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The Missing Salmon

by Editors
The Oregonian, April 22, 2005

The low, slow return of spring chinook salmon
will change the debate over fish recovery in the Columbia Basin

On this Earth Day, the most pressing environmental question in the Northwest is whether Columbia River spring salmon are just running late, or whether tens of thousands of fish are coming back at all.

Even though salmon returns at Bonneville Dam have picked up in the past few days, the fish counts so far are bleak and disturbing. Only a few thousand fish crossed Bonneville's fish ladder by this week, one of the lowest numbers since record keeping began in 1938.

There is much riding on this run of fish, once expected to include more than 250,000 salmon. Now fisheries biologists are hoping the spring run will at least top 80,000 fish.

The commercial and sport fishermen shut down this week are already arguing that the poor returns show the large salmon runs from 2001 through 2004 were aberrations, and that the Northwest still has not done what is necessary to recover salmon.

Fisheries managers, dam operators and other river users caution that it is too soon to draw conclusions from the low returns. The water in the Columbia is colder than normal and, after five consecutive low-water years, river flows are much lower than average. The chinook could just be waiting, and might arrive later than ever before.

We hope so. But as fishing communities from Astoria to Salmon, Idaho, brace for hard times, and Northwest tribes look for donated salmon for their ceremonial needs, there is reason to wonder and worry about the state of salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin.

While ocean conditions were prime and salmon were flooding back to the Northwest from 2001 to 2004, it was tempting to think all the effort, all the money, spent on salmon recovery was paying off.

Nobody claimed salmon recovery was at hand, but from President Bush on down there was an eagerness to point to the improved dam operations, the barging, the habitat improvement and say, "Look, it's working."

Maybe it still is. The outcry from fishing groups and tribes notwithstanding, it is too soon to declare that the low, slow return of salmon is an indictment of the federal recovery effort.

Yet if the spring chinook don't come, if the run falls back to the depressed levels of the mid-1990s, it will dramatically change the political and legal fight over salmon. It is one thing to defend the operation of dams, or even to urge a reduction in the spill that helps young fish around dams, when salmon returns are strong. It's a tougher argument when fish numbers are plunging.

Today lawyers for the federal agencies, tribes, fishing groups, dam operators, electrical users and irrigators will crowd into a federal courtroom in Portland to argue about river operations and salmon protections. Soon, U.S. District Judge James Redden will decide whether to overturn, for a second time, the government's biological opinion that dam operations pose "no jeopardy" to endangered salmon.

Redden will rule on the government's plan as the region braces for a long, hot summer on the Columbia, with water temperatures possibly lethal for salmon. The judge, too, may be sneaking a peak at the fish counts on the Columbia this April, watching the salmon trickle home, and wondering, just like all of us, where the rest of them are.

The Missing Salmon
The Oregonian, April 22, 2005

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