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Salmon Crossroads:
Do Perceptions Match Realities?

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 21, 2003

Salmon is an icon or a "hood ornament" for other things that drive Northwest issues, and it has similarities with Middle East politics, said speakers at the Nov. 14 Salmon Crossroads conference in Portland.

But most speakers agreed that perceptions about salmon and salmon runs aren't always backed up by reality.

"I've concluded that salmon is one part of a much larger discussion about growth," said Seattle Times editor James Veseley. The Northwest reaction to salmon issues reflects the tension between growth and its impacts, and the environment around us, he added. It's about "how we choose to live in this region."

As an example of how an area that is trying to control growth reacts to salmon issues, Veseley pointed to the resolution by the Seattle City Council a few years ago to support removal of four Snake River dams. That, he said, is an example of the constant effort to transfer urban values to rural values.

"Salmon is a utensil of this growth argument," he said. "What evolves from this is an artificiality that we can live with wilderness in our backyards and fish in streams under freeways at any cost."

"I've come to the conclusion that the salmon issue is like the Middle East," said Jack Ohman, a political cartoonist at The Oregonian. "I don't know who the Yasir Arafat of salmon is, but the issue appears to be unsolvable."

Bringing the debate down to an everyday level, Larry Cassidy, a Washington Council member for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and recently appointed to the Pacific Salmon Commission, laid out perceptions people have about salmon and salmon recovery, and then placed a judgment of reality on each one.

"The record crossing of salmon at Bonneville Dam means the case is solved," Cassidy said. "That's hardly the case."

Wild fish are superior to hatchery fish. This is true, he said. Hatchery fish on a natural reproductive basis are not as good as wild fish. "The question we need to ask is why can't hatcheries produce quality stocks?" He suggested that may be due to not adhering to a rigid set of policies at hatcheries, something the Council is working on.

The spending for salmon recovery is out of control. "I don't think that's true," Cassidy said, pointing to significant reductions in expenditures over the last couple of years, including the most recent $40 million cut. He added that the first budget for subbasin planning was $42 million and that has been cut to $15 million, and hatchery programs were cut from $40 million to $15 million. "Should we work for more efficient projects? Absolutely. But the perception that spending is out of control is not true."

Elimination of all harvest would solve the problem. That's not true, he said. Few wild fish are harvested. In addition, "How can we spend public money (for salmon recovery) without providing a public benefit?" he asked.

Big runs are due to ocean conditions. That's not all true. "Getting smolts to the ocean has been more and more successful," he said.

Economic growth and development must stop to get to salmon recovery. "The quality of economic growth is the key," Cassidy said. "If we can't grow in a safe manner that gives us clean water and a safe environment, do we want to do it?" The region must go forward in a manner that includes both growth and a safe environment, he said.

Salmon and steelhead recovery is like the Middle East. That's not true, he said, pointing to statewide work in Washington where every county now has a coordinator that handles Endangered Species Act issues. "With all the other partnerships in the Northwest, it's not like the Middle East," Cassidy concluded.

The media gets it. "I don't think they do," he said. "They need to focus more on the complexities."

Veseley believes the media does understand that the salmon runs of the last couple of years have been on the rise, but readers may not understand why.

Ohman said The Oregonian covers salmon issues "exhaustively, but we don't know if it translates out to the public."

Mike O'Bryant
Salmon Crossroads: Do Perceptions Match Realities?
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 21, 2003

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