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Is This Picture in Danger of Disappearing?

by Michael Burkett
The Daily Astorian, December 26, 2008

Climate change experts worry that fishing opportunities, like ones in Wallowa County in Eastern Oregon pictured above, will diminish as the region’s weather and climate changes. Imagining California without sunshine, Wisconsin without cheese and Idaho without potatoes is no doubt a whole lot easier for Oregonians than conjuring an image of their home state without salmon, steelhead or trout.

Yet, that's exactly the picture broadcast 'round the world by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's report on global warming, which contains some dire predictions for Oregon's time-honored reputation as a Mecca for coldwater fishermen.

Released July 17, the report warns that the time may come when salmon- and trout-fishing trips are no longer much of an option for residents or visitors. EPA scientists further caution that warming temperatures could lead to a 50- to 100-percent decline in Chinook salmon returns in some areas, since salmon require cool water and are extremely sensitive to increasing temperatures.

"Reductions of such magnitude will have a substantial adverse effect on recreational salmon catch rates, and possibly whether recreational fishing would even be allowed to continue in some areas of the Pacific Northwest," the EPA report concludes.

While that would be considered a frightening forecast in any square inch of Oregon, one might expect it to be especially alarming in rural areas such as Wallowa County. In these northeastern parts, nearly every resident is a license-carrying fish hunter, and it is widely hoped that the lure of the local wilds will eventually rescue an economy that not long ago relied almost exclusively on logging.

Some not worried

Rob Lamb, of Joseph, however, is unalarmed. And as the owner of Lamb's Trading Post, a complete fly-fishing pro shop and fishing/whitewater guide business, Lamb is perhaps the Wallowa country's premier expert on Man's Favorite Sport.

"As far as our fishery, it's been strong," Lamb said. "We had two drought years - 2006 and 2007 - but that didn't seem to hurt us over the long run. We're seeing good salmon returns and excellent steelhead returns this year."

In short, Lamb concluded, "this EPA statement isn't a scare to the lifestyle we have."

Equally unperturbed by the EPA's predictions is John Williams, the Wallowa County extension agent for Oregon State University.

"The data I've seen doesn't (support the EPA's findings) at all," Williams said, before acknowledging his disdain for such long-range forecasts. "If you're going to predict out 50 or 100 years, go right ahead. But I don't think we can be certain about next Wednesday's weather."

Jim Martin isn't at all sure how next Wednesday's weather may shape up, either. He is certain, however, of the potential impact of global warming on the fisheries of Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

The former director of fisheries for the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department, Martin now works as conservation director for Pure Fishing's Berkley Conservation Institute. During his 30-year career with ODFW, Martin spent six years as chief of fisheries and three years as salmon adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber. He also led the team that developed the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds, a state conservation plan to address endangered species and clean water issues in Oregon.

Last March, Martin and National Wildlife Federation global warming expert Patty Glick co-authored and released "A Great Wave Rising: Solutions for Columbia and Snake River Salmon in the Age of Global Warming," the latest report to warn that global warming's effects are under way - and that the worst has yet to come.

By the time Martin and his partner had completed the project, their conclusions were identical to those of the EPA and the Independent Scientific Advisory Board to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries). "Climate change," Martin said in summary, "has the potential to be very, very damaging to salmon, steelhead, and trout species in the Pacific Northwest."

That, however, does not necessarily contradict the trend witnessed by Rob Lamb.

"We're going to see years (of fish runs) that are up and years that are down, depending largely on ocean conditions, short-term variations in run-off and spring flow and things like that," Martin said.

"For example, this year we saw a wonderful, unusually large snow pack, and that turned into really excellent migration conditions into the ocean. So, you're going to see a very positive bump in abundance - in the short-term. A local guy, guiding fishing trips in Wallowa County, isn't going to see the bigger picture."

And the bigger picture isn't pretty, Martin added.

Once Oregon is hit by a perfect storm comprised of "a little less snow pack, lower summer water flows and higher summer temperatures, bam! We'll go over a threshold, and suddenly we won't have salmon or steelhead or trout," Martin said.

The even bigger picture

The full EPA report - which doesn't contain new research but assembles a peer-reviewed summary of earlier research - covers much more than the effects of climate change on Oregon's fish. In fact, its warning is broad enough to suggest that global warming threatens the health and well-being of every American, and that no area of the country will remain untouched by its effects, from rising sea levels on Alaska's coast to deadly heat waves in New England.

Among other conclusions in the report:

While these forecasts are not at all surprising to Martin, he is stunned to realize they came from "an administration that has consistently denied global climate change in general... I was highly impressed that the EPA was able, politically, to become unshackled enough to be able to report things that the rest of us have been reporting for quite a while."

Even those who reject such worst-case scenarios would likely agree with Martin on this matter: Fishing represents a huge, irreplaceable part of the Pacific Northwest economy.

"In Oregon, Washington and Idaho, it's a 35,000-job industry, and it's worth $3 billion dollars per year," he said. "So it's a lot more than just a hobby. There's a lot at stake."

Protecting that stake, Martin said, should be of vital importance to all Oregonians - no matter how they feel about climate change, the EPA, Al Gore or greenhouse gases.

The complete EPA report may be viewed online at (www.climatescience.gov). "A Great Wave Rising: Solutions for Columbia and Snake River Salmon in the Age of Global Warming," by Jim Martin and Patty Glick, is available online at (www.berkley-fishing.com/community_news_article.php?id=2144).


Michael Burkett
Is This Picture in Danger of Disappearing?
The Daily Astorian, December 26, 2008

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