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Govt. Reluctance to Help Leaves Salmon in Lurch

by Catherine Komp
The New Standard, February 10, 2006

Scientists working to help threatened Northwestern salmon face an upstream struggle as the Bush administration plays every available card to avoid regulating the industry that endangers five species.

Each year, spotted and silvery salmon make a remarkable journey, smelling their way home through a landscape that becomes more perilous for each generation. In times past, bears and opossums were their biggest fears, but now they face a more deadly foe, one that threatens the very survival of their species.

In some rivers, the high-powered turbines of hydroelectric dams shred 5 to 15 percent of the young salmon trying to migrate downstream. In Oregon and Washington's Colombia and Snake Rivers, 80 to 95 percent of the fish are killed trying to pass all eight dams towering between their birthplace and the ocean.

For those who make it through that gauntlet, a changing ecosystem presents additional perils. In the Klamath River, which flows through California and Oregon, stagnant water incubates the deadly C Shasta parasite, which kills 80 to 90 percent of juvenile salmon, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal fishing regulatory agency.

The Klamath River is projected to see only 110,000 salmon return from the Pacific Ocean this year, a decrease of 60 percent over the 2005 figures and one of the lowest returns on record, according to the Council. In the California Central Valley, 2006 projections are just under 633,000 salmon, down from 1.7 million in 2005 and 831,000 in 2004.

"With the recent information that's coming out, it's pretty alarming to see mortality rates that high," said Chuck Tracy, the Council's salmon staff officer.

Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation, fishing and business groups, estimates that during the 19th Century, between 10 and 16 million adult salmon migrated through the Columbia and Snake rivers. Now, several wild salmon species are nearing extinction, choked by decades of over-fishing, competition from hatcheries, logging, mining, industrial pollution, climate change - and by the damming of their migration routes.

According to the California Coastal Commission, a state conservation agency, wild salmon populations in the US have been reduced to about 10 percent of historical numbers.

A Threatened Future

State and local governments have done much in recent years to protect the most vulnerable salmon species, including the placement of restrictions on commercial and recreational fishing, as well as court-ordered "water spills," whereby extra water is released from dams to help salmon reach the ocean.

But conservationists point to the declining salmon populations as proof the efforts have been inadequate. Moreover, critics argue that recent government decisions aim to undermine protection of salmon in favor of defending one of the species most lethal adversaries: the federal hydroelectric dam system stretching across Northwest rivers.

Under the Endangered Species Act, state and federal agencies must enact programs to protect the five species of salmon designated as "endangered or threatened": Chum, Coho, Sockeye, Chinook and Atlantic. These measures include preserving habitats critical to the health of these species and developing recovery initiatives to restore populations to sustainable levels.

But conservation goals have run up against other government interests. Since the dams are an enormous source of electricity for surrounding areas and revenue for government coffers, federal regulators have gone to great lengths to keep dam alterations off the list of possible solutions for dwindling salmon populations.

Three times over the last decade, federal judges have ruled the government's recovery plans for endangered salmon in the Columbia River illegal for failing to fulfill obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

The latest rejected proposal, also denounced by 100 members of Congress and 250 scientists, argued that because the construction of most dams predated the Endangered Species Act, the dams were off limits to regulation.

Pat Ford, executive director with Save Our Wild Salmon, likened that argument to the government saying "the dams are like acts of god."

The government also unsuccessfully tried to argue in court that the Endangered Species Act required it only to ensure survival of the species, but did not require it to actually develop a salmon recovery plan.

Federal officials are now devising a fourth plan, which may not be ready until late this year. Environmentalists fear that with all the delays, time is running out - if Washington drags its feet much longer, they say, the salmon face extinction.

In another move frustrating to environmentalists, Congress defunded the Fish Passage Center, an independent commission created in 1983 to monitor risks to salmon populations and habitats created by dams. President Bush announced the closure of the Center just after Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, declared a new "comprehensive and collaborative approach" to salmon recovery.

Ford sees the new approach as a smokescreen, accusing the administration of trying to "kill the messenger" by transferring the Center's responsibilities to Battelle Pacific Northwest Labs, a private government contractor.

Saving the Salmon

Rising ocean temperatures also affect salmon populations. In a study of more than 2,000 sites across the US, using three internationally recognized climate models, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) predicted that salmon could lose between 5 and 17 percent of their existing habitat by 2030, and between 21 and 42 percent by 2090.

A short-lived trend in favorable ocean conditions resulted in some positive salmon growth about six years ago, according to Dr. Xanthippe Augerot, director of science programs at the Portland, Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center. But she told The NewStandard that these conditions are again changing, and a rise in water temperatures is drastically reducing nutrients and affecting the health of fish preparing to make their journey from the Pacific.

Augerot and her colleagues advocate for habitat protection across the Pacific Rim that is not threatened by hyrdo-electric dams, like the Hoh and Queets Rivers in the Olympic Peninsula, a large portion of which is already federally protected land. They recommend that numerous sites in these areas be preserved as salmon sanctuaries - land and water basins protected under state, federal or private ownership - that would primarily serve as areas for wild salmon reproduction.

"Those places are going to have a greater ability to buffer against the changing climate effects than a river that's dominated along its shoreline by human communities," she said.

Others call for a more dramatic approach - closing down or restructuring some of the 31 federally owned dams in Oregon, Washington and California. But the proposal is politically and economically charged. The dams are an economic powerhouse for the region; they provide the US government with sizable revenue.

In 2005, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) - part of the Department of Energy that markets cheap, renewable hydropower to consumers in seven Northwest states and Canada - deposited its $1.08 billion surplus into the US Treasury.

Salmon advocates want the government to sacrifice four dams on the lower Snake River. They argue the region would benefit from reducing dependence on hydropower and diversifying alternative energy sources.

In another study by the NRDC, the group states that four dams on the Snake River could be removed and replaced without increasing power production from polluting fossil fuel plants. Though utility prices would increase for consumers - between $1 and $3 per month - the group determined that other alternative sources like wind and solar power along with other conservation methods could meet the demand left unfulfilled by the dismantled dams while creating more jobs for the region.

Conservationists have won some legislative support on these issues. Last year, Representatives Jim McDermott (D-Washington) and Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) re-introduced the Salmon Planning Act (SPA) along with 79 cosponsors. The bill calls for a scientific analysis of federal salmon recovery efforts by the National Academy of Sciences and a study of Snake River dams removal by the Government Accountability Office. It calls for partial dam removal if federal authorities deem such action necessary to restore salmon in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and treaties with Northwest tribes.

Despite of the factors stacked against salmon, fish biologist Dr. Peter Moyle remains optimistic about their recovery. He cited an example close to home: the Putah Creek, which runs through the University of California-Davis campus where he works. In 1990, Moyle joined a lawsuit against the county water agency to improve conditions in the creek. Today, 50 to 100 salmon are now running a stream they had previously abandoned.

Moyle noted a ripple effect in the surrounding community. "Salmon tend to be very charismatic," he said. "So if you bring back the salmon, it often then becomes the focus of [other] restoration efforts. People say, 'Oh, yeah, that's really dramatic. We got salmon in our backyards again. That means we can do other things: We can clean up garbage out of the stream... and plant willows.' And suddenly all these other opportunities become available to people, and they start taking their kids down to watch the salmon spawn."

Salmon in the Ecosystem

Why scientists believe a massive salmon death toll will have a tremendous impact on their broader habitat.

Noting the complex relationships between salmon and other organisms, many believe the massive death toll will have far-reaching consequences for river ecosystems.

Adult salmon live in the ocean for several years before swimming hundreds of miles through rivers and streams using a powerful sense of smell to locate the same waters where they were born. There the salmon spawn, burying their eggs in the gravel. The adult fish die soon after, leaving their carcasses behind, enriching the river's ecosystem.

Dr. Peter Moyle, fish biologist with the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at University of California-Davis, said this "feedback loop" is crucial to the entire river ecosystem. Salmon carcasses increase the productivity of freshwater, including the number of insects that juvenile salmon feed on when they emerge from their nests.

But their influence, said Moyle, does not stop at the river's edge.

Moyle explained that salmon "fertilize" the trees in areas where salmon spawn. In turn, the trees shade the streams, keeping them cooler, and fallen trees in the stream provide a habitat for young salmon. "So, the enhancements by the dead salmon improves the environment over all for future generations," Moyle said.

Salmon also provide a source of food for a variety of animals, including bears, raccoons, opossums, eagles, vultures and even other salmon. Moyle added that the reproductive cycles of some animals, including mink and otters, coincide with the salmon's return, providing a reliable food source as they raise their young.

Catherine Komp
Govt. Reluctance to Help Leaves Salmon in Lurch
The New Standard, February 24, 2006

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