the film
Commentaries and editorials

High-tech Tags Track Salmon,
Draw Political Fire

by Keith Ridler, Associated Press
The Daily Herald, September 3, 2006

BOISE, Idaho -- Biologists first captured the wild chinook salmon along with hundreds of others in the Walla Walla River in the southeastern corner of Washington state.

After nabbing the three-inch-long fish in November 2002, they anesthetized it and inserted into its body cavity a half-inch long tracker as part of a rapidly expanding program giving researchers new insights into the movements of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.

It's a program that's had both scientific and political significance.

It was six months and 71 river miles later that biologists next heard from the fish, now known by a code starting with 3D9, as it followed spring flows downstream past McNary Dam on the Columbia River as it headed for the Pacific.

Then, for three years, nothing.

Meanwhile, the bit of data the fish's high-tech baggage contributed -- along with information supplied by similar tags in millions of other salmon and steelhead -- figured into a federal court decision in 2005 that went against the Bush administration.

U.S. District Judge James Redden cited data from the Fish Passage Center in Portland in his decision to declare inadequate a federal plan for protecting salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

His order to spill more water over dams to help young salmon reach the ocean, rather than running the water through turbines to generate electricity, cost an estimated $60 million in lost hydroelectric generation.

Environmental groups say that court decision led Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to make a legislative move to eliminate $1.3 million for the Fish Passage Center, which interprets data from the tags.

"Absolutely there was a correlation," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United and one of the groups involved in the lawsuit that led to the ruling. "Instead of trying to figure out how to fix the problem of diminishing salmon returns, he sought to shoot the messenger."

Craig's office said the center's work duplicates other federal programs and that it has become a tool of environmentalists who want to remove hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers.

"Where the Fish Passage Center crossed the line with federal funding was moving into advocacy," said Craig spokesman Dan Whiting. "(Craig) wants the data collected, and it is being collected, and the money is still available to collect it. It just won't be the Fish Passage Center."

The center, which uses about 325,000 of the tags annually, remains open pending a lawsuit filed by environmentalists and Indian tribes.

Passive Integrated Transponder tags came into use in 1987 with about 25,000 units and a few listening posts to pick up their signals at some Columbia River dams. The program has since expanded to about 2 million tagged fish a year -- thought to be less than 5 percent of the salmon and steelhead that annually head for the ocean -- with additional listening posts.

In the last few years, the tags and listening posts have started reaching the outer edge of the basin, including small hop-across streams in the mountains of central Idaho. Special systems in dams can be used to direct individually tagged fish into holding areas for additional study.

"Virtually anybody that is involved with fisheries in one way or another now uses this technology," said Earl Prentice, a Manchester, Wash.,-based fisheries research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Prentice devised the idea for the tags in 1982, which a Minnesota company now produces for about $2.25 each. He said he has long since lost track of all the tribal, state and federal governments, as well as universities and other private entities, that use them.

"Once you tag the fish, you only have to handle it one time," he said.

And that is how biologists knew on May 10 of this year that salmon 3D9 was one of the 1 to 2 percent of salmon to survive their ocean odyssey and return to spawn. It had arrived at the Bonneville Dam fish ladder.

The tag it carried sent a signal that was picked up by an antenna. A computer recorded the information and relayed it to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in Portland, a data collection center for all the tags in the basin. To date, about 16 million tags have been put in both wild and hatchery salmon and steelhead, and all that information is available to the public at the commission's Web site.

By the time 3D9 returned from the ocean, biologists say it likely weighed about 20 pounds. It cleared the fish ladder at McNary Dam on May 17. On Aug. 4, it was detected by an in-stream listening post on the South Fork of the Walla Walla River in Oregon, about 375 river miles from the ocean. It was detected again the next day in the same area.

"We haven't heard from the fish since," said Dave Marvin, a biologist and systems analyst at the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. "We assume it has come back to its spawning ground."

Related Sites:
Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission:
Fish Passage Center:

Keith Ridler, Associated Press
High-tech Tags Track Salmon, Draw Political Fire
The Daily Herald, September 3, 2006

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation