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Northwest's Responsible for Salmon, Too

by Larry Swisher
The Register-Guard - November 3, 1999

WASHINGTON - Sometimes it takes an outsider to say bluntly what some Northwesterners refuse to acknowledge about their role in the depletion of salmon and the need to shoulder responsibility.

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles has been roundly criticized for calling the overbuilt system of Columbia and Snake dams "a killing field" for endangered salmon. But Knowles is only articulating what Northwest state and tribal fisheries biologists and salmon advocates have been saying for years.

"Scientists already know the cause of the high mortality rate of both adult and juvenile Pacific salmon populations of concern," Knowles said in a letter to Northwest governors on Oct. 22. "It is the lethal zone of fresh water streams and surrounding habitat in the Pacific Northwest."

Why is it any of Alaska's business? Because the salmon that spawn upriver in Eastern Oregon, Eastern Washington and Idaho have declined to the point where not only has most commercial and sport fishing shut down in the Northwest, but the intermingled salmon fishery off the coast of Alaska also has been curtailed.

Sure, Northwest electric ratepayers and the federal government have devoted an enormous amount of time, money and effort to trying to solve the problem. More than $1 billion has been spent during the past 20 years on Columbia River Basin salmon recovery. But the bottom line is the fish still went downhill and were declared endangered species. Most of the money has been, and continues to be, wasted on failed methods such as collecting, trucking and barging juvenile smolts around dams.

Why? Politically powerful economic interests that depend on the dams' electric power, river barge system, irrigation water and other benefits have blocked more drastic and effective measures.

Meanwhile, the plight of the fish has grown steadily worse to the point that Alaska fishermen are demanding to be exempted from the Endangered Species Act, the Northwest and Alaska governors and congressional delegations are fighting a major political battle that is jeopardizing an international treaty, and dam removal has become a serious public policy option.

Environmental groups have launched a national campaign for breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River and for increasing regional electric rates paid through the Bonneville Power Administration. It is not a fund-raising ploy, although groups are receiving financial support from pro-environment charitable foundations. It is a serious, concerted effort to marshal an economic, environmental and popular case for dam removal that can eventually succeed in Congress or, if necessary, in a federal court lawsuit.

That's why Northwesterners who want to avoid an extreme solution or a federal takeover of their resources, economy and fish should take Knowles' words as a wake-up call.

After they refused to support an exemption from the Endangered Species Act for Alaska, Knowles told his Northwest counterparts - Govs. John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Gary Locke of Washington - "There is no question that the federal government and the states of Oregon and Washington have not come to terms with the real problem facing wild Pacific salmon: restoring the great salmon rivers of the Northwest."

All three governors are Democrats who joined in supporting a new U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty earlier this year that will reduce Canadians' and Alaskans' catch of endangered Northwest salmon. Now the governors are at odds, and the issue has landed in Congress.

The National Marine Fisheries Service this week said the treaty will help reduce the loss of Columbia Basin and other Northwest endangered salmon and that the Alaska salmon harvest regimes it sets forth will be in compliance with the Endangered Species Act for the next 10 years.

But Alaska now wants an ironclad guarantee that it won't be made the scapegoat again if the Northwest and federal governments fail to attack the nagging problem of the dams and a federal judge intervenes. As hostage, the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is withholding higher funding that Clinton and the Northwest states and Canada want for salmon recovery.

Referring to opponents of dam removal, Knowles said, "There is great political and economic pressure to do nothing with the rivers and shift the political problem onto the backs of the salmon harvesters."

Why should fishermen, in the Northwest or Alaska, keep taking it in the shorts year after year, decade after decade?

But an endangered species waiver from Congress is not the answer; it would not help salmon and would encourage Northwest industries to seek a similar exemption. The bill that included a waiver for the Alaska salmon fishery was vetoed this week by Clinton. Administration officials said the exemption and a lack of funding in the bill jeopardize the future of the U.S.-Canada treaty, thereby risking a return to overfishing.

Salmon live in both ocean and freshwater; they don't belong to any one state, region, nation or industry. Thus, their survival has to be a shared responsibility.

Alaskan and Canadian fishermen have agreed to reduce their take. Now, it's the Northwest's turn to make greater sacrifices by creating more natural, fish-friendly rivers with, if possible, their dams in place.

Larry Swisher , a columnist based in Washington, D.C., writes for Pacific Northwest newspapers.
Northwest's Responsible for Salmon, Too
The Register-Guard, November 3, 1999

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