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Increased steelhead run encouraging, but recovery at risk under proposed NOAA plan
Statement to the press from Liz Hamilton, Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, in response to the large number of steelhead returning over Bonneville Dam this week:
“We cannot equate one good year with true recovery. Most Columbia River wild fish populations are no further from extinction today than when the first populations were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) more than 15 years ago.
This year’s bonus returns are largely the result of spilling more water over dams when these fish were migrating out to the ocean as juveniles. U.S. District Court Judge James Redden ordered those in-river improvements after conservation and fishing groups fought to have them instituted — over the vehement objections of federal agencies.
Alarmingly, the 2008 Bush plan, which is still pending in court, rolls back this salmon protection measure and federal agencies continue to state that steelhead prefer barges to migrating naturally in the river. The fish are telling us an entirely different story: since Judge Redden ordered spill, we've seen the best in-river steelhead survival since we started documenting it. And now we're seeing the best returns too. And not only has this bolstered steelhead returns, but this has helped fall chinook and sockeye, which fuel sport, commercial and tribal fisheries from the Columbia River to ocean fisheries across the Pacific Coast. We are counting on Judge Redden to insist on maintaining these vital fish protection measures.
In addition to having stronger runs because of Redden’s spill, this week’s surge is in part due to exceptionally warm river temperatures, which causes fish to hang back in cooler water before heading up to the warmer reservoirs behind the dams.
What this year’s strong returns tell us is that we still have hope to recover endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead. When rivers are allowed to run just a bit more like rivers, salmon and steelhead are resilient enough to surprise us with their ability to rebound. Favorable snowpack and ocean conditions, combined with the court-ordered spill and river flow mandates, have done wonders for Snake River fish. Imagine what could happen if the four largest obstacles in their path, the four lower Snake River dams, were removed.
The future of these iconic fish along with their cultural and economic benefits hinges on the long-term recovery efforts we put in place. Thankfully Judge Redden’s foresight has bought us some time, but we have to make bold changes now to ensure that we continue to see wild salmon and steelhead returning to our rivers. A federal plan that turns back these protections just falls too short of what we in this region are capable of if we all sit down together.”