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Fish Tales Lure Russians

by Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer
The Columbian, July 19, 2004

BONNEVILLE DAM - A half-dozen Russian fishery managers peered down from a catwalk in the bowels of Bonneville Dam.

On the water-soaked concrete floor below, technicians measured the length and weight of a steelhead temporarily diverted from its journey through the fish ladder outside. They scraped off a scale sample to determine the fish's age, and they checked for tags to determine its hatchery of origin.

In Russia, there's no need for such meticulous fussing over fish: Most of them spawn without human help or hindrance.

The group visited the dam on Thursday at the end of a weeklong tour of various fish-management facilities in Oregon and Washington, part of an international exchange hosted by the Wild Salmon Center in Portland. The Russians, who are trying to develop a sport-fishing industry of their own, found much to emulate and pitfalls to avoid during the first visit of this kind to the highly engineered environment of the modern Columbia River basin.

The take-home message: Preserve wild habitat and reap the benefits of a lucrative sport-fishing industry.

Aleksandr Firsov, director of the 11-year-old federal Angling Tourism Service on the Kamchatka Peninsula on the Bering Sea, said hunting and fishing groups are organizing to preserve vast areas of pristine habitat.

"These structures are forming, and at larger and larger scale at the national level, as well as regionally and locally," Firsov said through interpreter John Sigliano of Vancouver. "A lot of work is going on organizing hunters and fishermen for rational and sustainable use of natural resources."

With less than half the population of the United States, and double the land mass, Russia has plenty of rivers and streams untrammeled by people.

Learning from Northwest's mistakes

But the Russian visitors noted that some streams are beginning to suffer the effects of increased logging, as well as oil and gas exploration. Firsov noted that pollution, a smattering of hydroelectric dams and roads built atop spawning grounds have started to eliminate some subspecies of salmon in the Russian Far East.

"We see the beginning of this," he said.

Michael Zwirn, a Wild Salmon Center policy analyst who organized the group's visit, said most of the historical salmon spawning sites in the Pacific Northwest have already been lost.

"We want to help other people avoid the same mistakes," he said.

Firsov listened carefully as the group's American hosts explained the high cost of operating hatcheries, building fish ladders across dams and restoring stream habitat all to offset the habitat degradation that's already occurred from various forms of human development. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone spends about $100 million per year mitigating the harm caused to salmon by its network of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"We were not very gentle with the environment," Gary Johnson, a corps biologist, told the group. "The mindset was that we could artificially offset habitat damage by using hatcheries."

Later, the group visited a half-century-old fish ladder and a hatchery on the Wind River.

At the ladder, just two miles above the Wind's confluence with the Columbia, the Russians got a first-hand view of the last vestige of native summer steelhead capable of leaping a series of falls as high as 12 feet. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Dan Rawding said about half the summer steelhead eschew the ladder, instead choosing to fight their way over the waterfalls just as their ancestors did.

The ladder was constructed to accommodate spring chinook salmon bound 12 miles upriver to the Carson National Fish Hatchery, where they will be spawned with factory-like efficiency.

At the hatchery, Rawding emphasized the benefits of maintaining wild runs rather than relying on hatcheries.

"These spring chinook originated in the upper Columbia and Snake rivers," he said. "This broodstock started about 40 years ago. Because these fish are from a distant watershed, and they have been in the hatchery for 40 years, they are not successful at producing smolts in the wild."

Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer
Fish Tales Lure Russians
The Columbian, July 19, 2004

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