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Salmon Stock Collapse: Are We Next?

by Lisa Stiffler
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 8, 2008

The collapse of the California salmon stocks makes people wonder: Could it happen here?

The Sacramento River is a prime source for the fish caught on the California coast. The Columbia River is the backbone for Washington.

The Sacramento is No. 2 and the Columbia No. 1 in the world for salmon production from a river system.

Both have seen huge declines in their salmon populations from historic levels. Both ideally are managed to balance human needs with the needs of fish that return as adults to spawn and leave as juveniles for the ocean. The Sacramento is squeezed for water used in agricultural irrigation, the Columbia and its tributary the Snake River are home to massive dams that provide most of Washington's energy. The rivers also are harmed by pollution, habitat damaged by development and shrinking snowpacks as the climate warms.

"We need to solve these problems in all these major river systems because if we leave any of them behind, it will hurt us coast wide," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a commercial fishing interest group.

At the meeting this week of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the focus has been on commercial fishing for chinook salmon in California and Oregon being shut down or drastically curtailed for 2008.

Washington managers also expect fishing of some Columbia River stocks to hit near-record lows.

"To meet conservation objectives, most salmon fisheries in Washington's waters will be even more restricted this year," Phil Anderson, deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said recently.

The perilous drop in salmon stocks could renew calls by Washington environmentalists, commercial fishermen and others for the removal of four dams on the Snake River. Already the groups are in a legal battle with the government over how the existing dams are being operated -- namely how much water is spilled over the dams and when -- in order to protect fish.

"We still think the only solution that's been biologically demonstrated as capable of not just letting fish tread water in terms of their numbers, but to get them restored, is the removal of the lower Snake River dams," said Michael Garrity of the Seattle office of American Rivers, an environmental group.

Also at issue is the role of fluctuating ocean conditions and how much food is available for young fish. Different interest groups vary in how much blame they place on the ocean compared to river conditions for struggling fish populations. State managers primarily are blaming ocean conditions for this year's declines in chinook from Oregon and California and Columbia River coho salmon.

Shauna McReynolds of the Northwest RiverPartners, whose members include utilities, businesses and cities, opposed efforts to focus on dam removal and operations.

"It's all the same old stuff. Dam removal is not a silver bullet," McReynolds said. "We are way too far past that."

On Monday a settlement was announced with four Northwest tribes that commits federal agencies to spending $900 million over the next decade on improving conditions for endangered salmon. It leaves intact controversial hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin, and invests in hatchery improvements, stream restoration work and safer fish passage around the dams.

Early next month, the federal government is expected to present its newest proposal for running Columbia dams. U.S. District Court Judge James Redden rejected two previous proposals as not sufficiently protective of salmon. In December he warned that the consequences "could be harsh" if the new plan is deemed inadequate, potentially resulting in the judge assuming control of dam operations.

Much of the recent debate has centered on whether the best available science was used in evaluating the dam plans.

"Ignoring the science gets you into very deep trouble very quickly," Spain said. "These are fundamental biological issues, not political ones."

This story contains information from The Associated Press. P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or Read her blog on the environment at

Related Pages:
Survival of Snake River Salmon & Steelhead data compiled by, July 2004

Lisa Stiffler, P-I Reporter
Salmon Stock Collapse: Are We Next?
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 8, 2008

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