Excessive buffers: the responsible alternative

Skagit Valley Herald

Skagit Valley, Washington - Excessive Skagit farmland buffer demands expose a lack of knowledge. They ignore the fact that cyclical ocean conditions and aggressive harvest have been the greatest influence upon salmon decline. We can no longer tolerate salmon recovery decision-makers ignoring that knowledge. Physical habitat protection and restoration responsibly done, though an important part of the equation, do not substitute for what must happen. Good fish catches in Alaska generally reflect poor catches for the U.S. West Coast and vice versa. A set of ocean conditions here but different from Alaska persist from 20 to 30 years. They then become reversed. The whole process of these cycling events is called Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The abrupt reversal in a short time period is called a regime shift. What does that mean?

Before a 1977 regime shift occurred, we had a cool, nutrient-rich ocean phase with high ocean salmon productivity. The 1977 shift brought the low-production warm ocean phase to us. Meanwhile, pristine Alaska suffered alarmingly low salmon populations before the 1977 shift. After that salmon productivity prospered.

The 1977 shift was one of the strongest and most rapid along with two others this century and a fourth in the past 300 years. They occurred around 1750, 1905, 1947 and 1977, as stated in a January 2001 American Meteorological Society paper by Franco Biondi. From 1977 to the early 1990s ocean conditions favored Alaskan fish stocks and hurt West Coast stocks. Jim Lichatowich in “Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis” describes our dilemma. He refers to a recent (mid-90s) study by Interrain Pacific. Historically, 56-65 percent of Pacific salmon return to Alaska, 19-26 percent to British Columbia, and 15-16 percent to our West Coast. Recent returns to Alaska were 81-90 percent, 8-17 percent to British Columbia and only 1 percent to the Pacific Northwest. The total number of returning fish declined by 20 to 40 percent over the whole Northwest Pacific as well. Our lack of salmon returns compounded by continued harvest has been devastating to the resource.

Recovery of threatened and endangered salmon stocks may wait for the next shift, according to a Pacific Halibut Commission biologist. The shifts in ocean conditions are caused by or are related to movement of the North Pacific low-pressure area. About four years ago the low pressure moved west from off Kodiak Island to off the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Evidence for the shift in ocean conditions having occurred is strong. The Columbia River 2001 summer steelhead returns were highest since counting began at Bonneville in 1938, and spring chinook shattered the old 1972 record. Alaska has been hit with the negative impact. Jack Helle, National Marine Fisheries Service, states, “We seem to be beyond the good times up north.” Satellites picked up a 150-by-150-mile algae bloom drifting in the Bering Sea. It was spotted again in ’98, ’99 and 2000, according to a 2001 report. “It’s a symptom of real sterile conditions,” said Helle.

The past century of intensive harvest has had a devastating effect upon productivity. Much research attests to the extreme importance of having large numbers of salmon to spawn and leave carcasses to return nutrients to the sea. Unhatched eggs and carcasses sustain a healthy ecosystem that in turn retains and recycles nutrients to support vibrant salmon populations.

Many salmon researchers believe that decreased salmon productions could be self-perpetuating as salmon stocks already in decline are likely to decrease further in what is referred to as a negative feedback loop. The downward spiral of the negative feedback loop must be reversed if wild salmonids are to recover. Physical habitat protection and restoration do not substitute for what must happen.

RCW 77.04.012 mandates that “fish ... are the property of the state. The commission, director, and the department shall preserve, protect and manage ... food fish in state waters and offshore waters.” Tribes likewise have treaty responsibilities to preserve and enhance the fishery. Why then did the following happen in the fall of 2000 on the Skagit River? With an open commercial harvest and an in-river tribal and sports fishery for chum salmon, 19 percent of the escapement goal was reached. With a goal of 116,500, the count was 22,321.

We must exert the pressure for the responsible alternative to what is not happening — letting many wild salmonids do what comes naturally. We must give wild salmonids escapement priority over aggressive harvest.

Bill Reinard of Burlington taught biology in Sedro-Woolley for 30 years.


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