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Commentaries and editorials

End Costly Spills and
Pay Anglers Not to Catch Salmon

by Wayne Thompson
Guest Commentary, The Oregonian, March 26, 2004

All this talk about reducing or eliminating summer spills at Columbia River dams to rescue, at most, an estimated $77 million in lost hydroelectric power sales misses the point.

Never mind how many salmon would die as a result of eliminating or reducing summer spills. We ought to be talking instead about strategies to save as many salmon as we can the old-fashioned way: by reducing the harvesting of returning adult salmon.

Allowing regulated killing seasons on an endangered species has always struck me as the ultimate form of stupidity in the great Northwest debate about saving our salmon.

Think about it: The Bonneville Power Administration has spent more than $6 billion on fish recovery in the past 25 years to protect and preserve salmon. Yet society thinks nothing about allowing the citizenry to kill them off, good years and bad.

And to make matters worse, the emphasis we place on salmon recovery inevitably focuses on juvenile salmon -- many of which wouldn't survive their two-, three- and four-year stints in the ocean even if we blew up all the Columbia River dams and gave the small frys a police escort to the Pacific.

So when I hear people fret so much about the man-caused deaths of millions of smolt at the great Columbia-Snake River dams, I always wonder why these same folks don't worry as much over the returning adults. After all, they're the golden ones; they're the hardy ones; they're the fish who survived the dams, the predators, the unknown and often lethal ocean conditions, the sport fishermen, the gill-netters. And here they are back again, about to return to streams and start the miracle of salmon recycling all over again.

I, for one, worry about adult salmon. And looking at recent studies about the benefits of late-summer spill at the dams, it occurs to me that this region's ratepayers and taxpayers should demand a better bang for the buck than the summer spill program has provided.

Here's one idea: Use some of the money that the BPA would save in this deal by paying fishermen not to fish.

That's always been an option, but it never gets anywhere in political terms because most of the constituents of policy makers in this region, at one time or another, fish, either for pleasure or for livelihood.

And let's not be naive: Eliminating the summer spills, a proposal that likely will be made by NOAA Fisheries in consultation with other federal agencies by the end of this month, would cause some fish to die.

Yet we know a lot more about summer spills now than we did in the 1990s, largely the result of extensive fish-monitoring studies.

We're now able to plug these facts into an accounting tool known as SIMPASS (a simulated fish passage model). It tells us that getting rid of summer spills at Columbia-Snake river dams in July and August would claim no more than 24 endangered Snake River fall chinook salmon.

At a $77 million savings in energy, that means that each one of those 24 rescued fish will cost us about $3 million each. There are better bargains on endangered species salmon at your local supermarket.

At the same time, besides killing the 24 threatened chinook, the elimination of the summer spills would kill off an estimated 19,000 returning adults of other stocks, most of which spawn in the Columbia's bountiful Hanford Reach area, where more than 350,000 adults returned last year.

In my view, the number of salmon that owe their adulthood to the help provided by the summer spills doesn't come close to equaling those killed by gill-netters, commercial fishermen and the tribes.

So let's eliminate the costly summer spills, and then use the bulk of the monetary savings to bribe into abstinence a known, big-time salmon killer: human predators.

Wayne Thompson of Southwest Portland is a retired associate editor of The Oregonian.
End Costly Spills and Pay Anglers Not to Catch Salmon
The Oregonian, March 26, 2004

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