The Pacific Northwest Hits Jackpot Of Salmon
Administration Critics, Supporters Disagree: Was It Skill or Luck?

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2003; Page A03

SEATTLE -- When President Bush shows up this week in the Pacific Northwest -- where wild salmon are an almost sacred signifier of environmental well-being -- he will likely boast about the huge numbers of salmon crowding the Columbia and other local rivers.

In the past two years, returns of salmon from the Pacific have reached levels not seen in four decades. For the first time since 1965, Indian tribes along the Columbia River have been allowed to net summer chinook salmon and sell them on the riverbank.

On the surface, at least, the numbers suggest that the Bush administration is skillfully protecting salmon from the killing effects of federal dams and habitat loss. That explains why Bush, with polls showing skepticism about his record on the environment, has scheduled a salmon event along the Snake River in eastern Washington.

The White House has said he will appear Friday at Ice Harbor Dam, one of four large dams on the lower Snake that some environmentalists argue should be breached to improve passage for endangered salmon. Bush vowed in 2000 that he would never allow any of the hydroelectric dams on the Snake to be knocked down, saying that salmon could recover with the dams in place.

"The president is coming to talk about progress," said D. Robert Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Things have improved."

There is, however, widespread annoyance and anger at the Bush administration on the part of many local salmon scientists and Indian tribal leaders. They say the extraordinary returns of salmon are nothing more than a lucky break for a White House that is not paying much attention to salmon issues.

What makes the rancor politically significant is the staggering amount of federal money that has been spent to try to rescue salmon.

Expenditures on salmon in the Northwest make it the most costly and complicated federal effort to restore an ecosystem in U.S. history, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agency says total spending exceeds $2 billion and is running at nearly $700 million a year.

Everyone agrees that the primary reason for the recent abundance of salmon is a dramatic improvement in ocean conditions. Because of global weather patterns and regional current cycles in the Pacific, fish biologists say that the ocean off the coast of Washington and Oregon has become a far more nutritious and healthful place to be a salmon than it has been since the late 1970s.

It is a natural phenomenon, everyone agrees, for which no one deserves credit. That, however, is where the agreement ends.

The administration wants credit for habitat, hatchery and fish-passage improvements at dams that it says have been well timed to take advantage of ocean conditions.

"We cannot say the problem has been solved," said Lohn, the senior federal official for salmon recovery in the Northwest. "But the kind of biological performance we were hoping to see is encouraging."

Critics say that is nonsense, arguing that the overwhelming majority of returning salmon are hatchery bred. They say that returns of endangered wild salmon -- the primary focus of the huge recovery effort -- are still far below sustainable levels.

"The returns are masking the real issues," said Terry Williams, a commissioner for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "There is a sense under Bush that cooperation and listening just aren't necessary any more."

Two federal judges in the Northwest have ordered the administration this year to rethink and rewrite its plans to protect salmon in the Columbia and Klamath River systems.

One judge said in May that the administration's plan to protect 12 endangered species of salmon in the Columbia was "improper," without any certainty that it would succeed or even get started in time to save fish on the brink of extinction.

In June, another judge called parts of the plan to protect fish in the Klamath "arbitrary and capricious." Last fall, 33,000 salmon died while swimming up the Klamath. Environmental groups said the fish kill was caused by federal diversion of water to irrigators, an accusation federal officials deny. According to a report last month in the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove, the White House political strategist, met with Klamath irrigators twice over the past two years, helping them win a reversal of a decision by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials that would have curtailed flow of irrigation water.

Amid these disputes, one of the primary institutions responsible for the recent surge in local salmon runs is collapsing this summer for lack of federal money.

The Pacific Salmon Commission, funded equally under an international treaty by Canada and the United States, brokered a major agreement in 1999 that sharply reduced the catch of Pacific Northwest salmon off the coast of Canada. The fish that the Canadians have refrained from catching are now returning to spawn in rivers in Washington and Oregon.

Congress, though, has refused this year to fund the U.S. share of the commission. As a result, it is running out of money and is in the process of closing shop, said Don Kowal, executive secretary of the commission.

"We are quite perplexed as to why the money hasn't been made available," said Kowal, whose office is in Vancouver, British Columbia. "It is an obligation under the salmon treaty, which the Americans have not fulfilled. Canada has paid its full share. We are not talking big money here, but there are big consequences."

For the lack of about $1.5 million, Kowal said, the commission is dismissing staff and canceling meetings that were to decide, among other things, how to protect American salmon stocks from Canadian fishermen in the coming year.

Salmon biologists and tribal fishing groups in Washington and Oregon say the government's failure to fund the salmon commission is typical of the Bush administration's lax attention to salmon recovery.

"There is a failure to connect the dots," said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

But Bush administration officials say that the president's budget asked for money to fund the commission and the State Department has been trying to persuade Congress to reprogram enough money to keep it from collapsing.

"It is decidedly not the president's fault," said Larry G. Rutter, a senior policy assistant to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the top U.S. official on the salmon commission. "We have been scrambling to deal with it."

The Bush administration has been accused of spending about 60 percent of the money that federal fish agencies themselves said in 2000 would be necessary to restore salmon habitat in the Columbia River.

Save Our Wild Salmon, an umbrella group of environmental groups concerned about salmon in the Columbia, has given the Bush administration an overall "F" for its effort to implement a recovery plan worked out during the Clinton administration.

Prominent fisheries scientists in the Northwest also question the sophistication of the administration's salmon recovery efforts.

"They don't understand enough of the science to understand why the status quo is not going to work," said Richard Williams, a geneticist and ecologist who teaches at the University of Idaho. He chairs an independent scientific review panel set up by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a state-funded regional group that helps manage the Columbia River.

Federal officials, though, say the proof of their commitment and their smarts is to be found this year in Pacific Northwest rivers.

"In the end," said Lohn, "success does not depend on the amount of money spent, but on the results. Are populations rebounding? They are."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company



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