the film


Ecology and salmon related articles

NW Fishletter's 100th Issue,
Or, "It's the Ocean, Stupid"

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, April 11, 2000

Now that the salmon recovery circus of public comment is nearly over, and activists have hung up their salmon costumes in the closet, somebody new has crashed the party--the fish themselves.

The delightful numbers of spring chinook now passing over Bonneville will mostly be wasted, as hatchery fish usually are in times of plenty. The thousands that will swim into Idaho will create big headaches for hatchery managers; some will no doubt be trucked beyond the sacred Hells Canyon Dams to provide a salmon catching experience for Boise residents. Others (fish, not Idahoans) should probably be collected and tossed into those streams above 6,000 feet for fertilizer where spawning redds can be counted on one hand. Of course, the run could fizzle out tomorrow, but it probably won't.

Maybe a ton of wild fish will show this year, too, and confound the mathematical modeling wizards at NMFS who are telling us that the situation is even worse than we thought. Who thought? The poor academics are trapped in a time warp that stopped a couple of years ago. But they keep promising they can play catch up as soon as the new numbers come in. Extinction, quasi-extinction, it's all a numbers game built on old fish counts that were made up out of thin air. They're already nervous and warning the region that these improved runs may be a "blip." That may be, but if we really are getting into a wetter, colder climate regime, then what's wrong with a 20-year blip? Maybe we're a blip.

The tribes know better, they are preparing for a huge spring catch and want to sell the extras directly over the bank. Who's going to keep track? And what does it matter anyway, when NMFS OKs millions of hatchery chinook to be released unmarked. How will we know if any of these wild runs ever recover? Like always, we'll guess-timate, with various fudge factors inserted by the managers with the most political clout.

Meanwhile, The Power Planning Council is off in Salmon Wonderland, betting on huge benefits from re-tooled hatcheries, caring less than a fig for what they might do to the few wild fish that give NMFS a mandate to turn the region upside down.

And the wild fish fanatics fight back, pointing to a 100-year effort that smothered the region with salmon to come up with next to nothing. But running the projector backwards to a reclaimed natural state won't get us a new world. Not with the population going the other direction. In another 100 years, who knows what the Northwest will be like? Running the movie back 60 years doesn't get you anywhere warm and fuzzy. Remember, in 1941, only eight fish were counted in Marsh Creek, one of Idaho's index streams for spring chinook. After that, things got better, then numbers nose-dived again, and no fish showed up last year.

The question remains, "How soon can we recover these stocks so we can catch them and eat them or sell them?" No wonder it seems that NMFS has a bi-polar disorder. The entire region suffers from the same malady of conflicting mandates. For the present, every segment in the 4-H equation will claim credit for improved fish numbers, pointing out that hatcheries are already being managed better, harvest managers are getting better at managing harvests, habitat managers are better at restoring habitat and hydro operators are better at getting fish to the ocean.

But frankly, the 4-H mindset leaves out the biggest H of all. Hubris--the proud notion that we can manage our way out of this situation at all, or think we can predict what salmon runs will be like a hundred years from now.

I spent 15 years fishing on the ocean between Alaska and the Columbia River and I've learned more about salmon since I traded my gaff hook for a typewriter than I ever picked up wandering around the 100-fathom curve. The ocean, with its natural ups and downs, remains the major driver for salmon populations throughout the Pacific Rim. It's time that commercial fishermen quit blaming the dams for lousy business decisions. Most folks knew back in the 1970s that if you wanted to make any money salmon fishing, you headed north.

But the ocean factor is gradually starting to sink in these parts, too, just about everywhere but at Idaho Fish & Game. You may get 20 percent more fish back to Idaho if you breach the dams--so how come the return rates are going up 400 percent with the four federal dams on the lower Snake firmly in place? It's not that we haven't tried to get the word out. A quick search exercise shows that "ocean" showed up in 70 of the last 90 issues of NW Fishletter.

However, suggesting that the ocean is both culprit and savior doesn't do much at budget time for preserving a network of hatcheries and harvest managers who are ultimately at the mercy of Mother Nature. It's not fish that folks are trying to preserve here, it's turf.

And now with most every species supported by its own gaggle of lawyers (witness this week's tern of events), the salmon conundrum gets ever more mired in the courts. In the long run, salmon recovery dollars will probably pay off more Northwest mortgages than money ever earned in honest fisheries ever did. Economists call it a transfer of wealth.

Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter's 100th Issue, or, "It's the Ocean, Stupid"
NW Fishletter, April 11, 2000

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