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Commentaries and editorials

Sockeye Recovery is Still Nowhere Close

by Amanda Peacher
Idaho Statesman, July 20, 2008

If we see higher returns of sockeye salmon to Redfish Lake this year, as Roger Phillips' recent article and projections from Bonneville Dam suggest, Idahoans will have cause to celebrate.

In most of the 17 years since Idaho's sockeye have been listed as an endangered species, returning adults have numbered in the single digits. Last year, just four sockeye made it back to Redfish Lake. Indeed, 50, 100 or 700 returning fish would be welcome news.

But before Idahoans get too excited, here are a few things we should keep in mind:

It's too early to tell just how many sockeye will make it home to the Stanley Basin this year. Yes, counts of sockeye at Bonneville Dam have been high. Keep in mind, however, that most of those sockeye are headed to spawning grounds in the Columbia system, and are not federally protected species.

When most of this year's adult sockeye were migrating to the ocean as babies in 2006, Judge James Redden ordered the government to "spill" water over dams to help flush fish to the ocean. Baby salmon survive at much higher rates when allowed to migrate in the river, rather than being trucked or barged downstream. Idaho Rivers United, fishermen, and other conservationists pushed for spill in court. If groups like ours had not stepped up to fight for the salmon, the feds would have been content to continue fish transportation methods that work poorly.

Idaho Fish and Game, the Sho-Ban Tribes, and other scientists have done remarkable work keeping Idaho's sockeye alive, despite the challenges of working with a limited gene pool and limited resources. Without the expertise and commitment of this community, Idaho's sockeye would already be extinct. Still, those scientists would be the first to tell you that a long-term captive breeding program - without changes in Snake River management - will not succeed.

I hope Idahoans are lucky enough to see more sockeye make it home this year. After a decade of failed salmon plans, billions of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars spent and years of dismal returns, it would be nice to have something to cheer about.

But without further action, this year's improved Snake River sockeye returns will be just another outlier. In its 'new' salmon plan, the federal agencies responsible for salmon recovery actually roll back sockeye protections. The plan calls for less spill, more barging, and refuses to consider lower Snake River dam removal as an option.

A majority of scientists say that removing the four high-cost, low-value dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington is the best, and perhaps only way to restore Idaho's salmon. But as long as the federal government refuses to do what's necessary to restore Idaho's salmon populations, another outlier year of more fish will only postpone extinction.

One 'good year' is not enough. We need sustained increases in sockeye returns over several years before we break out the good champagne and declare a positive trend.

In order to keep Idaho's sockeye from fading into extinction, we will ultimately need Congressional leadership and support for removing the four lower Snake River dams. We can have healthy salmon populations, fishing opportunities, a reliable energy supply and a strong Northwest economy. But we can't have all of those things when the lower Snake River dams remain in place.

So as we celebrate Idaho's returning sockeye this year, let's also ask our political leaders to be accountable for the fate of our sockeye, in 2009, 2010 and over the years to come.

Amanda Peacher is salmon program coordinator for Idaho Rivers United, a statewide conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring Idaho's rivers and native fish.
Sockeye Recovery is Still Nowhere Close
Idaho Statesman, July 20, 2008

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