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Questions Swirl Around Salmon

Julie Titone Staff Writer

Here are the answers to some questions about endangered salmon and the plan to save them.

Q: There may be nothing we can do to save these fish. Why not just shed a tear for the poor salmon, then cut our losses by rewriting the Endangered Species Act?

A: That’s exactly what some members of Congress want to do: revise the act so salmon can be allowed to go extinct, because the price of saving them is so high. There’s also talk of rewriting the Northwest Power Act, which requires protection of all salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.

But even if those laws are changed, there will be legal obligations to meet.

Some Northwest Indians have treaty rights to harvest salmon. If the fish die out, taxpayers could end up paying tribes a lot of money, forever, for the loss.

Also, the Canadians might wage a fishing war over broken U.S. promises. We’ve signed treaties agreeing to protect the salmon that spawn here and head north, in exchange for protection of Canadian-spawned fish that are caught down here.

Q: Why don’t they just dig a channel around the Columbia and Snake River dams for the salmon to use on their way downstream?

A: The Corps of Engineers has ruled out migratory channels and pipelines as impractical. It would be too hard to provide the salmon with natural food and cool water, and too easy for predators to find the tiny fish. A way would have to be found to guide the fish into the channel. Complex, high-maintenance pumping systems would be needed.

Q: Sea lions wait for salmon to head upstream and grab every one they can. Wouldn’t it go a long way toward saving the salmon if we stopped protecting those critters?

A: No one knows how many salmon are eaten by marine mammals. Recovery planners hope to find out. They consider predators a problem, but not a primary cause of salmon decline.

It’s true that the number of sea lions and harbor seals has been growing by 6 percent to 10 percent each year. Although they seem to prefer steelhead, an increased number of salmon scarred with tooth marks are showing up at dams and hatcheries. The Marine Mammal Protection Act was changed last year to allow for killing of sea lions as a last resort to protect rare fish.

Q: What’s being done to develop other energy resources, so we can stop relying so heavily on hydropower and manage the rivers to help salmon?

A: Hydropower provides about 70 percent of the Northwest’s electricity. Natural gas accounts for roughly 75 percent of its “alternative” energy sources.

Two pilot geothermal projects are planned, and three commercial-scale windpower plants are going in. But the low cost of Canadian gas is hurting efforts to develop those promising sources. Large solar power plants probably won’t be built in the cloudy Northwest, but that energy may someday be imported from the Southwest.

Improved home insulation and other conservation measures are reducing the need for hydropower, though energy watchdogs say big gains could still be made by industry.

Q: What I never see in the paper is anything about all the gill nets strung across the Columbia River. How do you expect these fish to get upstream when it’s wall-towall nets out there?

A: Non-Indian commercial fishermen (who use drift gill nets below Bonneville Dam) and tribal fishers (who use anchored nets upstream of Bonneville) can keep mostly hatchery salmon. They can’t harvest endangered fish. Their seasons have been dramatically shortened since the 1980s.

Commercial fishers had 19 fishing days in the winter and fall of 1994. This year, for the first time ever, they had no winter season. Indians with treaty rights fished 43 days last year; their 1995 winter season ended before most salmon had returned from the ocean.

Q: Doesn’t most of the power generated at Columbia River System dams go to California, Colorado and places like that? What do residents pay for that energy compared to what industry pays?

A: In 1994, 3 percent of the power generated at the federal dams was sold outside the Northwest. In 1993, when more water was available to produce power, those exports amounted to 6 percent. That’s enough electricity to meet half of Seattle’s needs.

Residential prices are set by local utilities. One example is Inland Power & Light Co., which charges its customers 4.98 cents per kilowatt hour, which it buys for 2.6 cents from Bonneville Power Administration.

Bonneville charges aluminum companies 2.11 to 3.17 cents per kilowatt hour, depending in part on the price of aluminium. In exchange for the lower rates, the companies know some of that power supply can disappear on short notice.

Q: When the Corps of Engineers built the four dams on the lower Snake in the 1960s and ‘70s, how much thought was given to what would happen to young salmon headed downstream?

A: By then, biologists had known for decades that dams hurt downstream migration. They especially feared the impact of doubling the number of dams that the Snake River salmon needed to get past.

That’s a big reason the Washington State Department of Fisheries fought the four dams, especially the first at Ice Harbor near Pasco; and why sportsmen sued to stop Lower Granite, the last one built. The other two are Little Goose and Lower Monumental.

There was no federal law requiring environmental impact statements until after all four dams were authorized and all but Lower Granite were completed.

Q: Isn’t it true that salmon recovery costs might drive up energy prices so much that Kaiser and other aluminum companies will fold, and the region will lose a lot of highpaying jobs?

A: Yes, according to Kaiser officials. The cost of electricity accounts for one-third of its smelter expenses. Kaiser estimates that $20 million of its annual power bill already goes to restore fish and wildlife affected by the dams. Company officials say that amount could double over the long term as power rates go up to pay for the proposed salmon recovery plan.

If high energy costs do put aluminum companies out of business, salmon recovery will be only one reason. A bigger expense is repayment of the $7 billion debt incurred by the ill-fated nuclear-power venture called the Washington Public Power Supply System. The WPPSS legacy costs energy buyers $500 million a year.

Q: We’re supposed to drain our reservoirs and pay higher electric bills to save the fish, all the while the Japanese are using big drift nets to haul them in. How about protecting the salmon in the ocean?

A: “We have no evidence that foreign fishing fleets are gulping up big bunches of them,” says a federal biologist. Foreigners can’t legally fish for salmon within 200 miles of the Northwest coast, where these fish tend to travel.

Most countries are cooperating with a United Nations ban on huge drift nets, which targeted other species and sometimes snagged salmon.

Q: I love salmon. Eating ‘em, especially. If the government goes ahead with this recovery plan, is there any hope I’ll be ever able to stand along the Snake or Columbia and reel in a wild Snake River sockeye or chinook?

A: Even if the recovery plan works, it would be a long time before those wild fish can be legally caught. The recovery plan estimates that the chinook and sockeye could be self-sustaining within 48 years, but federal officials concede it will likely take longer.

However, efforts to help the endangered fish could boost other wild salmon and steelhead trout populations and improve returns of hatchery salmon enough to revive commercial and sport fishing.

Q: How can I put in my two cents worth on this salmon recovery plan?

A: A series of 7 p.m. public hearings is scheduled in eight Northwest cities this spring. Among them: Lewiston, Idaho, in the Community Building on May 15, and Richland, Wash., in the Federal Building on May 24.

Written comments on the draft plan should be sent to: Will Stelle, National Marine Fisheries Service, 7600 Sandpoint Way NE, Seattle, Wash., 98115-0070. For copies of the document, call (503) 230-5400.

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