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Commentaries and editorials

Saving Salmon the Smart Way

by Editors
The Oregonian, July 28, 2000

Federal government's plan to save Columbia Basin salmon
without breaching any dams worth trying

The federal government's long-awaited strategy for saving 12 species of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead from extinction won't please many people. It will cost a lot of money, and it is sure to require unexpected financial sacrifices from a whole host of stakeholders and Northwest citizens

Yet the plan looks at all the factors in the salmon's decline over the last half century so comprehensively that we believe it has a chance to work.

What the plan doesn't call for is breaching the four lower Snake River dams. That's a simplistic strategy that, at best, would help only four of these 12 imperiled stocks, and three of them only modestly -- and at a cost of $1 billion-plus. For that kind of investment, the region can get a lot more recovered salmon by doing the things the federal government calls for in this plan.

The National Marine Fisheries Service's basin-wide salmon recovery plan comes in two volumes (265 pages total), consisting of proposals found by the agency's scientists to offer the greatest benefit for the broadest range of species. Along with the strategic plan is the agency's biological opinion, which must face a 60-day public comment period before becoming final, and then has to satisfy the federal court that ordered the fisheries service to write one with substance. We believe it has.

The 469-page biological opinion is loaded with ideas for changing the way hydroelectric dams and fish hatcheries operate, and the way the states and the tribes manage salmon harvest. The plan is both aggressive and bold, calling for increasing river flows to spill more fish over dams, controlling predators, adding water to streams, rebuilding riparian areas, protecting wetlands, and its main focus: restoring habitat in the Columbia River estuary -- a place where all 12 listed stocks spend time.

That dam breaching didn't make the cut is simply a reflection that it's not a very promising fish-saving strategy, given the high cost and the time it takes to achieve a benefit. Yet dam-breaching remains a possibility, in case the basin-wide fish recovery strategy doesn't work. This makes sense to us.

But the agency's draft doesn't answer the crucial question: How will we know if the recovery plan has failed?

The federal government believes it can measure success by using a set of standards, assessing the various recovery programs after five, eight and 10 years. One standard would be simply the status of the stocks: how many adult wild fish are returning to their home streams and if those returns represent an upward or downward trend. This is a bit troubling to us because so many variables -- other than the Columbia/Snake hydroelectric system -- can affect the salmon's return to spawn.

This year, for example it is expected that 1,764 wild Snake River fall chinook -- no doubt helped by improved ocean conditions -- will return to Idaho streams. That's just 500 salmon shy of a de-listing number. Yet the number also represents the largest return of these threatened Snake River-bound fish in a dozen years or more.

So if ocean conditions change and that number decreases a couple of years from now, does that mean that the fishery service's strategies for improving habitat, reducing harvests and overhauling hatcheries has failed? Or does it just mean that ocean conditions made it harder for the Snake River fall chinook to grow up in the ocean?

On the other hand, none of the proposed standards appears impossible to meet. They'll just need to be refined to give scientists a better handle on where the fish go, where they get into trouble and what they need to survive.

Clearly the dam-breaching advocates, many of whom called the plan a failure before they even read it, will continue their national media campaign to persuade the Clinton administration to change its mind and breach the dams.

But we believe if they want to move beyond the polarizing debate over dam breaching, and embrace an honest, science-based effort to rescue all Columbia Basin stocks threatened with extinction, they'll give this plan a chance.

Saving Salmon the Smart Way
The Oregonian, July 28, 2000

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