Despite conservationists' predictions of gloom due to electricity generation over fish protection, salmon counts higher this year


The Olympian

The drought and the energy crisis last summer sent power prices soaring and raised fears that Columbia River salmon and steelhead would be decimated. But it wasn't a catastrophe for fish after all.

Many conservationists and biologists predicted dire consequences for salmon runs after the federal government gave electricity generation priority over fish protection last year. Yet counts of yearling male salmon that return early to spawn -- they are called jacks -- indicate that spring and summer chinook numbers next year will be well above the average throughout the 1990s.

"Things aren't as bad as the gloom and doom that everybody said," said John Williams, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist. "People were overly pessimistic."

It appears a combination of factors is responsible: aggressive barging of juvenile fish from hatcheries to the ocean, reducing mortality in migrations that occurred while dammed water was withheld for power generation; and cold upwellings in the ocean, carrying with them rich nutrient loads. No one is sure, however, which played the more critical role.

The results are clear, however: Most of the young salmon that migrated down the Columbia River last year and survived will return as adults in 2003, after spending two years in the ocean. A small fraction of those fish, the jacks, return a year early. Their number provides a reliable indicator of the next year's adult run, biologists say.

About 14,000 spring and summer chinook jacks had been counted by Wednesday at Bonneville Dam. That's 4,600 more than the annual average for that date since 1990. State fish biologists predict that 250,000 to 300,000 spring and summer chinook will pass Bonneville Dam in 2003.

Not counting this year and last year -- which saw much larger than average runs of spring and summer chinook -- 300,000 fish would be the largest spring/summer run since 1972.

The preliminary 2003 forecast for fall chinook, which arrive after spring and summer chinook, has not been completed.

Emergency measures 

Last year, many biologists were pessimistic about the outlook for 2003 runs.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets electricity generated at federal dams in the Columbia Basin, declared a power emergency in early 2001 because the drought had reduced river flows at the same time wholesale electricity prices soared to record levels.

Declaring an emergency allowed the federal government to sharply reduce the amount of water it sends through spillways, an action normally required by the federal Endangered Species Act to give young salmon a way to get past dams without going through electricity-generating turbines. The turbines' spinning blades kill or injure some of the young fish and can disorient the survivors, making them more vulnerable to predatory fish downriver from the dams.

BPA officials said they had no choice but to reduce the spill in order to meet regional demand for electricity. They said they spilled as much water as they could -- about 20 percent of what normally is required -- to help salmon as much as possible. In addition, about 90 percent of the young salmon and steelhead migrating down the Snake River were collected, loaded into trucks and barges, and transported around the dams to the ocean, which reduced the impact of the smaller spill, they said.

But BPA officials also didn't anticipate that so many jacks would turn up this year.

"The jack counts are very positive and much better than expected," said Greg Delwiche, the BPA's vice president of generation supply. "This should be good news for anyone interested in salmon recovery."

The high jack counts show that transporting as many juvenile fish as possible is a good strategy during drought years, because it gets young fish out of the slow, warm and potentially lethal river, said officials at the BPA and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of salmon recovery.

Ocean more nurturing 

But something else is also going on: Ocean conditions appear to be very favorable to salmon. Upwelling is bringing nutrients from deep water, providing food for the marine life that salmon feed upon in the ocean. Fish that safely reached the ocean appear to have survived at a high rate, biologists said.

"Our ability to collect fish and transport them on barges seems to have worked," said Bill Muir, a research biologist with the fisheries service. "And then ocean conditions saved us."

But some conservationists and sport fishing advocates are still critical of the way the federal government operated dams last year.

Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, said it's not enough to beat the average of the past 10 years. Returns in the 1990s, he said, were low enough to put many salmon runs on the road to extinction.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said the number of salmon returning next year would have been much smaller if ocean conditions weren't so good.

"Right now the ocean conditions are like the stock market was in the '90s -- anything can succeed," Hamilton said. "But the fishing community is not satisfied, because we know things could have been a lot better." You can reach Jonathan Brinckman at 503-221-8190 or by e-mail at

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