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Fighting Upstream Battle?

by Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent
The Oregonian, February 7, 2005

Bush administration's overhaul of policies affecting salmon runs
could be a windfall for housing, energy firms but a woe for fishermen

SEATTLE -- After starting in a streambed somewhere in the foothills, the fishes' lives, nature willing, will end somewhere on the end of a hook, attached to Joel Kawahara's troll line, about 100 feet down somewhere off the Pacific coast.

He will be waiting for the salmon in May, a crew of one, aboard the Karolee, as he has since 1987 when he quit his job as a Boeing engineer working on nuclear weapons systems because the work, to him, seemed inhuman. Without the fishing to turn to, he "would have gone postal. ... Not like bringing a gun into the office, but I would have lost it. I just couldn't do it anymore."

He spends the days of winter repairing his 60-year-old wooden boat at Fishermen's Terminal in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, birthplace of the Pacific Northwest fishing industry.

Ballard is as good a mythic center of fishing as any for a region that has made the salmon a cultural icon, the fierce, fighting fish that, at maturity, somehow find their way from the ocean back to their inland birthplace to spawn and then die. Their carcasses feed scavengers and eventually fertilize the majestic forests that ring this city.

But now federal policies on salmon are being drastically overhauled. The changes are a windfall to the housing and energy industries. But to solitary fishermen like Kawahara, they seem the beginning of the salmon's doom in the West.

"The government is doing everything it can to escape its responsibilities," said Kawahara, 50, who grew up like many boys in Seattle, fishing recreationally for salmon with his father. "They're trying to manipulate science to cover what's been a ruinous policy."

In November, the Bush administration announced a near-reversal of the environmental policies that were instituted to rebuild salmon runs - the time the fish swim back upriver - in Washington, Oregon and northern California.

In a much stricter interpretation of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the administration announced that it will protect as "critical habitat" only rivers and streams currently occupied by salmon, not areas that were once, or might become, part of their habitat. The new interpretation reduces protected territory by 80 percent, federal officials say.

The administration also has proposed to stop protecting land on the region's military bases and in federally owned forests. The decision is being challenged in court by environmental groups and will not become final before summer.

The decision came within months of the administration's conclusion that the removal of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, which would have benefited salmon recovery, is no longer an option, and its decision to count hatchery-raised salmon as wild salmon when considering population.

The triple whammy comes as a great relief to those in the building, timber and energy industries, which consider the protection of salmon under the Endangered Species Act costly, complex and overreaching. Government estimates put the cost of protecting salmon at up to $700 million a year.

One particularly contentious issue is the practice of spilling water over dams in the summer to give young salmon ample water to swim to sea. Spilled water cannot be used to turn hydroelectric turbines and generate electricity, electricity that could be sold for profit to power-hungry California. The revenue that spilled water could bring during the summer amounts to about $1 million a day. The added benefit to salmon populations has been a point of debate.

The Pacific Northwest has long been the beneficiary of the nation's lowest electricity rates. Hydroelectric power amounted to a subsidy on life and industry in the Northwest, attracting companies and the area's population. About 80 percent of homes in the Northwest get their electricity from dams, more than any place in the country. But electric rates in the region have increased about 50 percent in the past four years. So the growing cost of protecting salmon has put questions in the minds of even those whose livelihoods depend on the fish.

"I don't really know," said E.J. Gong, 39, who lives in Seattle, where he runs a small wholesale fish company that buys, directly and indirectly, from fishermen like Kawahara. "I care a lot about salmon and care a lot about my business, but we've done so much damage to the runs already. These protections sound great, but I wonder if they're practical. The science isn't completely clear to me. I would want to think long and hard before spending all this money."

At the turn of the century, salmon traveled as far inland as Nevada and Wyoming to spawn. All of the major rivers in the West were salmon habitat. But ranching, agriculture and development changed most of that forever. Now, the most prized salmon are fished out of Alaskan waters, where the numbers and size of the fish are the greatest, and development is minimal. Their flesh is thought by those who market them to contain more oil and to taste more succulent.

Even in forward-thinking Seattle, salmon is as essential to the culture as are coffee and jets and software. It's the quintessential Northwest dish, and pastime. At one time, great hordes of salmon migrated through the city and some still do. The Duwamish River, now the final destination for the city's storm runoff, was once a principal channel for spawning salmon. It was a reliable fishing ground as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.

"It creates a special challenge here," said Allison Butcher, spokeswoman for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. "This is one of the most heavily regulated markets in the country, with probably the most stringent storm water rules and toughest critical areas ordinance."

Critical habitat for salmon is a special designation covering millions of acres of wilderness and rural land and does not typically affect homeowners. But the designation can act as a reason to order time-consuming and costly public review any time a builder or developer wants to develop land in the area - for instance near a wetland, which describes much of the Puget Sound region, streaked by streams and creeks, ponds and marshes. That can mean a subdivision in the outer edges of King County, where Seattle is located and much of the city's outward growth is headed. Or it can mean expanding a freeway overpass in Bellevue, a fast-growing urban center east of Seattle, or even adding another runway at Sea-Tac airport.

Environmentalists applaud the critical habitat designation because it holds developers and government accountable. But attorneys representing builders say the rules are too broad and unnecessary.

"Like everybody in the Pacific Northwest, we want to see strong, healthy salmon runs," said Timothy Harris, general counsel for the Building Industry Association of Washington, which has long lobbied for the softening of protections for salmon. "The trouble is we have strong, healthy runs almost everywhere, and almost the entire Northwest is salmon habitat. You can stop almost everything using the Endangered Species Act. There are projects that have nothing to do with salmon habitat, but the act is so broad ... it forces us to protect these fish at all costs."

The act has drastically reduced the state's inventory of buildable land, Harris said, driven up the cost of lumber and increased the cost of building by creating an expensive permitting process.

"Salmon is an icon and it is part of living in the Pacific Northwest," he said. "But I think it's clouded our judgment."

The greatest debate between those who think salmon need more protection and those who think they have more than enough is whether inland conditions or ocean conditions play the most critical role in the success of salmon. Most agree that salmon runs are cyclical, down in some years, up in others. Even fishermen agree runs currently are very healthy. But for them, it's not a reason to scale back protections, it's a reason to pursue them just as vigorously to prepare for a down cycle.

"Right now are the good old days," said Trey Carskadon, a fifth-generation Oregonian, and third-generation fish guide who is now a public advocate for sportfishermen. "The fishing now has never been better. We're at historic highs. Now is not the time to get complacent, now is the time to pour it on . . . so we can avoid a functional crash. Those good old days can change in one year."

Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent
Fighting Upstream Battle?
The Oregonian, February 7, 2005

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