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Sure, Fish are Nice, But Not If Dams Must be Breached

by Editors
Idaho State Journal - February 17, 2005

If Idaho had as many salmon and steelhead as the state had prior to 1960, it would be worth $544 million annually to the economy. That's according to a new study sponsored by Idaho Rivers United.

That's a lot of money.

Unfortunately, according to the IRU study conducted by economist Dan Reading, in order for salmon stocks to return to their previous numbers, the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state would have to be breached. And, while the communities of Stanley, Challis and Salmon would stand to gain economically by the breaching of those much-maligned dams, local officials from those communities are not supportive of that idea.

But, they note, it sure would be nice if the fish came back.

In recent years, numbers of salmon and steelhead returning to Idaho from the Pacific have increased measurably, a signal of progress in recovery efforts. Trouble is, no matter how much Idaho and the federal government invest in habitat restoration and protection, and no matter how beneficial ocean conditions are for Idaho's salmon and steelhead, the dams will still inhibit fish passage - both downstream and upstream.

Yes, it would be marvelous, economically speaking, if Idaho were able to allow full-blown salmon and steelhead fishing over the course of a year. But the salmon runs dwindled soon after the dams were put in place, and real recovery of the anadromous fish species can't be realized until the dams allow it.

But even those who understand the economic value of sustainable salmon and steelhead runs are unwilling to stand up and advocate for dam breaching.

Lemhi County Commissioner Bob Cope, for instance, thinks more salmon and steelhead in the Salmon River - and a full-blown fishing season for salmon and steelhead - would be good for his county's citizens and its economy.

That said, "it is essential to point out that Lemhi County's endorsement of this study means only that we believe a salmon fishing season would benefit the economy of central Idaho," Cope said. "It does not mean that we should curtail mining, logging, grazing or farming to enhance fishing. It does not mean we advocate breaching of downstream dams."

So it's looking more and more like it's going to have to be one or the other - none of this "having your cake and eating it, too" business.

Federal efforts to recover the Northwest's anadromous fish stocks are now little more than lip service. The Bush environmental policy rollbacks are taking a toll on the region's fishery, and it's beyond hope this administration, over the next four years, will make any gesture that will benefit ocean-going fish in our region.

The dams won't come out. And, despite Reading's study and his optimistic economic outlook should the fish come swimming home to the upper Salmon River, the fish likely will never return in historic numbers. As time goes by, they'll probably diminish further and eventually disappear.

It's great all these public officials support the idea of a salmon fishing season. But until they support complete salmon recovery - and that includes breaching or at least modifying the dams - the economic value of a salmon fishing season is simply a pie-in-the-sky dream.

Sure, Fish are Nice, But Not If Dams Must be Breached
Idaho State Journal, February 17, 2005

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