Salmon Issue Poses A Stiffer Challenge Than the Spotted Owl

WHILE the Clinton administration tries to balance timber-industry jobs and environmental protection for the controversial northern spotted owl, a fish in the Pacific Northwest poses even greater political challenges.

It's the salmon, the prime symbol of the region, whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades due to economic activities that will be affected by recovery plans. ``One of the major environmental issues of the 1990s'' is how Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus (D) describes the situation.

The salmon issue is tougher than that of the spotted owl for many reasons. Its habitat covers an area far greater than that of the owl. The number and types of activities impacting that habitat are far more complex than logging alone. And because several species are threatened by extinction, efforts to prevent it and rebuild dwindling fish stocks as required under the Endangered Species Act are likely to take longer and cost more.

The extent of the problem? While salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin historically reached 10 million to 16 million fish a year, the number is now down to some 2.5 million. Sixty-seven stocks of Columbia River salmon are extinct in an area American Rivers calls ``the most endangered river system in the country.''

The American Fisheries Society warns that 204 stocks of ocean-migrating fish along the Pacific coast are dangerously depleted. Of those, 148 risk extinction, and 19 ``may already be extinct,'' these scientists say.

``We have lost not only numbers of fish, but whole runs and more than a third of their original habitat,'' states a report by the Northwest Power Planning Council (NPPC), established by Congress a dozen years ago to protect Columbia Basin fisheries.

Chinook and sockeye salmon that spawn in the Snake River - a tributary of the Columbia - already are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups are preparing to petition the National Marine Fisheries Service for species-protection action for the coho salmon and migrating steelhead trout as well.

The causes of salmon decline are well-known: irrigation runoff containing farm chemicals, stream sedimentation caused by logging and grazing, overfishing, commercial and residential development, and, especially, a series of huge power-generation dams that have spawned a burgeoning regional economy and meant lower-than-average electric bills for residents of the Northwest.

``Dams built on the Lower Snake and Columbia Rivers are slaughtering the salmon,'' charges Mr. Andrus, a former Interior secretary. ``The young salmon - weak swimmers that depend upon the river current to `flush' them toward the ocean - become prey in the slack water reservoirs, are caught in hydroelectric turbines, or die from the stresses of unnatural migration.''

Recent weather patterns - warmer ocean temperatures caused by ``El Nino'' and seven years of drought in much of the region - have added to the problem.

Millions of dollars have been spent on fish hatcheries, but with mixed success. Hatchery fish are less hardy and more disease-prone. They appear to lack the spirit of wild fish, which, for millenia, have fought their way up hundreds of miles of river and stream to spawn where they were born.

The NPPC has issued plans for salmon recovery, including increased river velocities at times when the fish are migrating downstream, better protection systems at dam turbines, and more barges to transport juvenile salmon. But the council must deal with a variety of government agencies and special interests and has little power of its own.

Specialists with the Interior and Agriculture Departments recently completed recommendations that would restrict such streamside activities as logging, grazing, and mining. Such watershed protection, which may take the form of an emergency ruling, would go beyond existing regulations affecting those industries. And it may interfere with efforts to retain timber-industry jobs while protecting the spotted owl.

In a suit filed by environmental groups, federal Judge Malcolm Marsh this month ordered the Forest Service to halt timber and ranching activities in two national forests in Oregon that include Snake River chinook habitat.

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