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Commentaries and editorials

Debate Over Who Counts Salmon
is Only a Distraction

by Editors
Idaho Statesman, November 16, 2005

No matter who's doing the counting, Idaho's salmon have had a trying 2005. The big salmon returns of 2001 seem not only a distant memory, but an aberration.

So Sen. Larry Craig's political triumph over a tiny fish-counting agency comes across as hollow. It's sad that this year's biggest salmon debate on Capitol Hill focused on a small issue in the fish's plight.

Craig has used his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to target the Fish Passage Center -- a Portland agency with a staff of 11, an annual budget of $1.3 million and the sensitive job of analyzing salmon numbers for states, federal agencies and tribes. The Idaho Republican inserted language killing the center into a conference report on a spending bill; the report passed the Senate Monday and goes to President Bush.

Craig's language would move the center's work to "other existing and capable entities in the region," but doesn't say who these entities might be. The Bonneville Power Administration is told to "make no new obligations" to work with the center. BPA, the federal agency that markets hydropower from Northwest dams, then gets to help hire the new scientists who will analyze salmon numbers directly affected by these dams.

Will this make the science any less controversial? Of course not.

The Fish Passage Center has made enemies; conservation groups and tribal leaders defend the center, but Craig and other critics believe the agency has become a mouthpiece for salmon advocates. But there's every chance the new scientists -- whoever they turn out to be -- will be seen as apologists for the hydro industry. Analysis, or advocacy, is in the eye of the beholder.

And of course, none of this changes the raw numbers -- and the real problems they represent.

As of Monday, 43,271 chinook salmon had passed Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston, the uppermost of eight dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. By comparison, 194,541 chinook had passed Lower Granite by this time in 2001. Those aren't numbers from the Fish Passage Center; they come from a University of Washington research program Craig has cited as a possible successor to the center.

Instead of debating about who analyzes fish counts, Congress needs to have a bipartisan and regional discussion about the bigger questions. Like why -- even with fall runs up from 2001 -- the annual chinook numbers, made up largely of spring salmon, have dropped almost 78 percent in four years? Are the salmon runs headed back toward the bleak days of 1995, a year when only 2,864 chinook passed Lower Granite? How can the region replicate the 2001 spring and summer chinook runs that allowed Idaho communities to reap nearly $90 million from salmon fishing? And what federal policies will it take -- including breaching four lower Snake River dams, such as Lower Granite -- to save Idaho wild salmon, which have languished on the federal endangered species list for more than a decade?

We don't buy Craig's argument that his language takes "the first step in getting the region back on track to salmon recovery."

This instead is a detour -- one the fish can't afford.

Eric Barker
Debate Over Who Counts Salmon is Only a Distraction
Idaho Statesman, November 16, 2005

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