When More Isn't Better
by John Stec
Oregon and Washington fisheries managers recently announced that anglers on the Columbia River would have "an unexpected opportunity" to catch and keep a sockeye salmon.
Citing much higher than average counts of sockeye passing Bonneville Dam, biologists agreed to allow anglers to harvest these fish. They project that Columbia-origin sockeye will soar to a record-breaking high of 250,000.
As these circumstances clearly show, an abundant run triggers one thought in the minds of fisheries managers: Harvest. But why is such abundance "bad" news? The answer is that elation over the aggregate numbers masks a persistent and fatal flaw in the management of the Columbia system. By treating the returning populations of sockeye as a singularity, commercial as well as recreational fishermen get to share the "bounty." This means that instead of using a good year to recover the sockeye runs, fisheries managers have chosen to open all of the sockeye runs to non-Tribal gill net harvest, including ESA-protected runs such as the Redfish Lake sockeye.
Sockeye salmon once gave Redfish Lake its name. The spawning colors of thousands of salmon finishing their epic 900-mile run to the finish line turned a mountain lake near Sun Valley, Idaho to deep red. Sockeye lend no such color now. In 1991 only two returned, sparking the species' listing that year as endangered, the severest level possible under the Endangered Species Act. After 16 years of ESA protection, their prospects remain grim; only four fish returned in 2007, three in 2006. It appears Redfish Lake sockeye are slowly approaching their doom.
Fortunately, fisheries managers expect 700 Redfish Lake sockeye to enter the Columbia this year. Of these 700 Snake origin sockeye, perhaps 50 will make it to the lower Snake River into the Stanley Basin, and with extreme luck, perhaps seven or eight fish will reach Redfish Lake, Idaho. That would be the biggest Redfish Lake Sockeye return in five years.
What if one sockeye caught in a gill net is the sole female bound for Redfish Lake? Gill netters have no way of knowing. Even if they did know, they could not return the fish to the water unharmed because gillnets are a lethal, dangerous form of harvest that does not allow for live release. Rather than restoring her species, this sole female sockeye, which could spawn future generations, will contribute a tasty meal for one night.
Fisheries managers say the odds are low that the nets could kill those last eight or four or three sockeye headed for Redfish Lake. So, we are left with the premise that taking a few hundred $20 fish from an abundant run is more important than protecting the last-remaining members of a dying one. Though the statistical odds favor the managers, the cost of losing their gamble is monumental: the extinction of Redfish Lake sockeye.
Once again, fisheries managers are focusing on how to divide up an increasingly scarce resource rather than making a clear commitment to conservation and recovery. Our Pacific salmon fisheries are collapsing all around us, yet we still have people who are in denial that it is time for real change. The plight of the Redfish Lake sockeye is just one example of the problems facing the Northwest's native salmon runs, and how these problems are interconnected.
It's time to involve all stakeholders - anglers and non-anglers - in the fight for conservation and sustainable harvest practices. We can no longer afford to gamble with the future of our fisheries.
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