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Report Looks at Salmon Options

by Les Blumenthal - Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
Tri-City Herald - November 16, 1999

Agencies say breaching would be part of the best plan

WASHINGTON - While breaching four dams might be the most controversial proposal to restore salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers, a federal study to be released today suggests the alternatives could be just as tough and result in severe restrictions on private lands, a virtual end to fishing and a major overhaul of hatchery operations.

The report outlines a series of options the region could adopt to try to rebuild dwindling salmon runs in the Columbia Basin but offers no specific recommendation on what course to follow.

Instead, the report offers a sobering assessment of the current condition of the 12 salmon and steelhead stocks protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and warns there are no easy solutions.

"Making changes to recover these fish will require all of the governments and people of the Pacific Northwest to confront tough choices," the report said. "The success of salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin depends on the willingness of the region to make those tough choices."

The report, which focuses on the so-called Four H's - hydro, habitat, harvest and hatcheries - was prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal agencies and is scheduled for release at a news conference in Portland.

The report, along with other federal studies currently under way, will eventually provide the foundation for a salmon recovery plan that is due next spring.

A copy of the report, "Building a Conceptual Recovery Plan With the Four H's," was obtained Monday by the Herald's Washington, D.C., bureau.

The options include:

Federal scientists believe each option has a chance of success. While the final alternative, the most aggressive, may have the best chance of success, it likely would be unpalatable politically.

"Not all of these options or integrated alternatives may be legally defensible or feasible to implement," the report said.

The report concludes the current program to rebuild the fish runs cannot work and says scientists concluded the "current levels of activities in the four H's will be inadequate to provide significant confidence in salmon and steelhead recovery."

Prior to the 1960s, up to 16 million salmon returned each year to spawn in rivers and streams of the Columbia Basin. Today, only about 1 million fish return, and most originate in hatcheries, not from the wild, the report said.

The report did not single out any specific cause for the decline but said hydropower dams on the two rivers "continue to be a significant source of mortality for stocks of migrating fish. In the past, the regional debate has focused on the eight federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers, the role they have played in fish declines and whether some of the dams should be removed."

"Given the impacts of extensive hydropower development on the salmon runs of the Columbia Basin, this focus is entirely understandable and appropriate. At the same time, however, maintaining a broad, more comprehensive focus on other major sources of declines is equally important if recovery efforts are to succeed."

The report said habitat conditions on federal lands for spawning salmon are generally better than on private lands.

Among the alternatives for habitat improvements are to focus strictly on federal lands, involve private landowners by offering them incentives or compensation to improve their habitat or the strict enforcement of provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act on private lands.

Historically, tribal fishermen may have caught up to 6 million fish annually, but that dropped dramatically with the advent of commercial fishing. The commercial harvest has been as high as 2.1 million fish in 1941 to as low as 68,000 fish in 1995.

Among the harvest options the report noted are allowing fishing levels to rise and fall based on how many salmon are returning, keeping fishing at current levels until the runs are restored or essentially curtailing all fishing until the runs are rebuilt.

There are about 100 hatcheries in the Columbia Basin today, producing about 150 million fish annually. The hatcheries were mostly built to compensate for the loss of fish and habitat from the construction of the hydro system, and it is not clear whether they will be effective in rebuilding self-sustaining, naturally spawning populations over the long term.

Among the alternatives offered in the report are to continue current operations, place more of an emphasis on spawning wild fish at the hatcheries or curtail operations designed to rebuild commercial runs and focus entirely on the wild fish.

The report said the dams on the two rivers have had a "profound" impact on salmon runs, but increased flows and spills, new bypass systems and transporting fish by barge and trucks have all resulted in "important survival improvements."

Among the options for the hydro system, the report said the ongoing program could be maintained with some fish-friendly improvements made at the dams, the current fish passage program could be accelerated and become more aggressive, or the four lower Snake dams could be breached.

"These options are not intended to be exhaustive," the report said. "None should be viewed as 'preferred.' The objective is to stimulate an honest and constructive debate among the governments and people of the region."

by Les Blumenthal - Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
Report Looks at Salmon Options
Tri-City Herald, November 16, 1999

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