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Salmon Crisis No False Alarm

by Opinion/Editorial
The Oregonian, May 4, 2000

Even though ocean condition improvements bring back a large run of spring chinook,
wild fish remain imperiled

News that spring chinook are returning to the Columbia River in larger numbers than predicted is not a sign that endangered salmon are no longer in trouble, or no longer need help.

By May 1, observers counted 128,157 spring chinook, most of them hatchery fish, at Bonneville Dam's fish ladders. That's more than triple the 10-year average of 41,900 for the date. It is the best run of spring chinook to enter the Columbia in almost three decades.

While that is great news for fishermen and certainly good news for fishery managers and scientists who are trying to find ways to rebuild dwindling stocks of endangered salmon and steelhead, it projects a false sense of success in the 20-year struggle to save certain stocks of salmon from extinction.

Most of the fish showing up are hatchery-bred.

Wild spring chinook, the endangered ones, make up only a small fraction of the run and are are not doing nearly so well. Biologists expect 5,800 Snake River wild spring chinook to enter the Columbia River this spring. While that's more than twice the 2,758 counted in 1999, it's well below the 10-year average of 9,039.

Moreover, don't read too much into this year's high return of hatchery spring chinook. A one-year spike in the return rates means very little in terms of long-term survival. Significant salmon recovery, biologists point out, will require a long-term increase in average run sizes.

Historically, runs of salmon vary widely from year to year, depending on changes in ocean conditions, fresh water habitat variables and harvest practices. Allowing a larger number of spawners to escape to their native streams is crucial, for instance, when ocean conditions are not so favorable.

Predicting run sizes also can be a guessing game. One of the tools that biologists use to forecast the runs is to count returns of jack salmon -- immature males that return to their spawning grounds a year early.

While jack count is a reasonably reliable indicator of the size of the next year's run, it's way off the mark sometimes. This year, for instance, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department biologists, had forecast a run of 134,000 fish for the season based on jack counts. Now they say that they wouldn't be surprised to see as many as 190,000 fish when the run ends around mid-May.

And then there is this: Biologists expect to see dismal spring chinook returns in 2002. That's because those fish, by and large, are the progeny of the fish that returned to spawn in 1998. Only 38,280 fish returned that year. It was such a disastrous year for salmon that biologists nicknamed those spawners "the death broods."

If this year's bounce is good news in some quarters, it doesn't mean the salmon are saved.

The improved condition of the ocean is just one of the variables -- a critical one obviously -- but it could change dramatically, as was the case in the late 1980s and '90s. When that happens, salmon and steelhead survival may depend solely on how well we take care of them in their fresh-water environment.

Salmon Crisis No False Alarm
The Oregonian, May 4, 2000

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