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Sockeye Deserve Our Best Fight

by Editorial Board
Idaho Statesman, July 20, 2008

This summer, Idaho's most endangered species of salmon is also its most mysterious species. And its most inspiring species. Inspiring enough to make us dream of better days - and better policies that make recovery a reality. For one summer, at least, sockeye salmon are headed back to Idaho in startling numbers.

How startling?

As of Thursday, 769 sockeye had passed Lower Granite Dam downstream from Lewiston, the final dam standing between sockeye and their Central Idaho spawning grounds.

In the 10 preceding years, a total of only 623 sockeye passed Lower Granite. At this point, the 2008 run exceeds the 10-year total by 23 percent.

In 1975, the year Lower Granite was competed on the lower Snake River, 209 sockeye passed the dam.

Some may use the numbers - particularly those 1975 stats - to reach a simplistic and false assumption. They may conclude Lower Granite and its sister dams must not have too debilitating an effect on the sockeye.

The reality is much more confusing, much less simple. And it isn't just that this year's numbers are out of whack with history. The numbers come without an explanation.

Salmon guard their secrets, so scientists aren't sure why the sockeye are returning to Idaho in such robust numbers. Since sockeye spend two years in the Pacific before migrating back to Idaho, some experts suggest the fish have benefited from favorable ocean conditions. Another theory comes from the Fish Passage Center, a federal agency that tracks salmon trends for Indian tribes and other government agencies: High downriver flows in 2006 helped push more young sockeye to the Pacific, improving this year's returns throughout the Snake and Columbia river basins.

This theory supports the case for breaching Lower Granite and the other three lower Snake dams. A free-flowing river will help young salmon reach the ocean. This, in turn, will allow more adult salmon to complete their 900-mile, 6,500-foot climb back to the Stanley Basin.

The 2008 sockeye returns do not diminish the need for breaching, and they do not, unfortunately, rescue a species spending its 17th summer on the federal government's endangered species list. The sockeye that return this summer will be collected for a captive breeding program. This is life support, designed not to return the sockeye to the breathtaking prominence that gave Redfish Lake its name, but to keep this species alive by protecting its precious genetics.

The sockeye will not be recovered until their numbers allow them to spawn in pristine lakes, not in sterile hatcheries. One good year does not allow that.

But one good year reminds us that sockeye recovery is possible. This summer, we have seen a bright flash of scarlet in an otherwise dark river of gloomy statistics. When all the news is bad - from 2003 through 2007, returns to Central Idaho have averaged a mere eight fish per year - there is a temptation to write off the sockeye as a lost cause and breaching as an impossibility.

Don't do it.

Don't give up or give in.

As long as the remarkable sockeye keep fighting for their survival, Idahoans must fight on their behalf. As long as the sockeye have the capacity to surprise us, let's surprise the rest of the country (and perhaps even ourselves) by making the tough decisions and reaching the hard compromises required to save the sockeye.

Remote and unspoiled Central Idaho represents some of the best salmon spawning habitat on the continent. In a time of climate change, this high-country habitat may be all the more important to the long-term future of the salmon. But while thinking globally, it's also OK to think parochially. These are Idaho's sockeye. They deserve Idaho's best fight.

Facts and Background about the salmon.

How did we get here?

The federal government has listed 13 stocks of salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A court battle has raged since 1992. The stickiest issue is how to save four stocks of salmon and steelhead in Idaho that must negotiate eight dams - four on the Snake River, four on the Columbia - on their way to and from the Pacific Ocean.

Some - but not all - scientists say that restoring Snake River salmon runs will require breaching the dams.

So, what's really at stake?

SALMON: Salmon represent the wild character of the Pacific Northwest. The fish provide the basis for sport- and commercial-fishing industries that generate more than $3 billion annually, as well as food and spiritual sustenance to American Indian people in the region.

Salmon fishing has brought economic vitality to communities like Riggins and Orofino. Restored runs also would bring nutrients to unfertile watersheds.

ELECTRICITY: The federal dams provide nearly half of the electricity that powers the almost $400 billion economies of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. If hydroelectric production decreases, power bills in the region could rise.

WATER: More than 7 million acre-feet of water - stored in reservoirs in southern and eastern Idaho, including Lucky Peak, Arrowrock and Anderson Ranch on the Boise River - irrigate millions of acres of farms and provide water to thousands of homes. Idaho water users could come up short if federal officials demand too much water from Idaho reservoirs.

SHIPPING: Barges now haul millions of tons of grain and other products from Lewiston - but the barges won't be able to navigate the Snake if the river's four dams are breached.

DEVELOPMENT: Endangered species rules hinder logging, ranching and development along salmon spawning streams.

How do the dams hurt salmon runs?

More salmon from the Snake River die in the estuary and ocean than salmon from the lower Columbia River. Scientists don't agree on why.

MAJORITY OPINION: State and tribal and some federal biologists say that the four Snake River dams - along with the barges that transport the majority of the juveniles past the dams and fish-bypass systems - are responsible for stresses that cause the higher mortality rate. These scientists conclude that breaching the dams is the best and perhaps only way to restore Snake River runs to sustainable levels.

MINORITY OPINION: Federal scientists say that barging salmon around the dams has offset the migration problems that caused salmon to decline. Because their research shows up to 98 percent of the barged salmon survive to the estuary, they say the higher mortality rate in Snake River fish must because of some other unknown factor. They say that salmon numbers can be improved without breaching dams by replanting hatchery fish, controlling predators, reducing harvests, restoring habitat and managing flows from Idaho reservoirs.

How much would dam breaching cost?

Three groups with three very different viewpoints have presented estimates ranging from $79 million to $500 million annually to replace the power produced at the four dams between Pasco, Wash., and Lewiston.

Predictably, those who want the dams removed predict the lowest costs and those who want them to stay predict the highest costs.

Are there other alternatives short of breaching the Snake River dams?

Spilling more water over the dams helps young fish get to the ocean, but it also reduces the amount of electricity the dams produce.

Drawing down reservoirs such as John Day on the Columbia River reduces electricity production and makes barging more difficult. It would cost millions to lengthen pipes to keep irrigation water flowing.

All of these steps would improve salmon migration, scientists say. But they may cost more than breaching the dams.

What has the federal government proposed?

The Bush administration has presented its latest biological opinion. The proposal offers more money and more guarantees that:

Where are we now?

The National Marine Fisheries Service has issued its sixth biological opinion issued on the Columbia and Snake dams since 1992. It comes after U.S. District Court Judge James Redden had thrown out the last plan issued by the Bush administration and an earlier plan by the Clinton administration as inadequate and illegal.

Environmentalists have said they will challenge the legality of the biological opinion, and the case could come before Redden later this year.

What will the judge do?

Redden told federal attorneys in December 2007 that he believes the draft biological opinions "fail to satisfy the biological and legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act." The changes made in the final opinion meet some of his concerns, but whether they go far enough is the big question.

Redden did not say he would require officials to breach the four lower Snake River dams. But his letter reminded the officials that he had asked them to consider all measures to save salmon, including dam removal.

Editorial Board
Background information compiled by Rocky Barker
Sockeye Deserve Our Best Fight
Idaho Statesman, July 20, 2008

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