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Extinction Risk Drops for Salmon, Court Told

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, October 2, 2003

Federal fisheries officials file a quarterly status report on
the Columbia River Basin since their 2000 blueprint for recovery

The risk of extinction for salmon in the Columbia River Basin has greatly diminished during the past three years, the federal government has concluded in its latest report on the status of threatened and endangered stocks.

The federal report said most salmon and steelhead runs have grown substantially since 2000 -- in some cases reaching the highest numbers since the completion of Bonneville Dam in 1938. The report said the large returns show that efforts led by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect salmon are on track.

Of the dozen salmon and steelhead stocks, the report said that all except Snake River sockeye are "clearly in less jeopardy of extinction" than they were three years ago, when the government implemented its most recent blueprint for rebuilding runs and limiting harm caused by dams.

Conservation groups gave a different interpretation of the stunning numbers of fish returning to spawn in recent years.

"It is true that the wild stocks generally are in better shape now than in the year 2000; it is not true that that has anything particularly to do with actions by the federal government," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation groups that advocate removal of some dams to benefit fish.

"We believe that the Bush administration and federal agencies, instead of capitalizing on the good news from the ocean, have coasted and have not taken the steps that will plainly put us on the road to recovery," Ford said.

Farming groups, meanwhile, criticized the government for overstating the threat to salmon.

"In light of these large returns, it's quite clear that the fish are in no jeopardy of extinction," said Darryll Olsen, a consultant representing the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association and Eastern Oregon Irrigators Association. This week the groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, contending that its recovery plan puts an unnecessary burden on the system of 55 large dams, which generate power, open the river to affordable barge transport and store water for irrigation.

The federal government filed the report in its first quarterly check-in with a federal judge, who in May rejected the government's salmon-recovery blueprint.

U.S. District Judge James Redden said the government's attempt to use habitat restoration and other steps to compensate for the harm caused by dams fell short of the standards required by the Endangered Species Act. The judge gave the government one year to reshape the plan.

Temporary reprieve The status report said improved prospects for threatened fish "by no means" amount to recovery. Rather, the National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies characterized the gains as a temporary reprieve from catastrophic collapse of salmon numbers in the mid-1990s and an opportunity to build on.

The report said many factors account for salmon gains, including a natural shift in ocean conditions about 1998 that has dramatically increased survival of salmon and steelhead at sea. The report also said operators of hydropower dams have improved fish passage, restoration work has expanded freshwater spawning and rearing habitat, and hatcheries and fishing are causing less harm than in previous years.

Witt Anderson, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' fish management office, said in a written statement: "We know that favorable ocean conditions have substantially boosted these adult returns. But we also believe that the money and effort the region has invested in salmon recovery have appreciably contributed to these numbers."

The effort is one of the most expensive conservation programs ever attempted. Federal agencies spend about $400 million a year, not counting power generation forgone to protect salmon, which costs about $300 million a year, according to the Bonneville Power Administration.

Each year since 2000, salmon and steelhead adult returns have substantially exceeded the 10-year average during the 1990s at Bonneville Dam, Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River and Priest Rapids Dam in the mid-Columbia. This year's spring chinook run of nearly 200,000 fish more than tripled the 10-year average.

Fraction of predam abundance The numbers, however, remain a fraction of the predam abundance. Based on cannery records and other evidence, researchers have estimated that 10 million to 16 million salmon once crowded the Columbia each year. Without hatcheries, that now release tens of millions of artificially produced salmon, the number of returning adults would drop by more than 80 percent for some stocks.

In a separate report
In a separate report filed with the court, federal biologists said many wild spawning groups are not reproducing quickly enough to achieve population growth. The report, a preliminary draft, said population growth rates remained negative for nearly all spawning groups of chinook and steelhead in the lower Columbia, upper Columbia and upper Willamette rivers.

Since 2000, population growth rates have moved closer to the replacement rate for most stocks, researchers said. But growth rates declined for at least three populations, including Snake River spring and summer chinook.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Extinction Risk Drops for Salmon, Court Told
The Oregonian, October 2, 2003

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