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Commentaries and editorials

Protect Wild-salmon Strongholds

by William Ruckelshaus & John Kitzhaber
The Seattle Times, June 13, 2008

This spring, the collapse of California's Sacramento chinook salmon stocks has effectively shut down coastal salmon fisheries in Oregon and California. While we avoided a salmon fishery shutdown in Washington, the fisheries collapse to the south should be taken seriously by all the citizens of this state.

We must not ignore that, beyond the Sacramento run, other salmon stocks from central California to British Columbia have suffered steep declines. To address these declines, we've focused on the important work of repairing damaged river systems and recovering threatened and endangered wild-salmon stocks. Additionally, the recent U.S.-Canada Salmon Fisheries Treaty attempts to take a more regional approach, reducing catch across borders and increasing funding for salmon-restoration efforts in Canada and the U.S. However, more work must be done.

While we must fix what's wrong, it's also vital to maintain the long-term integrity and productivity of our healthiest wild-salmon rivers - known as salmon strongholds.

These core centers of wild salmon abundance and diversity generate the highest percentage of wild salmon so essential to our ecosystems, economies and culture. In the lower 48 states, roughly half of our wild salmon live in approximately 20 percent of existing salmon habitat.

These strongholds include the coastal rivers of the Olympic Peninsula, which produce more than half of Washington's sockeye and steelhead, and 40 percent of Washington's chinook. Additionally, the Skagit River accounts for approximately 30 percent of Washington's coho. To the south, the wild Illinois and Trinity rivers in Southern Oregon and Northern California account for approximately 30 percent of chinook in the region.

In Alaska - a regional stronghold accounting for more than one-third of all Pacific wild salmon - the rivers of Bristol Bay are home to more than 60 percent of all wild sockeye and support one of North America's largest chinook runs.

Together, these rivers and others will form a network of salmon strongholds across the North Pacific that will sustain wild salmon into the future.

The good news is that voluntary, incentive-based efforts are under way in most of these places to keep these rivers healthy and increase local economic opportunities. But since saving salmon ecosystems requires coordination across entire watersheds, these efforts desperately need federal and state support.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. - with the support of Congressman Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, the state of Washington and other congressional leaders - has taken note of these efforts and is considering legislation to accelerate voluntary, public-private actions in these and other wild-salmon strongholds.

This Salmon Stronghold bill would complement the Endangered Species Act and international salmon treaties by promoting the protection and restoration of our healthiest wild-salmon rivers. This legislation would leverage private dollars to support the highest priority conservation actions; streamline incentive-based programs; and more effectively coordinate federal agency actions on stronghold rivers for the benefit of salmon and their ecosystems.

Communities living in wild-salmon strongholds could choose to join the program, which will respect private-property rights and provide critical funding to acquire easements and riparian lands, improve fish passage, and reward fish-friendly land-management practices.

Building a network of salmon strongholds will buffer against future wild-salmon collapses, while gaining time for restoration efforts to succeed. The network will also help protect critical ecosystem services - including clean water, carbon sequestration and healthy fish habitat - necessary to mitigate climate-change impacts.

Of course, protecting strongholds must be accompanied by moving more aggressively to minimize adverse impacts on wild fish from hatcheries and reducing catch to sustainable levels. Negotiators for Canada and the U.S. took a step in the right direction recently by striking a deal to reduce the chinook ocean harvest by 30 percent off Vancouver Island and an additional 15 percent reduction of southbound chinook harvested in Alaska.

Wild Pacific salmon have proven remarkably resilient to natural calamities, surviving an ice age, volcanic eruptions and large-scale ecosystem changes. Climate change presents new challenges, but by protecting the best remaining salmon ecosystems throughout their range, wild salmon cannot only survive, but thrive, for generations to come.

William Ruckelshaus is the former head of the EPA and currently serves as the chairman of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board for the state of Washington.
John Kitzhaber is the former governor of Oregon and is on the board of directors of the Wild Salmon Center, an international conservation organization based in Portland.
Protect Wild-salmon Strongholds
The Seattle Times, June 13, 2008

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