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Restoring the Lower Snake River

from the desk of Pat Ford, executive director

neo 003631-01The results for most 2012 Columbia-Snake Basin salmon and steelhead returns are now in.  The main exception is fall chinook; this run is still going and too early to assess.

In general, it’s been a treading water year at best, and too often a year of decline, for wild salmon.  In the Snake River, the decline was across the board, for endangered spring and summer chinook, sockeye, and steelhead.  In the Columbia River, the pleasant surprise was a large return of non-endangered sockeye to the Okanogan Basin and above.

There is never a single or simple cause for any fish return result.  Causes are always manifold, and not always visible.  This complexity is also obscured by simplistic stories about the returns, propagated to serve agendas.  For example, the many inaccurate “record returns” claims since 2001.  I can’t say SOS has never been guilty of such agenda-serving, but I think our record here is pretty good.

Here is my broad take on this year’s returns, subject to change as more becomes known and wiser observers weigh in:

1.  Without the salmon spill that Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, and fishing/conservation groups won in court, this year’s generally poor returns would have been much worse.  The good news is that the court-ordered spill since 2006 is not anywhere close to maximum levels.  The best science – and there’s quite a bit since 2006 – suggests more spill will increase survival rates even faster.  So it is just common sense, albeit common sense to which Bonneville Power and the Administration are so far immune, to experiment with higher spill levels.  It is also job creation common sense, since spill increases all salmon and steelhead:  wild and hatchery, endangered and non-endangered, and all affected species (including Pacific lamprey).  I believe that Bonneville Power is not so much immune to more spill as afraid of it – since what happens to the already-tenuous status quo if additional spill brings increasing returns?

2. Most scientists whose reactions I have seen cite salmon spill at Columbia dams as one of the main factors in the large return of sockeye this year to the Okanogan and above.  The other factor most often cited is the emphasis of managers on wild fish.

3.  This year’s diminished return of endangered Snake River sockeye should start regional discussion of a question:  how long and to what level can the Northwest rely on a hatchery program to restore this fish?  What began in the 1990s as an emergency captive breeding program for this critically-endangered species is now a large and growing hatchery program.  Most of us in SOS, and I think most scientists, see this program as a bridge to nowhere unless large increases in sockeye survival through the dam-affected migratory habitat take over, thus allowing the hatchery prop to be phased down and ultimately ended.  This is another reason for expanded spill. Spill greatly helps Snake sockeye that otherwise end up in barges crammed with a competing species: chinook.

4.  The diminished Snake returns are more reason that U.S. District Court Judge James Redden was right last year to order federal agencies to do a full new analysis of restoring the lower Snake River by removing its four dams.  There is no observable biological recovery trend for any of the endangered Snake River fish, despite recent good ocean conditions, to back up the federal view that restoring the lower Snake is not necessary.  Yet, over one year after his verdict, the agencies have not even begun that new analysis, and have instead made pretty plain they have no intention of doing it, as if to say, “Take that, Judge.”

5.  It is inaccurate to say, as many stories will, that this year’s returns are lower than or continue “recent high returns.”  For wild Columbia-Snake salmon and steelhead, recent returns have been generally poor.  They have been higher than the abysmal returns of the 1990s. But, whether measured by historical standards, recovery goals, economic productivity potentials, or legal and Treaty requirements, recent wild salmon and steelhead returns have been poor.  In 2012, they grew generally poorer.

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