Salmon run mysteriously failing in Northwest
Written by International Herald Tribune   
Thursday, 12 May 2005 04:10
Tens of thousands of adult salmon that were expected to swim up the Columbia River this spring are missing, and their mysterious absence has led state and tribal officials to shut down the commercial fisheries in the Northwest's muscular, watery thoroughfare for the first time in five years.

The unexpectedly low early run of chinook salmon, containing the first few of 11 endangered fish to return to the Columbia and Snake river systems each year, defied usually reliable predictions and shut fisheries that had expected a plentiful harvest.

The numbers are so bad that Oregon, Washington and Idaho have ended commercial fishing and last week the four Indian tribes with treaty rights to harvest the salmon did the same. Though tribal fishermen can still sell a limited catch to other tribe members, their subsistence fish harvest has been sharply curtailed.

At the annual "First Salmon" ceremony, held last month near the Dalles dam along the Columbia River in Oregon, Indian tribal members from the nearby Celilo village, were short of fish. They were forced to rely on fish donated by coastal fishermen and on the frozen remains of the catch from last year, according to a spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

Experts say it is too soon to tell exactly why this first run is low - or late. Possible explanations include an unusually large collection of hungry seals and sea lions below Bonneville Dam in Oregon, a cyclical warming trend in the northern Pacific and a disruption in the food chain somewhere along the chinook's migratory route through the ocean.

Most environmentalists and some tribal officials, however, are convinced that federal dams, the major engines of the Northwest's electricity grid, are at the root of the problem. The slow-moving, sometimes overheated reservoirs behind the dams disorient fish bred for fast, cold currents, and dam machinery can be lethal, particularly to outbound juvenile fish.

"We need to figure out what happened," said Charles Hudson of the intertribal commission, which represents the four tribes with fishing rights. "But there is no question," he added in a telephone interview, "that year in and year out, the hydro system is the biggest killer of fish."

The dropoff comes as a federal district judge in Portland, Oregon, is poised to rule on whether a Bush administration plan to maintain the dams is compatible with the government's obligations under the Endangered Species Act. The possibility of breaching the dams to help the endangered fish has been suggested as a last resort.

Four federal dams on the lower Columbia provide an average of about 2,350 megawatts of electricity a year, enough to power two cities the size of Seattle. Upstream on the Snake River, another four dams provide nearly as much power.

About 20 months ago, President George W. Bush stood above one of these, the Ice Harbor dam in Washington, and said "The good news is that salmon runs are up," adding, "We can have good, clean hydroelectric power and salmon restoration going on at the same time."

More than a year later, his administration disclosed in November that, while it intended to spend $600 million a year on salmon recovery, building structures or paying for barges to help the fish get around the dams, the dams would now be considered an immutable part of the landscape. There would be no question of breaching them.

This year fish were supposed to arrive in ample numbers. The consensus of fisheries experts was that 254,000 spring chinook would pass Bonneville Dam, the first of the eight federal dams along the lower Columbia and lower Snake rivers. With three weeks left in the run, only 52,000 fish have passed the first dam.

Last month, it seemed that the peak of the run had passed; about 4,150 fish passed Bonneville Dam on April 25, and then the numbers began dropping. Last week, though, there was a resurgence, with more than 6,000 fish counted last Thursday. But by Monday the number had dropped to fewer than 400.

There are many possible reasons why this is happening, environmentalists and federal officials agree. But environmentalists say that if the administration can credit its salmon recovery effort for well-stocked runs for four years, it cannot just blame the oceans when the numbers are bad.

Bonneville Power officials and the administrator of the northwest regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service said that the salmon run might be late because the river had been slow to warm.

"There are two theories," said Bob Lohn, the regional administrator. "One is that something devastating has happened to the run. Two is that the run is very late." Many biologists, he said, lean toward the latter explanation.

John Skidmore, a program analyst for Bonneville Power, said, "In any natural world, you're going to have variabilities." He added, "That is not to say that we're not concerned that the returns are off, but it's not a complete anomaly."

But what adds to experts' worries about the Columbia River spring chinook run this year is its variance from expectations. Most of these salmon are the offspring of adults that went upstream in 2001, a year with a magnificent run of nearly 400,000 fish.

At a minimum, this run could have been expected to be better than average, and not a return to the low runs and closed fisheries from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. The count of early-returning fish from the brood last year, called "jacks," provided much of the basis for the forecast of 254,000 fish.

It is highly possible, Lohn said, that "something happened to these fish in the ocean. That something could include an unexpected collapse of some part of the food chain.

 
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