|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
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.