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Idahoans Must Insist Upon Recovery of Wild Salmon Runs

by R.L. “Nick” Nicholson
The Idaho Statesman, September 19, 2003

R.L. “Nick” Nicholson, president of Idaho Steelhead Salmon Unlimited The members of Idaho Steelhead Salmon Unlimited (ISSU) were extremely disappointed by the meeting our governor recently hosted in Boise.

It was billed as a four-governor conference to address steelhead/salmon problems and was obviously prompted by the recent federal district court ruling.

The court ruled the current federal salmon plan is illegal and must be rewritten.

To those of us who will never be satisfied as long as wild fish only make up 13 percent of the total return, the results of the meeting fell far short of our expectations. We hoped to see the focus on wild fish restoration and instead they produced a document that opens with remarks concerning fish then immediately shifts to hydropower production and protection.

When reading it, three things become apparent. First it´s clear the governors´ recommendations will keep the fish status subordinate to cheap power rates and represent no change from the illegal salmon plan.

The second priority of how to best support the troubled Bonneville Power Administration is contributory to fish problems including lack of funding for restoration and self-serving water usage practices. The third thing to emerge is a claim that the minor changes (tweaking) of water policies is creating the increase in fish numbers and therefore shows the path to complete recovery of anadromous fish runs.

We all recognize the importance of power availability and low rates to economic recovery and ISSU applauds efforts to keep power rates as inexpensive as possible. However this should not take place at the expense of wild salmon.

The governors´ recommendations ignore these vital elements which keep the fish from recovery.

All ISSU asks for is equal treatment for fish needs and survival under prevailing conditions. The practice of giving power, irrigation, and transportation water use priorities has pushed wild migrating fish close to extinction. We must insist that any water allocation plan equalizes water usage and guarantees sufficient water for fish to navigate. This was not forthcoming.

Regarding the governors´ claims of success we believe the increase in numbers of returning fish is not cause for ignoring the main problems they face. It has been wonderful to see increasing numbers of hatchery fish returning. However, wild fish are still perilously close to extinction in many watersheds.

These returning numbers are only impressive when compared to the numbers posted in the dismal mid-1990s. In 1995 only 1,088 wild salmon returned to the Snake River. Let´s not forget that the upper Salmon River, from Riggins to Stanley, has not had an open salmon fishing season since 1977. The economic benefits to that depressed area could be huge.

Idaho is fortunate to have large areas of wilderness that once hosted millions of spawning fish. Some of us remember so many fish congregating at Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork one could not count them.

Dagger Falls is still there, the fish are not. Idaho has hundreds of miles of prime habitat with only a few fish using it.

ISSU believes the basis for the increase in returning fish numbers is changing ocean currents. The “tweaking” of current river conditions and hydropower facilities have been helpful, but to claim those minor changes are the key to increased fish numbers flies in the face of both science and reason. So it´s much too early to claim salmon have turned the corner. When currents again change, unless we have found a way for fish to circumvent the lethal effects of the four lower Snake River dams, we could cause their extinction.

Dam breaching has to be left on the table as promised by our government several years ago. Letting wild fish reach extinction is not an option. We must do whatever is necessary to prevent that from occurring.

R.L. “Nick” Nicholson, of McCall, is president of Idaho Steelhead Salmon Unlimited.
Idahoans Must Insist Upon Recovery of Wild Salmon Runs
The Idaho Statesman, September 19, 2003

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