Fisheries Service releases target numbers for salmon recovery

SPOKANE -- The federal government has finally indicated how many wild salmon and steelhead it would like to count in the Columbia River and its tributaries before it would consider removing the fish from endangered species protections.

The National Marine Fisheries Service recently released preliminary numbers for many rivers and streams.

For instance, biologists would like to see 3,750 naturally spawning chinook in the Wenatchee River and 400 steelhead in southeastern Washington's Asotin Creek.

They'd like to see 1,500 sockeye spawning in Idaho's Stanley Basin.

Reaching those targets at least four times in eight consecutive years would be just one factor used to determine whether a particular species from a particular area is safe from extinction, said Elizabeth Gaar, the fisheries service's Northwest salmon recovery coordinator.

Eight years represents two generations of salmon.

Long-term productivity is another factor, along with genetic diversity and geographic distribution within a watershed.

But the numbers are of major interest to people from the Methow Valley to the Salmon River basin.

"Before this, we've been kind of operating in the dark," said Bob Bugert, the governor's Eastern Washington salmon recovery coordinator. "This gives a sense ... of how we can start coming up with recovery plans" for individual rivers.

The target numbers are sure to provoke debate.

"I've already heard a lot of complaints from groups that say they're too low or too high," Bugert said.

Salmon runs have been devastated by a variety of factors, including the construction of dams on the Columbia River system.

Under natural conditions, salmon and steelhead are born in creeks, rivers and mountain lakes, then migrate to the Pacific Ocean. Some successfully make the reverse trip as adults, to spawn in the streams of their birth.

The government is most concerned with the number of wild adult fish returning from the ocean, known as "natural spawners," as opposed to hatchery-raised fish.

About 90 percent of the salmon and steelhead that enter the mouth of the Columbia are hatchery fish.

"If they want all-wild fish, there's not too much hope of getting those numbers," said Dick Ewing, a Methow Valley resident who has worked on salmon-recovery issues.

The fisheries service believes the Endangered Species Act requires it to seek "naturally reproducing and self-sustaining species in their natural ecosystems."

Last year was the best since the 1930s for migrating salmon. But counting wild fish only, most streams wouldn't have made the goals set by the service. Some examples:

-Federal scientists estimate between 1,500 and 2,000 chinook spawned in the Methow and Wenatchee rivers combined last year. The service's goal is 2,000 chinook for the Methow and 3,750 for the Wenatchee.

-No more than 200 chinook returned to Idaho's Marsh Creek during any single year in the 1990s. The service's goal is 426 chinook.

-In all the 1990s, only 18 sockeye salmon made the 900-mile migration to three lakes in the Stanley Basin. More than 200 made the trip in 2000 and numbers were similarly large last year. The service's goal is 1,000 naturally spawning sockeye in any one of the lakes and 500 in another.

The recovery goals must still be studied by teams of scientists and recovery managers, Gaar said. The agency expected to release firm numbers for public comment later this year.

The agency is not yet ready to release any numbers for streams that flow into Puget Sound, the lower Columbia or directly into the Pacific. That should happen later this year.

Information from: The Spokesman-Review

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