Saving an Icon of the Pacific Northwest

Salmon continue to decline despite 'most expensive environmental restoration plan in the world'

Up in Alaska, fishermen this week are turning salmon into chowder, corndogs, and "salmon ham" - anything to sell a resource that seems to be in over-abundance. But just a few hundred miles to the south, economic interests, environmental activists, federal agencies, courts, and lawmakers are wrestling over salmon runs headed toward demise.

People are talking seriously about removing some of the major dams in the Columbia River Basin - a system that covers an area the size of western Europe and powers a multibillion-dollar economy - in order to return the massive river network to a more-natural state.

Others say less drastic and more creative steps are necessary to "give our salmon, trout, and steelhead a fighting chance at dodging extinction," as Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) put it in his recent State of the State address.

"Everybody's frustrated," says Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, a coalition of shippers, manufacturers, electric utilities, irrigators, and others keenly interested in the future of the river system.

Several salmon runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and more may soon be listed, which means the federal government must implement recovery plans. It already costs $435 million a year for such recovery efforts as regulating water flow and barging fish around the dams.

"This is the most expensive environmental restoration plan in the world," says Mr. Lovelin, "But what's so frustrating is that the salmon continue to decline."

That's the one thing on which environmentalists, fishermen, and pro-dam economic interests can all agree. "Everybody recognizes that these fish are in trouble," says Tim Stearns, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, representing commercial and sport fishermen and conservationists.

To the public, it may seem odd if not ludicrous that so much fuss is made over a fish that numbers in the multimillions in Alaska. But scientists say that individual runs of salmon are genetically different and therefore unique species. And it's not just the coho, chinook, or sockeye that are distinct, but the spring, summer, and fall runs within specific regions.

Salmon spawn far upstream in gravel beds. As youngsters, they swim downstream (sometimes hundreds of miles) to the Pacific Ocean, where they mature and then return several years later to the exact spot where they were born to repeat the cycle.

A century ago, as many as 16 million wild salmon moved through the Columbia River and its tributaries every year. Today, "Pacific salmon have disappeared from about 40 percent of their historical breeding ranges," according to the National Research Council. In all, annual salmon runs have dwindled to about 300,000, less than 2 percent of their historical numbers.

There are many causes for the decline: pollution caused by agricultural runoff and manufacturing, erosion due to logging, overfishing, commercial and residential development. But the main culprits seem to be the eight major dams along the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake River, plus hundreds of smaller dams.

Last November, a report commissioned by the US Army Corps of Engineers suggested that removing the four major dams on the Snake would be the surest - although the most expensive - way to save the endangered chinook. Environmentalists, fishermen, and some Indian tribes might favor such a radical scheme, but industrial water users say that's out of the question.

"If we get rid of the dams, we'll put up gas-fired generators, and that's carbon dioxide emissions," warns Lovelin.

How then to save the salmon? Fish ladders have been installed on some (but not all) dams. These help adult salmon on the upstream journey, but the newly hatched smolts headed downstream still face the giant turbines capable of producing nearly 25,000 megawatts of power while they turn fish into pure. Spilling water over the dams at key times helps some, as does barging. Still, the numbers of wild salmon keep declining, and many scientists believe that hatchery fish are genetically inferior and therefore not the answer.

All sides agree some combination of dam management and habitat restoration will be required. Meanwhile, the requirements of the ESA hang over all. So too does the prospect of energy deregulation, which could see major changes in (if not the end to) the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal marketing agency that oversees Northwest hydroelectricity.

Environmentalists, the Indian tribes, industrial water users, and Governor Kitzhaber - all have their own ideas about how best to help the salmon recover.

Kitzhaber stresses watershed management councils and voluntary efforts, approaches not all agree with. "Most of our folks are pretty skeptical of voluntary efforts," says Mr. Stearns. "There's a fear of foot-dragging without the regulatory hammer."

Meanwhile, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska have joined with environmentalists, fishing groups, and tribes along the lower Columbia in suing the federal government for failure to adequately provide for salmon recovery under the ESA. The case will be heard in March. Shortly after that, the National Marine Fisheries Service will decide whether to list two runs of coho salmon as endangered. If the federal government decides against listing the coho, says Stearns, "there will be litigation."

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