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Official Promises Salmon Agenda

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, July (?), 2000

PORTLAND -- A key federal official promised Friday that the government will lay out a plan for recovering Northwest salmon -- and, for the first time, establish specific goals to measure success.

Will Stelle, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, delivered the keynote address of a conference at Portland State University examining the uncertainty about restoring fish runs in the Northwest. After the speech, Stelle told reporters that a pair of government documents to be released later this month will establish specific recovery goals for 12 Columbia River basin salmon stocks listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The salmon-recovery strategy will be outlined in two documents the government was to have released at the end of June but now says it will delay until the end of this month: the fisheries service's draft biological opinion on the operation of the federal hydropower system in the Columbia, and an "All-H" paper providing greater detail on proposed federal actions.

Stelle said the recovery strategy will include a series of actions designed to help fish by improving hatchery practices, restricting harvest, improving the operation of the federal hydropower system and boosting stream habitat.

The All-H paper, cobbled together by a caucus of nine federal agencies, will include performance guidelines to ensure habitat, hatcheries, hydropower and harvest are becoming more salmon-friendly. Evaluations will be done in five years and in 10 years, Stelle said. "If we are not doing these things we have committed to doing, the hammer is the Endangered Species Act," he said.

The fisheries service is charged with protecting seagoing fish under the 1973 law, but Stelle said the threat of third-party litigation by environmental groups is a much stronger tool than enforcement by the agency.

Stelle said the government's recovery strategy will set targets for the number and distribution of salmon that return to spawn in the basin, with a "major investment" in federal efforts to monitor and document returning salmon. If the improvements fail to reverse the decline of salmon, the government may turn to more dramatic actions.

"These will be scientifically grounded performance standards," NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said last week. "For a long time, I don't know if we've been fooling ourselves or we just didn't have the information to be more specific, but we made vague observations like habitat's important. Well, any sixth-grader who's studied biology knows that." By making specific commitments to improving dams, habitat and hatchery practices and measuring success by the number of fish that return from the ocean to spawn officials believe they can get the most bang for the buck.

Breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River may be the most controversial salmon-recovery issue.

For now, Stelle said, his agency believes the dams can remain in place without jeopardizing the survival of the four Snake River salmon stocks protected under the Endangered Species Act. But that opinion could change if recovery efforts over the next five to 10 years fail to reverse the decline.

Before taking such a major step, Stelle said it's important to give federal and state salmon-recovery efforts time to work. "Some of these measures are going to take a while to pay off," he said.

During his speech, Stelle acknowledged that, as regional administrator of the federal agency most closely tied to salmon recovery efforts in the Northwest, his utterances carry plenty of weight. But he eschewed the popular moniker, "salmon czar," dismissing what he called the simplistic notion that he or his agency has the power to reverse the decline of imperiled salmon runs on their own.

"That is an utterly naive idea," he said.

The troubles facing salmon are far too complex and the solutions call for the voluntary help of too many governments, land owners and consumers. But doing nothing is not an option, Stelle said.

"If things continue going as they are, these populations will go extinct," he said.

Erik Robinson
Official Promises Salmon Agenda
The Columbian, July (?), 2000

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