Editorial: Editorial: Science should guide next steps as fish runs continue to recover
The salmon that have returned to the Columbia and Snake river basins in record numbers the last two years are a payoff on the region’s huge investment in their preservation after decades of neglect that took many fish runs to the brink of, or into, extinction.
Since 1978, the Bonneville Power Administration has dedicated $13.75 billion to fish and wildlife. Last year alone, the cost was $782.4 million, all paid by consumers who get their power from federal dams.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council advises Bonneville on its fish restoration efforts and recently released its new five-year plan for those programs. There will be a hearing on the plan Monday, 6 p.m., at the Red Lion River Inn.
Thanks to the recovery of several fish runs, this is a good time for the region to take stock. But not relax.
For those who yearn for more fish, and fish where they have not been since Grand Coulee Dam cut off migration in the late 1930s, the newest council effort has two problematic aspects: the role of hatcheries, and how runs might be restored above the dam – and possibly into the lower Spokane River.
The tribes that manage many hatcheries oppose language that would more carefully monitor the mixing of wild fish that retain unadulterated ancestral genes and hatchery fish from less pure stock. Wild fish are considered hardier, but the science that will establish their genetic superiority over generations is incomplete.
The emphasis on the preservation and augmentation of wild stock was underscored by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group, which in 2009 issued a report that said hatchery fish, whose numbers have provided the tribes and recreational and commercial fishermen an abundant harvest, must give way to native fish as those populations recover.
The Nez Perce, who release more than 5 million juvenile fall chinook annually, are particularly concerned because their efforts have rebuilt stocks to the point fishing was reopened in 2009. Because of the dams on the Columbia and Snake, that fish population is most dependent on hatcheries for restocking.
Other tribes note similar successes in other basins. Not only do those fish preserve a variety of fish genetics and allow transplantation into watersheds that have lost native stock, but their numbers offset losses due to the dams and help fulfill tribal fishing rights.
The tribes say the council is exceeding its mandate by trying to impose the review group standards, a claim council officials reject.
Since the Northwest awoke to the fate of its iconic fish – an awakening partly due to advocates like Nisqually tribal elder Billy Frank Jr., who died last month – the region has struggled with the science of managing an ecosystem forever compromised, yet incredibly durable.
What fish are wild should be kept wild, but how best to do that has been elusive despite the resources dedicated to interim solutions. As the search for answers continues, science should serve the fish, and no one else.
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