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New Science may Change Tactics to Save Salmon

by Editorial Board
The Bellingham Herald, December 7, 2008

Science is always changing and new information is always of value. That's why it's important state and local officials pay attention to a new study of salmon migration.

Our governments are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on plans and efforts to try and save endangered and threatened Pacific Northwest salmon species, including the chinook that spawn in the Nooksack River system.

Much of the emphasis on those efforts has been on trying to repair critical habitat along the riverbanks, where forests that stood for centuries were cut down in the last 150 years in an effort to make nature more usable for man's pursuits, such as farming and home building.

But the new information may show at least part of the effort needs to be redirected to the seas, where it appears salmon are dying in huge numbers.

Scientists have been capturing salmon in the Rocky Mountains, before they head down the Snake River, into the Columbia River and then the ocean. The fish were implanted with almond-sized transmitters and then tracked by an underwater acoustic listening network now wired from just north of San Francisco to southeast Alaska.

The discoveries have surprised the scientists, and touched off controversy in some cases.

The system, for example, found that 40 percent of the salmon died within the first few weeks of entering the ocean.

It also found that salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers that pass by dams survived the trip to the ocean as well or better than salmon on British Columbia's Fraser River, which has no dams. That finding has created much controversy, with so many environmentalists having focused their efforts in recent years on pushing for dam removal.

Other data is allowing scientists to better track where the fish migrate to in the ocean, changing some long-standing beliefs about migration patterns.

We salute the scientists doing this work. It is long overdue.

We have always believed salmon are an important part of our world and must be saved. The loss of the species would be symbolic sign that our part of the world is doing a poor job of caring for the environment. More importantly, salmon extinction would create a hole in the marine food chain that could lead to the extinction of many other species, such as the orcas in our marine waters who count on salmon as a food source.

What we hope our scientists learn from the new reports is a better way to address salmon survival. It has been nearly a decade since Puget Sound chinook were listed for protection by federal officials -longer for some Columbia River species.

In the interim, communities, political leaders, environmentalists and others have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on efforts to save the salmon, with little success. There has been little change along the creeks and rivers in addressing habitat issues. And even fewer results. Salmon are not recovering.

The new data may turn attention elsewhere. What is happening in the ocean that is leading to such high mortality rates there? Is there a connection to global warming? Would money be better spent on ocean projects instead of creek and river projects?

It's too early to answer these questions today. But it's important that our scientific community continue to evolve and refine its practices so the efforts we spend so many tax dollars on actually help salmon recover.

Editorial Board
New Science may Change Tactics to Save Salmon
The Bellingham Herald, December 7, 2008

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