This Year's Chinook Run Belies Worries Over Fish's Future



Michael Andy pulls a steelhead from his net just below the John Day Dam on the Columbia River on a recent afternoon. Andy, a Yakama, had been fishing there about six weeks, catching salmon and "mostly steelhead," he said. Dams are perhaps the most polarizing aspect of the fisheries debate. Tribes contend dam operations offer the most room for adjustments to benefit fish surival, but irrigators and federal agencies disagree.
This summer's massive chinook run has offered a rare opportunity for the Columbia River treaty tribes to open a fishing season some younger members have never experienced.

The 120,000-chinook run was the second-largest in 40 years, up from runs of 15,000 just a few years ago.

But fisheries managers are withholding any predictions for the future, citing good ocean conditions as a leading factor for this summer's ample supply of salmon.

Observers across the spectrum of the debate on salmon recovery may differ on the best solutions, but they largely agree that the long-term forecast remains uncertain.

The dams on the Columbia have generated not only a wealth of electrical power, but also some of the most heated, and polarized, opinions on how to help the fish.

Irrigators and the federal agencies responsible for dam management suggest the power-generating facilities are just one part of a complex picture.

However, environmentalists think otherwise. They want some of them removed, while tribes say their flows could at least come closer to resembling the river's historical behavior high in the spring and lower in the summer.

GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic
Two fish ladders on the north and south sides of the Columbia River give salmon headed upstream a way past the John Day Dam. The ladders are just one method that has been studied to improve the upstream and downstream passage of fish.
"Nobody's trying to say that fish and dams were ever meant to get along," said Dutch Meier, a Walla Walla spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for maintaining the series of federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

The hydroelectric dams make an easy target, but the other three H's hatcheries, harvest and habitat need to be given their share of attention, Meier said.

The tribes believe the massive concrete structures, if not removed, could at least be managed better. For several years, a tribal consortium has suggested adjusting flows to make the river act more like it did before the dams were constructed.

"Tribal people like electric lights as much as the next person. It's a question of managing the system as best you can so you are not driving these fish into extinction," said Stuart Ellis, a harvest-management biologist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which includes the Yakama Nation and the three other Columbia treaty tribes.

GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic
Andrea LaFazio says she "counts pretty much everything that goes through" the north fish ladder at the John Day Dam. On a recent afternoon, a chinook lazily swam upstream past LaFazio's window. Fish counts are part of the research effort relating to fish management.
Industry representatives say they rely on the river for shipping and irrigation, just as the tribes call the river the lifeblood of their culture.

Darryll Olsen, a lobbyist for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, contends that the hydro system has maximized its potential.

System operators must seek other ways to deal with fish recovery, as well as acknowledge that ocean conditions will prompt natural swings in returns, Olsen said.

"We simply are not there right now. The pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction," Olsen said, maintaining that the dams catch too much blame.

Since the federal government started listing nearly 30 West Coast fish stocks as threatened or endangered in the early 1990s, the issue has led to a series of legal challenges over the Snake River dams' presence.

Olsen, for one, thinks litigation will keep resurfacing. His group has announced plans to sue over a federal biological opinion that the dams jeopardize the recovery of salmon stocks, thus requiring changes in hatcheries, habitat and harvest.

A federal judge in Portland recently ruled in a separate appeal that the government's opinion did not sufficiently address how those measures would be implemented.

GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic
A long, twisting, winding tunnel leading from the top of the dam to the Columbia River gives smolts passage past the John Day Dam. The smolt chute is opened each March and closed in September.
While the group of federal agencies responsible for fisheries management has established a process for handling fish-altering activities, that same process doesn't exist as clearly for state, tribal or local governments.

The judge gave the federal agencies a year to report back on how to guarantee implementation, stressing that he did not want side issues to intervene.

The federal agencies say the lawsuits drain time and money from direct efforts to help the fish.

"We will continue to have these challenges, but I am convinced that if there continues to be this focus and polarization on the dams, we are going to fail," said Bill Maslen, a fisheries biologist with the Bonneville Power Administration, the marketing agency for federal hydropower.

Supplemented by hatchery production, the stocks have either held their own or improved somewhat in the last three or four years, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle.

It will take several more generations to begin reliable tracking of their health, Gorman added.

In the meantime, experimentation with new fish-saving technologies continues.

The corps' Lower Granite dam on the Snake River serves as a principal research site.

Scientists from a variety of agencies are working to improve fish passage through systems that collect the fish and help them avoid the trip through the high-pressure water to the turbines.

The corps has also arranged to barge thousands of fish downriver each year, relieving them of the travel stress before they hit the ocean again.

Michael Garrity, a conservation associate for the Seattle branch of the American Rivers environmental group, said removal of the Snake dams would improve fish runs while not cutting into power production. The Snake's small electricity share could be picked up by wind farms and conservation, Garrity said.

The Army corps disagrees. Breaching the dams officially known as a natural river drawdown would boost salmon recovery during a 48-year period by only 10 percent at a tremendous expense to the people who rely on the dams, according to a Corps report cited by Meier.

Advocates and critics of dam removal differ on the economic benefits and drawbacks.

Some studies indicate the estimated $1 billion cost of removal is about the same as the price tag of leaving them in place for 10 years.

Opponents have said removal would cripple farming and transportation in the Snake region, but boosters of the plan say tourism and commercial fishing would see great improvements.

At a minimum, the agencies must earnestly begin their recovery programs, Garrity said.

"We're definitely not out of the woods yet, and we need to prepare for a time when ocean conditions are not going to be as good as they are now," he said.

"It requires more cooperation than there has been to date, but I think it's a lesser effort than building the hydro system was in the first place."

Maslen, the BPA biologist, said too little attention has been paid to the progress made by the fishery agencies.

The intertribal fish commission acknowledges the progress, but its representatives say the government must not hesitate to make the hard choices that will benefit the fish.

Millions of dollars are spent each year on recovery.

While some critics question the value of that expense in comparison to limited improvements, the federal agencies say they are trying to accomplish the goal.

"If we weren't spending this money and we weren't making these improvements," said Gorman, the NOAA Fisheries spokesman, "we wouldn't even be talking about this because we wouldn't have any fish."


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