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Ignorance Hinders Salmon Recovery

by Bill Reinard
Guest Comment, Capital Press - July 12, 2002

Cyclical ocean conditions and more than a century of aggressive harvest are the greatest causes of declines in wild salmon populations. That's an undeniable fact. We can no longer tolerate salmon-recovery decision-makers ignoring volumes of research. Physical habitat protection and restoration responsibly done, though an important part of the equation, does not substitute for what must happen.

Good fish catches in Alaska generally reflect poor catches for the U.S. West Coast and vice versa. A set of ocean conditions here, but different from Alaska, persist 20 to 30 years. Then they become reversed. The entire process of these cycling events is called Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The abrupt reversal in a short time period is called a regime shift. What does that mean?

Before a 1977 regime shift occurred, we had a cool, nutrient-rich ocean phase with high ocean salmon productivity. The 1977 shift brought the low-production warm ocean phase to us. Meanwhile, pristine Alaska suffered alarmingly low salmon populations before the 1977 shift After that, salmon productivity prospered.

The 1977 shift was one of the strongest and most rapid along with two others this century and a fourth in the past 300 years. They occurred around 1750, 1905, 1947 and 1977 as stated in a January 2001 American Meteorological Society paper by Franco Biondi.

From 1977 to early 1990s, ocean conditions favored Alaskan fish stocks and hurt West Coast stocks. Jim Lichatowich, in "Salmon Without rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis," describes our dilemma. He refers to a recent (mid-'90s) study by Interrain Pacific. Historically, 56 to 65 percent of Pacific salmon return to Alaska, 19 to 26 percent to British Columbia and 15 to 16 percent to our West Coast.

Recent returns to Alaska were 81 to 90 percent, 8 to 17 percent to B.C. and only 1 percent to the Pacific Northwest. The total number of returning fish declined by 20 to 40 percent over the entire Northwest Pacific as well. Our lack of salmon returns compounded by continued harvest has devastated the resource.

Recovery of threatened and endangered salmon stocks may wait for the next shift, says a Pacific Halibut Commission biologist. The shifts in ocean conditions are caused by or are related to movement of the North Pacific low-pressure area. About four years ago, the low pressure moved west from off Kodiak Island to off the Kamchatcka Peninsula.

Evidence for the shift in ocean conditions having occurred is strong. The Columbia River 2001 summer steelhead returns were highest since counting began at Bonneville in 1938, and spring chinook shattered the old 1972 record. Alaska has been hit with the negative impact. Jack Helle of NMFS states, "We seem to be beyond the good times up north." Satellites picked up a 150-by-150-mile algae bloom drifting in the Bering Sea. It was spotted again in '98, '99, 2000, but not yet in a 2001 report. "It's a symptom of real sterile conditions," Helle said.

The past century of intensive harvest has had a devastating effect upon productivity. Much research attests to the extreme importance of having large numbers of salmon to spawn and leave carcasses to return nutrients from the sea. Unhatched eggs and carcasses sustain a healthy ecosystem that in turn retains and recycles nutrients to support vibrant salmon populations.

Many salmon researchers believe that decreased salmon productions could be selfperpetuating as salmon stocks already in decline are likely to decrease further in what's referred to as a negative feedback loop. The downward spiral of the negative feedback loop must be revered if wild salmonids are to recover. Physical habitat protection and restoration don't substitute for what must happen.

RCW 77.04.012 mandates that "fish are the property of the state. The commission, director and the department shall preserve, protect and manage food fish in state waters and offshore waters." Tribes likewise have treaty responsibilities to preserve and enhance the fishery. Why then did the following happen in the fall of 2000 on the Skagit River? With an open commercial harvest and an in-river tribal and sports fishery for chum salmon, 19 percent of the escapement goal was reached. With a goal of 116,500 count was 22,321.

We must exert pressure for the responsible alternative to what isn't happening -- letting many wild salmonids do what comes naturally. We must give wild salmonids escapement priority over aggressive harvest.

Bill Reinard is a Burlington, Wash., resident who taught biology in Sedro Woolley for 30 years and is a salmon-recovery activist.
Ignorance Hinders Salmon Recovery
Capital Press - July 12, 2002

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