Indian tribes which are harvesting tens of thousands of fish this fall with some 400 gill nets on the lower Columbia, fish sold on a cash basis (no tax trail here, folks) onto the commercial market.

Natural predators, such as the estimated 20,000 Caspian terns that have learned to live and fish on a single Columbia River island, also must be curtailed.

Some scientists, pushing a pro-breaching agenda, will argue that harvest has a lesser effect on salmon numbers than the dams. Even if that argument were true, it's disingenuous. Idaho's salmon population doesn't have a fish to spare, or so the theory goes. Under those rules, you shouldn't dismiss anything that diminishes salmon numbers.

But while harvest and natural predators are treated like an afterthought, the breaching debate continues to get louder.

Within a few months, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to release its recommendations for salmon recovery. One of the options under consideration is breaching portions of four lower Snake River dams.

The dam breaching argument has come a long way over the past five years. Once a suggestion from the fringe, dam breaching has the attention of mainstream biology.

But let's get real. The science of dam breaching isn't proven, nor is its political viability. Regardless of what the Corps recommends, we just can't see the region's political leaders agreeing to breach the dams. But we can see the breaching debate dividing Idaho -- pitting the port of Lewiston against southern Idaho water users -- and leaving the fish hanging.

Idaho's salmon have plenty of enemies, but their most pervasive foe is time. Let's not waste time on what's bound to be an academic debate over breaching. Let's take care of the basics first. That means reducing harvest and predation.

Times-News Editors
Dams are Becoming a Red Herring in Salmon Debate
The Times-News, September 23, 1999

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