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Commentaries and editorials

The Sockeye and Good News

by Tracy Warner
Wenatchee World, July 8, 2008

News is often dominated by suffering, disaster and, if we are lucky, identifiable failures. A group, an industry, an agency or institution, someone somewhere did something wrong, made a mistake. They are indictable, the target of our pointed fingers. A story is easier to tell when there is someone to blame. When salmon runs collapse, blame is the major news angle.

This year the chinook salmon run to California's Sacramento Valley has been an abject disaster. The run that only recently was immense, producing a near-million-fish harvest, in a very short time has all but disappeared. A few thousand fish returned, not even enough to produce a full generation of offspring. A fisheries disaster has been declared, the ocean harvest canceled. This news was consistently expanded to be a "West Coast" salmon collapse, a disaster story that leads up the Columbia to the very blamable system of dams. CBS' "60 Minutes" recently rebroadcast a story it did on Snake River salmon in 2000, the major updating being a glum lead-in about the fishery disaster on the "West Coast."

The very day the story was broadcast tens of thousands of salmon were heading up the Columbia. This year, the big news on this river is not the disappearance of salmon, but their relative abundance. The run of spring chinook, protected as an endangered species, was less that the big return forecast, but still strong at around 150,000 fish, nearly double 2007. The summer chinook run now under way is strong as well, and prospects for fall chinook very good. Monday's front page photo of the two grinning fishermen holding up newly caught kings just off Wenatchee will be a scene often repeated.

The bigger news is the mass of the sockeye now heading toward us. Last year, 25,400 sockeye returned to the Columbia. This year the return may hit 230,000 salmon, some say up to 300,000, according to the fish-counting agencies. It was not expected. It is a complete and entirely pleasant surprise. It likely will be the largest sockeye run since the mid-1950s.

The added wrinkle is the vast majority of these fish are headed to Lake Wenatchee, or up the Okanogan River to Osoyoos Lake, or even farther into British Columbia's Okanogan Valley, to Skaha Lake near Penticton and Lake Okanagan.

Sockeye are curious creatures, notoriously cyclical and unpredictable. Unlike chinook salmon, they return to nursery lakes where their progeny eventually will spend a year before heading back down river. The two nursery lakes surviving on the Columbia are Wenatchee and Osoyoos. To get there, returning sockeye have to navigate past eight or nine dams, the very dams that are supposed to ensure their demise.

(bluefish points out: Currently over 200,000 Sockeye adults, the Upper Columbia Sockeye has never been listed as threatened or endangered. The Snake River Sockeye were listed as endangered in 1991 with this year's run forecast to be 700 returning adults. Snake River fish must twice negotiate four Lower Snake River dams and reservoirs that Upper Columbia Sockeye never face: Lower Granite, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Ice Harbor operated by the Army Corps of Engineers.)

Meanwhile, sockeye runs elsewhere are suffering. On Canada's great, undammed Fraser River, runs are low. Even on Alaska's famed Copper River, salmon runs are down.

Why are the Columbia runs strong, while the California chinook run collapsed and Canadian and Alaskan runs are suffering? Scientists are trying to figure this out. Ocean conditions, food at sea, predators, harvest, habitat loss, - whatever the reasons, the situation does not lend itself to simplistic explanations. It may be utterly different in a year, the arguments may change, but it will never be easy to place blame. And somewhere, the news will be good.

Related Pages:
Columbia River is Thick with Sockeye Salmon by Phil Ferolito, Yakima Herald, 7/3/8
Fish Fuss Focuses on Fallacies by Witt Anderson, Coeur d'Alene Press, 7/3/8

Tracy Warner, Editorial Page editor
The Sockeye and Good News
Wenatchee World, July 8, 2008

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