ASHLAND, ORE. — TRYING to improve the lot of Pacific Northwest salmon is turning out to make the spotted owl controversy look like child's play. The salmon depletion is more complicated scientifically, it affects more individuals and economic interests, and it involves legal questions dating back 140 years.
The National Marine Fisheries Service on March 20 proposed its plan to protect and restore endangered stocks of wild salmon that migrate up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to lakes and streams in Idaho.
Under the watchful eye of federal courts, the agency has been working on blueprints for recovery since the first salmon species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.
The 500-page recovery plan includes several elements: buying up boats and permits from fishermen; rearing wild salmon in captivity to preserve gene pools; and changing hydropower dam operations to protect migrating fish.
Not surprisingly, the federal plan came under immediate criticism from all quarters.
To 'flush' or barge?
Conservationists and professional fishing interests say the only solution to salmon scarcity is to increase water flow by drawing down reservoirs, thereby ''flushing'' young salmon past dams when they are en route to the Pacific Ocean. Salmon spend several years at sea before returning to their birthplace to spawn.
''The [federal] plan depends on a government program that hasn't been effective since its inception 20 years ago,'' says Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. ''It takes salmon out of the water, puts them on barges and trucks, and hauls them to the ocean.''
Industry representatives, on the other hand, question the cost and scientific soundness of the federal salmon-recovery plan.
''We remain skeptical of further tampering with the operation of dams,'' said Bruce Lovelin executive director of the Columbia River Alliance.
The alliance last month issued its own recovery plan, which emphasizes the barging of young salmon past the dams while rejecting reservoir drawdowns.
Most scientists believe dam operations will have to be altered if Northwest salmon are to be pulled back from the brink of extinction. Computer models developed by state and tribal agencies, as well as the Northwest Power Planning Council (a four-state agency established by Congress in 1980), favor increased waste flows. But another computer model of juvenile fish passage in the Columbia River Basin designed at the University of Washington School of Fisheries concludes that barging is better for salmon recovery than reservoir drawdowns.
There is no disagreement over the decline of salmon. Annual migrating fish runs, which once topped 15 million in the region, have dropped below 300,000. Just 404 wild fall chinook salmon returned to the Snake River in 1994, and a lone sockeye salmon made it to Redfish Lake.
Native Americans have been catching salmon here for more than 10,000 years. Under a treaty with the federal government signed in 1855, tribes were promised the right to fish. But area tribes last week appealed to President Clinton to declare a state of emergency to prevent destruction of the salmon fishery in violation of the treaty.
Meanwhile, more listings of fish under the Endangered Species Act seem imminent. A proposal to list wild runs of steelhead trout in southern Oregon and northern California rivers was recently announced. The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering recovery plans for cutthroat trout in Oregon's Umpqua River system. And coho salmon runs on several West Coast rivers seem likely to be listed as well.
Under the most optimistic scenario, the recovery plan announced this week will take decades to carry out.
The annual spring/summer count of chinook in the Snake River will have to increase from last year's count of 1,800 at Lower Granite Dam in Idaho to 31,440 before special recovery measures can cease and the species be ''delisted,'' according to the federal fisheries agency.