It will take at least a quarter to half a century to restore endangered Snake River salmon runs to a point where they no longer face extinction, federal officials said Monday in announcing a proposed recovery plan for the threatened fish.
The 500-page report is “the most comprehensive recovery plan issued by the federal government under the Endangered Species Act in its 20-year history, and it is probably the most important,” said William Stelle, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Northwest region.
It was still not enough to mollify some environmentalists, however, who criticized its failure to substantially alter earlier-announced changes in hydropower dam operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers to help salmon migrate between their spawning grounds and the ocean.
“This plan is irrelevant to the pending extinction of these fish due to the dams,” said Ed Chaney of the Northwest Resource Information Center in Eagle, Idaho. “It is more dodging and weaving. NMFS is acting with great vigor on marginal ways to maintain the fish.”
Bruce Lovelin of the industry group Columbia River Alliance said he is encouraged that the region finally has a draft salmon recovery plan. But he said this one has many weaknesses.
“A plan is only as good as its ability to be implemented,” Lovelin said. “In the case of salmon, Northwest people must be able to support it, and this one seems to be handicapped by its sheer lack of information.”
He especially criticized the lack of information about the cost of the plan and how many fish it would help.
Among other things, the plan establishes numerical criteria to determine when the three salmon stocks listed as endangered can be considered “recovered.” The report anticipates those levels will be reached in 24 to 48 years, but Stelle said he believes it would take even longer.
“There are no quick fixes,” he said. “It will take a long time … to restore those runs.”
The plan will be the subject of eight public hearings, including one May 15 in Lewiston and one May 24 in Richland. The final plan probably will be available before the end of the year, Stelle said.
“This recovery plan proposes a range of comprehensive and fundamental conservation strategies for salmon recovery, instead of relying on uncertain, piecemeal mitigation schemes that have been tried, without much success, in the past,” Stelle said.
The dramatic drop in wild salmon numbers in recent years has been blamed on a variety of factors ranging from overfishing and hydropower dams to warmer ocean temperatures.
Snake River sockeye, spring-summer chinook and fall chinook are listed as endangered. Dozens of other salmon runs are likely candidates for protection.
Once a species is listed under the act, a recovery plan must be prepared to ensure the species won’t become extinct.
Among the key points in the plan outlined by the fisheries service are:
Changes will be made in the rules for ocean and river salmon harvests, specifically to protect fall chinook salmon, which mix with other nonendangered salmon stocks and accidentally are caught with them. Alternative harvest methods will be developed, and a program will begin to buy back fishing permits, gear and boats in the commercial ocean troll fishery and the nonIndian gill net fishery in the Columbia River. The latter should be phased out completely, the report says.
The United States and Canada should be urged strongly to reach an agreement on working to rebuild chinook stocks. Such an agreement would give “the biggest bang for the buck,” since fall chinook mortality is highest in Canadian waters, Stelle said.
Wild fish will be caught and bred in captivity, so gene banks can be created that will help increase the numbers of wild fish while preserving their distinctive genetic characteristics. The idea is to minimize interaction between wild salmon and hatchery-reared fish, which are considered less hardy than the wild fish.
Salmon hatchery production will be capped at the 1994 level of about 197 million fish to avoid “flooding the system” with hatchery salmon and crowding out wild fish.
Changes will be made in hydro dam operations, such as spilling more water over the dams at certain times, to increase the chances that juvenile salmon can migrate safely to the ocean and adult salmon can return to their spawning grounds. These changes were announced March 1, and the cost of the resulting loss in hydropower generation was pegged at $150 million to $160 million a year for the first five years.
The Clinton administration has said it plans to cover $90 million to $110 million of that cost.
Stelle did not release any additional estimates of how much the plan would cost to implement. A University of Washington team will be working on a comprehensive cost analysis this year, he said.
Once it is determined that the number of fish in a certain stock is increasing, specific numerical criteria will be used to determine when it is “recovered,” under the plan.
Snake River sockeye, for example, will be considered recovered when, over eight years, an average of 1,000 wild spawners return to Idaho’s Redfish Lake and 500 return to each of two of the four other lakes in Idaho’s Stanley Basin. Last year, only one wild sockeye returned to Redfish Lake.
The spring-summer chinook will be “recovered” when the number of egg nests increases to 60 percent of pre1971 levels and 31,440 wild fish are counted at Lower Granite Dam. About 1,800 were counted last year.
Fall chinook will be “recovered” when 2,500 wild fish return to the Snake River annually. Only 404 of the fish made it that far last year.
The fisheries service will establish a regional recovery team to coordinate the effort, as well as a scientific advisory panel.
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