FOR ages, salmon have relied on their homing instincts to guide them from the ocean back to their birthplaces to spawn.
But today, fewer salmon are making it either down or up the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Tony Meyer of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which oversees tribal fishing, says decisions made decades ago to build hydroelectric dams in the region, providing cheap power and irrigation, were also decisions to create an inhospitable environment for wild fish.
His assessment is a harsh one for a region that wants to let many economic interests - farming, logging, fishing, aluminum production - thrive together. But the difficulty of balancing all these interests is becoming painfully clear to the fishing industry.
On April 8, when the Pacific Fishery Management Council sets fishing limits for 1994, the ocean catch of coho and chinook salmon will almost certainly be set at or near zero. The regional agency may allow some fishing in certain ``inland marine'' waters, such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Native tribes are entitled by law to half of whatever meager catch is allowed.
`THIS salmon fishery is going fast,'' says Katherine Ransel of the Seattle office of American Rivers, a conservation group. The Columbia River once was home to 16 million wild salmon and steelhead trout. Now, she says the heavily dammed river system has around 2 million of these fish, of which only 300,000 are wild (the rest are from hatcheries).
Salmon runs are threatened in many other Oregon and Washington rivers. ``What we have left is Alaska,'' Ms. Ransel says.
The decline of salmon runs has already caused a roughly 80-percent decline in the size of the salmon industry since 1988, says Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents 25 industry groups. In that year, commercial and recreational salmon fishing supported 62,000 jobs in the Northwest and provided $1.25 billion in income.
``We're asking for federal funding for disaster relief,'' Mr. Spain says. Last week a federal aid package was announced for struggling New England fishermen.
For consumers, the virtually nonexistent Northwest catch this year will mean reliance on salmon from Alaska, from other countries such as Norway, or lower-quality farmed fish.
The big question is whether the Northwest salmon and the 60,000 jobs will ever return, Spain says. Ocean fishing accounts for only about 5 to 15 percent of human-induced salmon deaths, so limiting the catch alone will not do the trick.
The bigger problems are dams, which disrupt the journey of young salmon - known as smolts - from fresh water to the sea, and pollution from logging, agriculture, ranching, and cities. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council is powerless to deal with these issues.
An added factor this year is the impact of El Nino, a water-warming weather pattern that reduces ocean food supplies for the fish. Also, growing populations of seals and sea lions eat about 1 million salmon a year off the Washington coast.
Efforts to restore salmon habitat in Northwest rivers are centering around the Endangered Species Act. A hot issue is whether Columbia River salmon, on the endangered list, are being adequately protected by transporting smolts past dams.
``Barging hasn't worked yet,'' Spain says, and is ``not likely to ever work.'' One action that he says would help is ``drawdowns,'' letting water out of the dams in the spring to flush smolts downstream.
But this is highly controversial. Lobbyists for other industries say the tactic may not boost salmon runs but would deplete water used for irrigation and for transporting goods by barge. Drawdowns would also require several billion dollars worth of alteration to dams, raising electricity costs for aluminum producers and other key industries.