Fishermen blamed for salmon troubles

  Salvation for the Northwest’s endangered salmon will come through further cuts in fishing, according to a senior White House official.

James Connaughton, head of the Council on Environmental Quality, announced at Portland’s Salmon 2100 conference in January that salmon recovery will have to come through curbing fishing, along with upgrades to outdated hatcheries, which may be harming wild fish. The Bush administration is currently under court order to address the effect of hydroelectric dams on the region’s fish. Yet Connaughton made only brief mention of dams (HCN, 6/13/05: For salmon, a crucial moment of decision).

Fishing groups say the focus on fishing and hatcheries — while valid — diverts attention away from the larger impacts of hydropower. Fishing is prohibited for all but one of the Columbia River’s endangered and threatened salmon populations, and only 5 percent of listed salmon die at the hands of fishermen. Hydroelectric dams, meanwhile, kill as many as 92 percent of the river’s listed young salmon and 25 percent of listed adult fish, according to government reports.

"It’s like worrying about a mosquito bite when you have cancer," says Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

A 2000 NOAA Fisheries report concluded that ending all Columbia River salmon fishing would result in "limited benefits" to listed populations. "At some point (the administration) is going to have to face up to the dams," says Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. "The science leads to the dams and the law leads to the dams."

Mar 20, 2006 11:16 AM

This came in via our inbox.
-Paolo Bacigalupi, Online Editor

name: David Caccia

regarding: Fishermen blamed for salmon troubles

comments: Salvation for salmon will not come through reading Brett Wilkison's completely decontexualized piece on salmon and dams. The threats to the wellbeing of salmon are very complex. Yes, for certainruns of salmon, dams have had huge detrimental effects. But most of thesedams have been in place for decades. The damage that they did to certainsalmon runs was severe and immediate. The evidence shows these salmon runs have continued to suffer further degradation long after the dams were built.

Furthermore, most runs of salmon that are not in any way blocked by dams have also suffered – in some cases, severe degradation. Who do we blame for this? In this case, not the dams. Do we blame the fishing community? Do we blame agriculture and industry? Do we blame development? All of the above and more. Throw in the weather as well.

Why the fishermen? For one reason: they have, for decades, gone after salmon with size selective gear. In theory, this was to protect the younger fish that were not ready to spawn. In practice, this approach has given smaller fish reproductive advantage over the larger fish. In some species, we see a drastic shift in the size distribution of spawning fish toward smaller sizes. (What do I mean by 'drastic'? In the early 1900s, Chinook, (King), salmon were frequently caught weighting more that 100 pounds. Today, as the trend toward smaller fish has progressed over the decades, we hardly see them over 30 pounds. )

This smaller size hurts salmon species in at least three ways: first, smaller fish can not migrate as efficiently as can larger ones; they must expend a greater proportion of energy to migrate; second, they can not move as quickly to avoid predators; third, they are pushed out of their ecological niche, no longer able to feed on certain kinds of prey.

Agriculture can hurt salmon by reducing the flow volume of rivers and by degrading water quality with sediment and agricultural chemicals. Industry and development can hurt salmon through degradation of watersheds and through pollution of waterways.

Even the weather may bear some blame for the degradation of certain runs of salmon. There is a large swirling current of water in the North Pacific called the North Pacific Gyre. Its course tends to fluctuate over a multi-decade time span. This current directs a stream of cold water toward the Pacific Northwest. When this flows a bit southward, salmon runs in Washington and Oregon tend to do better. When the flow hits farther north, salmon runs in Alaska and B.C. tend to do better.

Before we fight to rip out the dams, we should take the time to understand the situation as fully as possible. We should also make sure that we are ready to accept the fossil fuel generating plants that would likely replace the dams that generate power for the Northwest - the dams that add no greenhouse gases to our Earth.

Yes, the science leads to dams, but it also leads to fishermen, farmers, industry, development, and even to the weather.