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The True Cost of Salmon Recovery

by Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - May 15, 2002

We're finally getting some real information about salmon recovery: what a hatchery salmon really costs and how many wild salmon must be swimming in a river before that species can be declared saved.

Both numbers are daunting. But they should promote more clear-eyed decisions about salmon recovery.

Economists hired by the Northwest Power Planning Council say the least-costly hatchery fish is one fall chinook that shows up back at the Spring Creek National Hatchery on the Washington side of the Columbia River. It's only $64.35 per fish.

Most expensive is a sockeye that makes its way back to the Eagle Hatchery near Boise; it costs $7,437.50 to bring each one of those home. The Nez Pierce Indian Tribe, which is experimenting with more natural salmon rearing, brings each chinook home to Idaho for $4,646.17.

These are not wild fish, mind: they're the man-made kind. They're supposed to be the cheaper versions of the real thing. Even at these astronomical prices, though, the hatchery fish may be less costly than creating the conditions that would allow wild fish to thrive: removing some dams and improving a great deal of habitat. Or maybe not.

Washington bet heavily on hatcheries as a substitute for wild salmon; it has the world's largest hatchery system with 100 in the Columbia Basin alone. But there are no standard measures by which to judge their success or failure, nor do they have measurable objectives. The power council rightly is on track to remedy that.

Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service after years of shilly-shallying has specified how many wild fish must be present in a given river four out of eight consecutive years before the fish can be removed from Endangered Species Act protection.

There should be 3,700 naturally spawning chinook in the Wenatchee River, for example, and 2,000 Upper Columbia spring chinook in the Methow River. Between 1,500 and 2,000 chinook spawned in the Methow and Wenatchee combined last year.

And while NMFS wants 1,500 natural spawners to make the 900-mile trip up to the lakes in Idaho's Stanley Basin only 200 made the trip last year. But that's a vast improvement over the sorry 18 per year average in the 1990s.

Editorial Board
The True Cost of Salmon Recovery
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 15, 2002

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