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Salmon Rebound May Not Be Permanent

by Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., Bureau
Tri-City Herald, June 16, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Lonesome Larry wouldn't be so lonesome if he were making the 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to the upper reaches of the Salmon River today.

Larry emerged as the poster child for endangered salmon when, in 1992, he was the sole sockeye salmon to return to the Stanley Basin at the foot of the jagged Sawtooth Mountains in Central Idaho. Some biologists considered the Salmon River sockeye run extinct.

If Larry made the trip now, he would have plenty of company for at least part of the way.

For the third straight year, fisheries officials are expecting near-record runs of salmon to pass through Bonneville Dam on their way up the Columbia and Snake rivers to spawn. In 2001 alone, almost 2 million chinook, sockeye, coho and steelhead headed upstream, the most since Bonneville was completed in 1937.

And the Columbia and Snake river runs aren't the only ones to rebound. Biologists say healthy runs are expected in coastal rivers from Northern California to southern British Columbia, including Puget Sound.

Yet while the numbers may be impressive and federal officials and politicians are excited, no one is yet convinced the salmon have turned the corner. Most caution it is way too early to declare victory in the 25-year, $6 billion effort to revive the runs.

The large runs are mostly the result of much-improved ocean conditions, where the fish put on weight as they swim, in some cases, thousands of miles over their two-, three- or four-year sojourn in saltwater.

Climactic conditions known as El Nio and La Nina have faded and another, known as the Pacific Decidal Oscillation, has kicked in, producing an upwelling of cool, nutrient-rich water 60 to 70 miles off the coast filled with krill, herring and smelt that salmon feast on.

The change in ocean conditions has not only produced a lot of fish, but also some big ones. Since 2001, record coho, pink and chum salmon have been landing in Washington, and chinook weighing up to 80 pounds have been caught in Oregon.

Ocean conditions, however, are notoriously cyclical. Despite the millions of fish that have returned over the past three years, their long-term prospects remain uncertain.

"If ocean conditions return to where they were in the mid-1990s, these (salmon) populations could crash," said Nate Mantua, a research scientist for the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. Even with satellites tracking ocean conditions, Mantua said, it's almost impossible to predict beyond a year.

Historically, somewhere between 10 million and 16 million salmon once spawned on the two rivers. That was before a string of hydroelectric dams turned the rivers into a series of slack-water reservoirs and destroyed spawning habitat. Lonesome Larry had to climb past eight dams on his way home. While the dams produce some of the nation's cheapest electricity, they decimated the fish runs.

As for the wild fish, some runs have doubled in size since 2001. But even the healthiest number fewer than 20,000 fish.

Federal officials readily acknowledge that better ocean conditions were the prime factor behind the increases. But they say their efforts to tweak the hydroelectric system to make it more fish-friendly also has contributed.

"I will argue that improvement in fish passage and downstream survival is part of the reason for the rebound," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries arm in Seattle. NOAA-Fisheries is responsible for administering the Endangered Species Act when it comes to salmon.

Once, 90 percent of the juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean died, often chewed up in the turbines at the dams. Over the past several years, Lohn said, survival rates for downstream migration have improved by as much as five or 10 times.

The improvement involves operational adjustments at the dams and physical improvements such as special fish weirs and other collection devices. New turbines are being developed to reduce salmon mortality.

River managers also have learned a great deal about adjusting flows and spills to help flush juvenile fish downstream. Where once all dam operators knew was what time of year the young fish were migrating, they now know down to the hour when the juveniles are on the move. Acoustic devices at some dams actually track their movements.

If more juvenile fish weren't reaching the Pacific, it wouldn't matter whether ocean conditions had improved, Lohn said.

Northwest tribes, fishing groups and environmentalists say Lohn and others are giving too much credit for the large runs to improvements at the dams, arguing much remains undone.

"There are still drastically reduced runs in the upper Columbia and Snake," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "Even with all the tinkering, water is the key."

When a severe drought gripped the region in 1991, Hudson said, river managers refused to release enough water over the spillways to help downstream fish passage. The river managers, instead, cranked up the turbines to take advantage of an electricity market when prices were up, in some cases, more than tenfold.

"They were cashing in and emptied the system," Hudson said.

The fish that did make it downstream in 2001 are just starting to return, and tribal biologists says it appears there aren't that many.

Of all the improvements federal agencies were supposed to make at the dams, Hudson said less than one-third have been implemented, one-third haven't been finished and one-third failed.

The tribes believe the best single thing that could be done for the salmon would be to breach four dams on the lower Snake River. But even with the dams in place, much more could be done to adjust flows to recreate "normative" river conditions, Hudson said.

Environmentalists said healthy runs over eight years, approximately two generations of salmon, would be a solid sign salmon were recovering.

"It's ludicrous to say things are fine," said Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director of American Rivers in Seattle. "We haven't reached recovery targets. This just doesn't lend itself to some of the rhetorical flourishes of optimism I have heard."

Lonesome Larry is long gone, but the Salmon River sockeye run remains the poster child for struggling salmon.

When Lonesome Larry finally arrived in the Stanley Basin in 1992, scientists captured him and froze his sperm. It was eventually used to fertilize eggs from some of the few females who made the trip in subsequent years. In all of the 1990s, only 18 Salmon River sockeye made the journey. Once the run numbered more than 10,000. (see Count the Fish, countfpc.htm)

Approximately 400 sockeye climbed past the dams and swam up the Salmon River in 2000. This year, the run will likely total 30 to 35 fish, according to tribal estimates.

"It's a mistake to think we have fixed anything," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., Bureau
Salmon Rebound May Not Be Permanent
Tri-City Herald, June 16, 2003

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