Flummoxed over the Fish 

Expected record chinook returns fail to materialize, leaving scientists wondering, government officials backtracking and Fish and Game reducing the salmon season

Idaho Fish and Game has reduced the salmon fishing season and decreased harvest amounts as a result of decreased returns of Chinook salmon. But the recent debate over whether salmon recovery is happening is threatening to make the endangered species debate over the spotted owl pale in comparison.

A half-decade of record salmon returns in the Columbia River basin had sportsmen, environmentalists, scientists and government officials claiming success for the salmon recovery plan. This year, the anticipation was big as the offspring of 2001's record 437,000 fish (the largest since records had been kept beginning in 1938) returning through Bonneville Dam were expected. So far, since June 9, only 85,927 have returned, just 20 percent of 2001's record, and forecasts predict only 18,300 of those will return to Idaho rivers.

Most salmon return to the same waters they were born in after three to four years in the ocean. So anticipations that 2005 was to be a record year had government officials prematurely touting success in their efforts to restore the Northwest's salmon fishery. Sportsmen were excited. Fishing communities were giddy at the anticipated tourists dollars, but something happened.

Some scientists theorize that in recent years favorable ocean conditions may have contributed to record returns, but that the more frequently returning El Nino weather patterns may also have something to do with it. Ocean temperatures of northern waters off the coast of Canada are reported to be their warmest in 45 years. This warmer water interrupts the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water full of salmon-like food.

Another theory is that with warmer oceans, there may be more predatory fish moving north like makerel or hake. In the 1970s, there were only 50,000 sea lions on the West Coast. Today there are more than 300,000 and some have been seen at Bonneville Dam munching on the bunched-up salmon buffet.

Others blame low river levels and drought conditions of the past few years. Still more blame deforestation and an estimated 80 percent reduction in viable salmon habitat. Most likely it is a combination of all of these.

However, many agree blame lies with the dams. Of the more than 400 dams in the Snake/Columbia river system, only four are in question by environmentalists. Their hydroelectric turbines churn up an estimated 85 percent of fingerling salmon that attempt to pass, according to the government's own studies. Releasing water over them is one solution, which Federal Court Judge James Redden said needed to happen after throwing out last week-for the second time-the government's proposed plan to manage salmon, claiming it is legally flawed in several respects.

Despite a $6 billion plan the federal government has for salmon recovery (only $1 billion has been spent so far), Judge Redden found the government's plan lacking and intends to create a more salmon-friendly river by forcing the feds and environmentalists to work together.

Supporters of salmon recovery say a huge boost in fishing tourism would result and one recent study showed Idaho alone could see an increase of over a half-billion dollars in the economy from restored fisheries. But as of now, Idaho communities, like Riggins, that rely on the salmon fishing are hurting.

"The 2001 season brought $10 million into our town," said Riggins Mayor Bob Zimmerman in a recent television report. But this year, "It's not looking good for us. We were expecting a great salmon season this spring and the fish didn't show up. So it's just another nail in the economic coffin we're tumbling into."

Some say removal of the dams are what eventually is needed for recovery. That, experts say, would result in a loss of only about 4 percent of the hydroelectric production in the Northwest, and that has politicians playing up the fear that more water over the spillways or breaching these dams will result in higher eletricity bills for Idahoans. Others say that electricity rates would go up 2 percent at most, as only 12 percent of the electricity in Idaho comes from these hydroelectric dams.

You can't blame politicians like U.S. Sen. Larry Craig-whipping up the fear of higher electricity costs-and Rep. "Butch" Otter-who rails against environmentalists and says that Idaho won't be sacrificed "at the altar of advocacy science and biological diversity"-for being so anti-salmon. After all, their largest campaign contributions come from electric utilities ($153,936 for Craig and $48,452 for Otter in the last election cycle), forestry products industries ($127,317 for Craig, $26,450 for Otter) and agricultural interests ($139,005 for Craig and $23,750 for Otter, according to www.opensecrets.org, a campaign finance watchdog organization), industries directly affected by proposed plans to breach the dams and protect salmon. They are simply protecting their corporate donors.

An appeal of Judge Redden's decision is certain but an administration that listens to lobbyists and not scientists may attempt to overturn Redden's decision using a loophole in the Endangered Species Act which allows a committee of seven Cabinet members-the God squad-to put economic considerations above endangered species concerns.

Salmon season closed on several rivers Tuesday in Idaho but some limited areas are still open four days a week (Friday through Monday). Limits on salmon are one per day, three in possession and 10 total for the season. Fishing on the South Fork of the Salmon will open Friday, June 17, and remain open seven days a week until harvest goals are met. Last year the season closed during the Fourth of July weekend when harvest targets were achieved.

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