Sockeye Salmon Listing Will Impact Whole Pacific Northwest Economy


IF you're enjoying the fight over the spotted owl and timber cutting, you'll love the growing effort to protect Pacific Northwest salmon. It's more biologically complicated, has the potential for far greater economic impact, and affects many times the number of people as well as species.Last week's listing of the Snake River sockeye salmon as an endangered species is just the beginning. Four other northwest salmon runs have been proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. And according to the American Fisheries Society (a private scientific group), 214 stocks of anadromous, or ocean-migrating, fish from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California are dangerously depleted - most of them at risk of extinction. Before large-scale fish harvesting and the construction of dams for hydropower and irrigation, the annual salmon run was about 16 million. Today, it is 2.5 million and 90 percent of those are hatchery fish, not wild salmon.

Protections Under federal law, listing a species as threatened or endangered means any activity that could impact that species or its habitat has to be approved by government agencies - like logging in spotted owl territory. The listing agency (for salmon, the National Marine Fisheries Service) also must come up with a recovery plan within two years. In the case of the sockeye (which may be beyond reach since only four fish returned this year to spawn), federal officials have given themselves a one-year deadline. In fact, there is a proposed salmon recovery plan already: one proposed by the Northwest Power Planning Council (NPPC), a group appointed jointly by the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana under federal legislation passed in 1980. The plan calls for reduced salmon harvesting and improvements to fish passage facilities around dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. But the heart of the proposal is increased storage of water behind the dams during the winter to be released in the spring when young salmon travel downriver to the Pacific Ocean. This is crucial, because if the young fish are held up behind the dams, they become prey to other fish or susceptible to disease in the warmer water. As it is, only about 30 percent survive the journey downstream. Power council scientists estimate increasing water flows would boost the survival rate to 39 percent. Overall costs of such a program would be about $100 million a year, including $70 million in lost revenues from power generation plus the cost of buying replacement power. This would mean a wholesale power rate increase of 5 percent to 10 percent to customers of the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the electricity from the federally-built dams in the Columbia/Snake river basin. But the impact could be much greater than that. Irrigators would have access to less water and have to pay more to pump it. Barge operators would be constrained, and other commercial and residential development in the watershed could be restricted. And timber industry activities throughout the region could be affected, since tree cutting and log-road construction can harm the streams which provide habitat for salmon and steelhead (an ocean-migrating trout). This means that everyone in the region - farmers, fishermen, loggers, millworkers, and electricity consumers - will have to pay part of the price of preserving a species that has come to symbolize the Pacific Northwest. The hope, as regional marine fisheries director Rolland Schmitten said, is that "if everyone contributes, no one will have to shoulder the entire burden."

Conservation Earlier this year, the NCCP issued a regional energy plan which emphasizes conservation over new power generation. In all, the council proposes saving 1,500 megawatts over the next decade and 4,600 megawatts over the next 20 years. Such conservation (through more efficient buildings, plus changes in industrial and agricultural practices) could cost $7 billion - still only half the price tag of new thermal-power generation. Utilities and regulators will meet in Portland, Ore., this week for the "groundbre aking" of what's being called a "conservation power plant."

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