the film
Commentaries and editorials

Salmon Policy Finally Hooks Common Sense

by Editors
Capital Press, February 3, 2006

Finally, a salmon policy has emerged that is based on the need to replenish threatened and endangered salmon stocks in the West instead of fending off environmentalists and their lawyers.

After billions of dollars spent, after lawsuits, public relations battles and calls for tearing out dams, an end to the madness appears to be in sight.

Last week, James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, spelled out a comprehensive new policy that is unique in two ways. It is logical and straightforward. He presented the plan at a conference on the "Future of the Wild Salmon" Jan. 25 at Oregon State University.

In the past, salmon recovery policy rode on the backs of farmers and ranchers, who spent time and money on habitat improvements, and on the management of the region's hydroelectric dams. Combined, taxpayers and ratepayers have footed the bill -- estimated to be in the billions of dollars -- for efforts to save the salmon.

While that was happening, the full potential benefit of using hatcheries to increase the number of salmon was ignored and the harvests of those fish weren't adequately regulated to rebuild salmon runs.

The results of these uncoordinated efforts were mixed. Legal arguments broke out over whether "real" salmon were those from hatcheries or natural settings when in fact they were genetically identical or nearly so. Judges took on the role of fisheries managers, leaving federal and state managers riding their judicial coattails.

Now the Bush administration is proposing to coordinate those elements -- the "All H's" of hatcheries, harvest, hydroelectric dams and habitat -- to achieve the full recovery of endangered and threatened salmon runs in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

By ending or replacing outdated hatchery programs and reducing harvest levels, the administration hopes to help the salmon recover.

"We cannot improperly hatch, and we cannot carelessly catch, the wild salmon stock back to the recovery," Connaughton said. "...It is time to press ahead and find a way to more effectively put the H's to work in the context of a better integrated, instead of ad hoc and piecemeal, approach."

He said that salmon runs have showed improvement during the past five years.

"All runs of listed fish have increased -- all of them," he said, citing the following results:

"Survival of young fish is now equivalent to what it was in the 1960s, before the lower Snake River dams were built," he said. "These numbers are evidence we can and will succeed in salmon recovery."

While that is impressive, Connaughton said dam operators need to continue their roles to improve salmon runs.

But he pointed out an inconsistency of current salmon management. He said that in spite of investments in dams and habitat, "We still allow ourselves the luxury of eating threatened and endangered salmon that may by needed for recovery.

"Although I recognize the complexity and broader equities of the matter, something still seems curiously out of synch here. These are the salmon on the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act," he said, adding that this is the same ESA that:

Yet, he said, about 60 percent of the Snake River fall chinook are caught in the ocean, as far away as off the coast of southeast Alaska, and the rest are caught in the Columbia River.

"If it makes sense to spend $75 million in additional spill from the hydro system to create the prospect of survival of a handful of returning adult Snake River chinook, then we need to be equally diligent about examining the prospect of additional benefits with respect to harvest limits and harvest practices," he said.

Finally, common sense: Why spend billions of dollars on one hand to improve habitat and change dam management while, on the other hand, fishermen are catching endangered salmon?

"This is a paradox for an administration committed to end overfishing and we are going to resolve it," he said.

Others have been involved in the effort. Connaughton cited hearings U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Oregon; Norm Dicks, D-Wash.; and Brian Baird, D-Wash., held to gather public opinion on the issue.

"Even some fishermen have raised this question themselves," Connaughton said. "It is clear that harvest needs to be scrutinized more closely."

What's the next step?

"Over the next 12 months, we will propose a reduction in harvest levels and work with the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, the treaty tribes and Canada to find the most appropriate ways to sensibly and effectively tackle this challenge," he said. "Our goal should be to minimize and, where possible, eliminate harvests of naturally spawning fish, which provide the foundation for salmon recovery."

He also said he will work with fishermen to improve fishing practices so they are more selective, expand data collection and aim toward establishing a strong conservation position at the upcoming 2008 Pacific Salmon Treaty Talks with Canada.

At the same time, he promises that Indian tribes will be able to catch fish, as they already limit their harvests.

He also said hatchery management will be overhauled, closing those that impede salmon recovery and substituting native broodstock for the hatchery broodstock at others.

At other hatcheries, where managers are already using native broodstock, programs will be continued.

An independent facilitator will also be called in to moderate discussions at NOAA Fisheries to help identify problem hatcheries and how best to proceed, he said.

Supporters also said the administration would economically help commercial fishermen in the short term while the salmon runs are rebuilding, but in the long term the goal of all should be healthy, sustainable salmon runs all along the West Coast.

"In addition to the impressive, ongoing work to restore salmon habitat and survival through the hydro system, this collaborative review, and the decisions it produces, will help us better utilize hatchery and harvest management techniques for recovery," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Northwest Region.

Reaction from agricultural and natural-resource groups has been positive.

"I agree with a lot of what we heard," said Steve Appel, president of the Washington Farm Bureau Federation, in a telephone conference call with the Capital Press editorial board.

"This is a much more comprehensive plan," said Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation. "It both vindicates and recognizes the amount of effort that went into habitat."

"In the long run, this (policy) will be better for salmon and for the people who live and work here," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council.

All agreed that the natural resource industries have already made significant contributions to salmon recovery and look forward to the success of this collaborative effort.

"I'd say it is a high, high priority," said Paulette Pyle, grassroots director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a natural-resource industry group.

It also offers an excellent chance of solving the problem of endangered salmon instead of putting another Band-Aid on it.

After all that has been spent on salmon and lawyers, Oregon Farm Bureau's Bushue summarized it best: "The cost of litigation does not put one single, solitary fish in the water."

If allowed to work properly, this proposal will save more fish than any lawsuit ever did.

Salmon Plan: Phony as a Lure
Capital Press, February 3, 2006

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation