Bonneville salmon returns hit record high
December 13th, 2003
Eastern Washington - More than 920,000 chinook salmon passed Bonneville Dam fish counters this year.
That is the largest return since the dam was completed in 1938 and far exceeds the most recent 10-year average of 399,000, according to an announcement from the Federal Caucus.
The caucus includes the nine federal agencies working on salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River Basin.
Other fish species counted at Bonneville this year also showed success: 364,000 steelhead, 126,000 coho and 39,000 sockeye, with steelhead and coho well above their 10-year averages.
The dramatic increase is credited partly to improvements in freshwater habitat, but mostly to good ocean conditions.
In the past few years, colder water, more food and fewer predators have helped more salmon survive in the ocean, said Brian Gorman, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle.
Many view the dramatic increase in numbers as a sign the salmon runs are recovering and are pushing for increased power production and irrigation rights. But Gorman said the numbers should be regarded carefully.
"The danger is that people will rely too much just on the raw numbers," he said. "That's the part that makes biologists wary to toot their own horn too loudly."
The numbers can be deceiving in several ways, he explained.
"A majority of these fish are hatchery fish, perhaps 80 percent," Gorman said.
And he said 2003's success shouldn't be expected every year. "It is as certain as the sun comes up tomorrow that these numbers will start to trend downwards."
How far the numbers dip will depend on regional efforts to improve freshwater habitat, Gorman said. "In general, habitat conditions are slowly improving throughout the Columbia Basin for fish spawning habitat," he said. Also, in the last five years there have been some major improvements in how many fish survive passing dams, he said. "We have made some physical changes to virtually all the dams to make them more fish-friendly."
Improvements include better ways to help adult fish get upstream and to push juvenile fish safely past Columbia and Snake river dams. For example, bypass systems collect young fish and route them around the dams when they migrate to the ocean each spring and summer.
Members of the Federal Caucus include the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and NOAA Fisheries.
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