Wild fish slighted in recent recovery assessment, says enviro group

Guest column R. L. `` Nick '' Nicholson
Special to The Spokesman-Review


Idaho - The members of Idaho Steelhead Salmon Unlimited were extremely disappointed by the meeting Gov. Dirk Kempthorne recently hosted in Boise.

The session was billed as a four-governor conference to address steelhead/salmon problems. It was obviously prompted by the recent federal district court ruling, which held that the current federal salmon plan is illegal and must be rewritten.

To those of us who will never be satisfied as long as wild fish make up only 13 percent of the total return, the results of the meeting fell far short of our expectations.

We hoped to see the focus on wild fish restoration. Instead, they produced a document that opens with remarks concerning fish, then shifts abruptly to hydropower production and protection. The document makes three things apparent:

First, the governors' recommendations will keep the fish status subordinate to cheap power rates, which represents no change from the illegal salmon plan.

Second, the Bonneville Power Administration has been allowed to subtract millions of dollars of its obligation to restore fish in order to address its financial problems instead.

Third, the governors' claim that the minor changes to water policies has caused an increase in fish numbers and therefore shows the path to complete recovery of anadromous fish runs.

We all recognize the importance of power availability and low rates to economic recovery and ISSU applauds efforts to keep power rates as inexpensive as possible. However, this should not take place at the expense of wild salmon as has happened consistently under the illegal plan.

The governors' recommendations ignore these vital elements which keep the fish from recovery. All ISSU asks for is equal treatment for fish needs and survival under prevailing conditions. The present practice of giving water-use priority to power, irrigation and transportation has pushed wild migrating fish close to extinction. We must insist that any future water allocation plan equalizes water usage and guarantees sufficient water for fish to navigate. This was not forthcoming.

Regarding the governors' claims of success, we believe the increase in numbers of returning fish is not cause for ignoring the main problems they face. It has been wonderful to see increasing numbers of hatchery fish returning. However, even including the recent increases in numbers, wild fish are still perilously close to extinction in many watersheds.

These returning numbers are impressive only when compared with the numbers posted in the dismal mid-1990s. In 1995 only 1,088 wild salmon returned to the Snake River. Let's not forget that the upper Salmon River, from Riggins to Stanley, has not had an open salmon fishing season since 1977. The economic benefits to that depressed area could be huge.

Idaho is fortunate to have large areas of wilderness that once hosted millions of spawning fish. Some of us remember so many fish congregating at Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork one could not count them. Dagger Falls is still there; the fish are not.

Idaho has hundreds of miles of prime habitat with only a few fish using it.

ISSU believes the basis for the increase in returning fish numbers is changing ocean currents. This belief is supported by numerous studies and acknowledged by many government officials. The tweaking of current river conditions and hydropower facilities has been helpful, but to claim those minor changes are the key to increased fish numbers flies in the face of both science and reason. It is certain that ocean currents will change again and El Nino will return. So it's much too early to claim salmon have turned the corner. When currents again change, unless we have found a way for fish to circumvent the lethal effects of the four lower Snake River dams, we could cause their extinction. Dam breaching has to be left on the table as promised by our government several years ago. Letting wild fish reach extinction is not an option. We must do whatever is necessary to prevent that from occurring.

R.L. "Nick" Nicholson of McCall is president of Idaho Steelhead Salmon Unlimited.


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