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Save Our Wild Salmon

Healthy steelhead and salmon runs have proved to be recession-proof for the economies of eastern Washington and north central Idaho. Unfortunately, politics may intervene.

In the last couple of years, more fish came back up the Snake and Clearwater rivers than in recent memory - and with them came anglers and angler dollars. In Clearwater County, anglers spent $679,600 for lodging in September and October. During the same two months in 2008, they spent $392,500. Just the tax on lodging in Asotin County generated $160,000 last year. In 2008, it produced $166,000. In Nez Perce County, lodging tax revenues reached $188,000 in 2008 and dropped just a little to $186,000 a year later.

You won't get much argument about steelhead and salmon runs being an economic engine. The argument is about how much. But take a conservative estimate based on University of Idaho, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Census Bureau studies and you'll get anglers spending an average of $83 a day, or almost $300 per fishing trip. More of them are coming. Three years ago, 8,805 out-of-staters purchased a three-day Idaho salmon/steelhead fishing permit. Last year, the total was up another 20 percent.

All of which serves as context to the Obama administration's ongoing efforts to diminish those runs. Of course, that's not the administration's intent. But that's the likely outcome. Biologists credit positive ocean conditions for record runs. But you can't control ocean conditions. You can influence what happens in the Snake River, and for the last three years, a federal judge has ordered fish spilled past the dams on the river. The Fish Passage Center credits that move with speeding the smolts toward the Pacific and depositing them in a healthier state.

The alternative is barging the young fish around the dams to the sea, a process that spreads disease. Federal officials tried that for almost 20 years with mixed results. While steelhead tolerate barging, salmon do not fare as well.

But with a low snowpack, the Obama administration says spilling fish past the dams is a luxury. It's proposing to cut off spill on May 1, two weeks after the fish migration starts and about three months sooner than last year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Services has submitted this plan to the Northwest Power Planning Council's Independent Scientific Advisory Board. Less spill means more barging. "In our review, we concluded that the two-week period of no spill and maximum transportation of steelhead would adversely impact a significant proportion of the total migration of juvenile salmon and steelhead remaining in-river," the Fish Passage Center concluded. "Given that such a high proportion of yearling chinook, sockeye, coho and lamprey juveniles pass these collector projects during this time, it is highly likely that eliminating spring spill from May 1 until the initiation of summer spill would significantly increase the proportion of these populations that would be transported."

An adverse ruling no doubt would send fish advocates back to the courts to continue spill. In the meantime, expect to hear debate about the impact of spill - and diminished electrical power generation - as a drain on the region's economy. Perhaps. But this much is clear. Spill equals more fish and fish are providing a lifeline to Washington and Idaho communities now struggling with unemployment and few prospects. Fish aren't the only critters endangered by more barging. - M.T.

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