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Salmon Refuges may be Curbed

by David Whitney
Sacramento Bee - December 1, 2004

Commercial interests protest, but U.S. says fisheries won't suffer.

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is proposing drastic reductions in critical habitat areas for endangered West Coast salmon and steelhead trout, a move commercial fishing interests said ignores the economic and environmental benefits of restored salmon and healthy rivers.

The reductions could amount to as much as 90 percent of the habitat once designated in California for the fish, said Jim Lecky, assistant regional manager for the Southwest Region of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and as much as 80 percent of the once-designated critical habitat in the Pacific Northwest.

But the proposed reductions don't mean that huge amounts of riverbank and protected watershed are suddenly going to be opened to development, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which overseas the National Marine Fisheries Service.

That's because much of the riverbanks and streams that would fall outside critical habitat areas under the proposal already are protected under other state or federal policies, such as environmental or agricultural regulations.

The changes also would not harm fish populations, federal fishery managers said.

The reductions are a result of better information and mapping about where fish actually go in the rivers, federal fishery managers say.

That information has allowed the agency to scale back the areas where the most work and the highest protections are needed to save the fish from extinction.

"This proposal seeks to protect critical salmon habitats and meet the economic needs of the citizens of the Pacific Northwest and California," said Bill Hogarth, fisheries administrator for the NOAA.

The proposal follows improved fish stocks throughout the West over the last four years, fishery managers said.

"Since 2000, 13 of the 16 listed runs of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and three of the four Northern and Central California runs for which NOAA Fisheries has recent data, have experienced significant improved numbers," the agency said.

But Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in Eugene, Ore., said he has grave misgivings about the administration's intentions. The federation is one of the organizations that has gone to court repeatedly over how the agency has handled endangered fish.

"The problem with the administration is that it has grossly overestimated the cost and underestimated or eliminated any consideration of the benefits of salmon restoration to the West Coast economy," Spain said. "The administration has a long history of either ignoring critical habitat designations or cutting them back for specious economic reasons."

Spain said that in the case of critical habitat studies for bull trout, "the political appointees in the administration actually ordered the economists to eliminate all discussion of the benefits of restoration and emphasize only the costs."

Recovery of salmon species through habitat restoration has a cost to landowners, Spain said. "But it also has cost the commercial fishing industry tens of thousands of jobs to lose these stocks" in an industry that was once worth $1 billion a year, he said.

Additionally, restoration of the fish habitat has considerable value in the form of cleaner water for drinking and recreation, and healthy rivers that minimize washouts and siltation, Spain said.

"As goes salmon, so goes much of the West's resource-based economy," he said.

Lecky of the National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledged that economic data have not been wrapped into the agency's new proposal.

"We looked at the biological benefits but didn't monetize all of them," he said. And because the economic impacts were not done for all the species, he said, the agency decided not to include any in its proposal.

The proposal, which will be published in the Federal Record today, calls for a 60-day public comment period. Any final designations are certain to be months away, maybe years, because more lawsuits are virtually inevitable.

The administration was under a time crunch to get the proposal out. In a settlement to one of the long string of lawsuits, Tuesday was the deadline for releasing the newly proposed designations.

The agency is proposing separate rules for the 13 species listed in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and the seven species listed in California. While the salmon runs at issue in California are in rivers in the northern and central parts of the state, steelhead trout are found as far south as Camp Pendleton near San Diego, which is being excluded largely on national security grounds.

Despite the proposed reductions, the federal cost of administering the Endangered Species Act program for the fish still will amount to as much as $500 million a year - as much as $200 million of that in California.
(bluefish notes: Elsewhere, Bob Lohn states that salmon recovery costs will be $600 million per year for the next decade.)

In the Pacific Northwest, administration officials concluded that the massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers do not jeopardize fish survival and will not come down. The plan relies instead on making improvements at the Snake River dams and four other dams downstream on the Columbia to aid the migration of juvenile salmon.

By the end of the decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans on installing "fish slides" or weirs at all eight dams that will guide the young salmon away from turbines and spillways.

The plan also calls for spilling water over the dams and increasing river flows to flush the fish downstream to the ocean, for continued barging of fish past the dams and for habitat improvements.

Mortality in the Hydrosystem Corridor
Downstream Migration of Juvenile Fish from Idaho
  Average (1994-1999)
Direct Mortality Fall Chinook Spring Chinook Steelhead
Columbia/Snake Dams
(Mortality from 8 dams)
12% 20% 17%
Columbia/Snake Reservoirs
(Mortality from 8 reservoirs)
81% 40% 41%
Indirect Mortality ? ? ?

-- National Marine Fisheries Service, December 21, 2000 (more)

David Whitney, Bee Washington Bureau
Les Blumenthal of The Bee Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
Salmon Refuges may be Curbed
Sacramento Bee, December 1, 2004

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