Wild Salmon Runs
by Joel Connelly, P-I Columnist
Delivering an early lesson on the uniqueness of our region, my folks took yours truly and a buddy up the Glacier Creek Road below Mount Baker one fall day to watch salmon spawn in a tributary stream.
They explained a few facts to fascinated 8-year-olds: The salmon took on a higher fat content -- hence, tasted better -- because they had to swim up a silty stream that drains two great glaciers. The struggle to get up rapids and spawn makes them fighters.
George W. Bush should get a lesson in Wild Salmon 101. After all, this is the man who told us in an unforgettable 2000 campaign Bushism: "The man and the fish can coexist."
In news that leaked out yesterday, the president's men are plotting a brazen flanking move around the Endangered Species Act.
It will benefit big property owners, industrial lobbies and agribusiness interests -- the folks who can buy access in this administration. The losers will be the natural systems and human environment of the Pacific Northwest.
The Bushies plan to count fish raised in hatcheries when reaching decisions on whether salmon deserve continued protection under the Endangered Species Act. Survival of wild natural salmon runs, which spawn in streams and rivers, would be downgraded in importance.
What's the difference between a salmon that grows up in a tank and a fish raised in a river or lake?
Casting for an answer, I dialed up a one-time Orofino, Idaho, lumberjack and angler -- Cecil Andrus -- who went on to serve four terms as governor of Idaho and a four-year stint as interior secretary.
"Of course you can tell the difference," Andrus explained. "A wild salmon is a heartier, stronger fish. A hatchery-raised fish does not have the genes in it for survival. A wild salmon is, well, a creature of the wild, and will fight to stay that way."
Up on the Skagit River, home to the greatest wild-salmon populations left in the Puget Sound basin, an expert fisherman who once edited the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's editorial page had a similar take.
"A fair number of hatchery fish are deformed, diseased and small," Jack DeYonge said. "They return from the ocean at a rate of slightly under 1 percent. Wild salmon come back at a rate of 3 percent.
"What the Bush administration proposes to do is wipe out the most efficient breed of fish and replace it with the least efficient."
A bit of background is in order.
Hatcheries are flawed, but they are a vital component to what fishery we have left in the Northwest. Our roughly 100 Puget Sound-area and coastal hatcheries provide about 80 percent of Washington's trout, and 75 percent of all Chinook and coho salmon caught in Puget Sound waters.
The perilous state of wild salmon can be seen in the Columbia River system. In a speech at Ice Harbor Dam last summer, President Bush declared that fish runs are coming back.
Salmon are staging a comeback, but it is limited and attributable to a cooling of North Pacific waters that may be temporary.
The return of 3 million salmon to the Columbia River represents only 20 percent to 30 percent of the fish population in the Northwest's greatest river system 150 years ago. And wild salmon account for only 20 percent of the total run size in the Columbia River Basin.
Just last week, in an event featuring Gov. Gary Locke, an independent panel of experts -- the Hatchery Scientific Review Group -- released a report calling for comprehensive and scientific redesign on hatcheries.
"Hatcheries should be viewed as only one of several tools available for recovering depressed populations and providing fisheries. They should be used for these purposes only when the benefits outweigh the risks," said Dr. Lars Mobrand, the panel's chairman.
During the 2000 campaign, candidate Bush focused on two phrases in talking about Northwest fish wars. He wanted "fish-friendly turbines" at dams and "sound science" as the underpinning for federal investments in fish recovery.
By counting hatchery fish in determining protection, however, the Bush administration is turning its back on science. It is instead bowing toward powerful interests that have resisted protection of the streams where wild salmon spawn.
Rich Steele, a retired nuclear technician from Richland, has fought since the 1960s to protect the 48-mile-long Hanford Reach, the lone stretch of Columbia River between Bonneville Dam and the Canadian border that has not been turned into a reservoir. Its population of fall chinook salmon is the river's last great wild fish run.
"The new policy is going to get the feds, and the counties and property owners, off the hook when it comes to protecting fish habitat," Steele said.
"When you can dump millions of hatchery fish into a river, why limit pesticides? Why limit logging along streams? It allows them to curtail the streamside protection we have talked about for years and years."
And, added Andrus, "Cold, clear unpolluted water not only sustains salmon; it sustains us."
Pacific Northwest residents view salmon as part of our culture and heritage. Utilities have backed off from planned propaganda campaigns on the costs of salmon recovery after getting poll data that the public is willing to pay a price.
In his book "The Good Rain," Timothy Egan said the Northwest should be defined as any place to which a migrating salmon can swim.
The Bush administration has adopted a strategy of undermining environmental laws while paying them lip service. Former Environmental Protection Administrator Christie Todd Whitman was trotted out yesterday to tell an Olympia news conference: "President Bush's leadership on environmental issues has given us cleaner air, water and land."
The new salmon policy suggests a different conclusion.
"The 'great experiment' of the United States, that we can provide a great civilization and at the same time save wild species, is being declared extinct," DeYonge said.
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