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New Math for Wild Salmon 

by Paul Haeder

The journey of some wild salmon species takes them from gravel beds in Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean. After traveling through the rivers and streams that empty into estuaries along Northwest coastal waters, their ocean vigil lasts up to seven years as they travel thousands of miles. Their epic lives have been honored with tribal passion, spiritual artistry and a sustainable harvest for several thousand years.

The wild salmon story has generated a coalition of groups in the Pacific Northwest fighting for the salmon's imperiled existence against the imbalanced needs of humans who require too much ecologically sensitive land for development -- humans who desire to irrigate deserts to grow non-native crops and who want cheap electricity to grow human settlements.

The Bush administration sees the science of wild salmon protection and recovery as unnecessary, even though billions have been spent over the decades to deal with the quickly vanishing wild salmon stocks. Bush's political appointees want millions of hatchery-bred salmon to be included in the total count of Northwest runs. Timber, mining, agriculture, building and hydropower stakeholders (and stockholders, too) are high-fiving each other because of this proposal to ease Endangered Species Act protection for almost all native salmon species.

But rewriting the laws won't change the fact that we need to be dealing seriously with the impounded slack-waters behind the four lower Snake River dams; with the rising summer water temperatures of waterways choked by dams; with all the sewage and chemical dumping in these rivers; the over-development of human activity such as unwise housing development and under-regulated agricultural and industrial activity; the stormwater surges caused by Pavement City, USA; and the death of wetlands and estuaries.

The destruction of the associated habitats that make up the natural drainages and river systems should be this country's first course of renewal. Wild salmon are this region's birthright, and twisting science to meet current needs with disregard for future carrying capacities of our environment is the true sledgehammer that will destroy the native species. Few politicians have any concept of what hatchery and aqua-farmed salmon mutants mean to the vitality of a true wild salmon sustainable population.

Eventually, this myopia will certainly destroy the hatchery fish, and sooner than most technocrats want to admit. Millions of fingerlings from hatcheries compete for food with the few native species during their lifecycle in freshwater streams and during the journey to sea. Hatchery fish that interbreed with wild fish create all sorts of problems that have been brought up time and time again in news articles, editorials and scientific reports. Jim Lichatowich's book, Salmon Without Rivers, is a great place to start to learn about the biological realities facing wild salmon. Lichatowich is a fisheries scientist with three decades of field experience.

The interconnectedness of wild salmon with the robust preservation of habitats that sustain them is what is missing from Bush's anti-science school of illogic. The mentality that advocates "new advanced management techniques that would soon result in salmon without a river" (Washington Department of Fisheries) is the sort of thinking that will move us closer to the complete crash of both wild and hatchery fisheries.

The public needs greater input on the strategic plans for saving salmon and returning the native habitats to a level that will bring economic advantages in recreation and sport fishing. Under the proper conditions, hatchery salmon and robust wild runs can coexist.

Sustainability is not a new concept for planning our future, but if we allow policy to be designed and promulgated by the powerful timber, agricultural, hydroelectric and development lobbies, then the Pacific Northwest faces losing a truly important link in its distinct environmental, cultural and economic heritage.

"An indiscriminate hatchery program treats fish like interchangeable parts in a large machine. The first precaution of intelligent tinkering, counseled conservationist Aldo Leopold, is to save all the parts. Neglecting this precaution, we have unbalanced an intricate system and placed the salmon in danger," Lichatowich writes.

Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray joined Rep. Norm Dicks this month in sending a letter to the Bush EPA addressing many concerns they have about this new unscientific counting system's implications for salmon recovery. But don't hold your breath waiting for a timely and ecologically sound response to the Washington politicians' demands: The Bush administration's goal is to delist as many endangered salmon species as possible.

Paul K. Haeder teaches at SFCC and SCC. He's participated in biodiversity studies in the US, Guatemala and Vietnam. He can be reached at [email protected]

Publication date: 05/20/04

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