NMFS Official Warns Against
by Mark Jewell, Associated Press
SPOKANE, Wash. --The Northwest's top federal official in charge of salmon recovery warned Thursday that no single step - including dam breaching - will restore salmon runs.
"There are no silver bullets, there are no simple solutions," Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told about 100 people at a public forum on salmon recovery.
Any plan to restore the region's dwindling wild salmon runs "must be extensive, it must be durable and it must be comprehensive," Stelle said.
The most controversial option federal officials are studying - breaching four lower Snake River dams - could help restore four Snake River species listed under the Endangered Species Act, Stelle said.
Those who contend dams don't hurt salmon "aren't giving you the straight scoop," he said.
But breaching the Snake Dams would not address the threats facing eight other endangered or threatened salmon and steelhead species in other portions of the Columbia River Basin, he said.
Stelle was introduced at the Eastern Washington University-sponsored forum as being "on the hot seat now" because his agency is charged with writing a draft biological opinion on salmon recovery options.
The agency is awaiting a recommendation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on four options: breaching the dams, leaving them alone, modifying dam operations without breaching, and increasing barging and trucking of fish around the dams.
The Corps' long-delayed recommendation is expected sometime this summer.
Stelle emphasized that dam operations are only a single component of saving salmon, along with improving river flows, restoring habitat, reforming hatchery operations and limiting salmon fishing.
"If we do not change what we do, those stocks are going to go extinct, and you can bank on it," he said.
Increased production of hatchery salmon and improved survival rates after their release are two key factors behind this year's record returns of spring Chinook salmon to the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Relatively few of those fish are wild, and Stelle warned that relying heavily on hatchery fish is not an acceptable long-term recovery strategy.
Hatchery-bred salmon "are not the solution, they're part of the problem."
Hatchery fish "don't survive well" and "don't last in perpetuity" because they are not equipped with the same genetic characteristics that have enabled wild salmon to flourish over millions of years, he said.
In addition, hatchery fish can hurt wild stocks because they compete for the same food sources, he said. And interbreeding can dilute the genetic purity of wild stocks.
Stelle pledged to continue efforts to reform hatchery operations to address those problems.
Another speaker at Thursday's forum was Tom Karier, a Washington representative to the Northwest Power Planning Council, which is charged with planning for the region's energy needs while protecting salmon and other wildlife.
Karier expressed optimism that wild salmon can recover, just as American bald eagles have rebounded with help from a 1972 ban on the pesticide DDT and steps to protect eagle habitat.
Eagles are in the process of being removed from the endangered list after a recovery that has stretched three decades.
"I think with salmon, we're talking at least that recovery time, and probably more," Karier said.
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