Salmon Are Not Created Equal

A federal judge rules that "wild" in-stream spawning salmon aren't endangered.

The discussion about how to best deal with the remaining salmon in Northwest rivers and streams has just become a bit more complicated. In September, a federal judge ruled that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) couldn't protect "wild" in-stream spawning salmon, since it doesn't protect comparable hatchery-spawned fish. If Oregon District Judge Michael Hogan's decision withstands appeal, it could challenge the ESA's applicability to several Columbia and Snake River salmon runs. This judgment could radically change the direction of salmon recovery.

Patti Goldman is an attorney with Earth Justice (formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund). Earth Justice is currently pursuing lawsuits favoring more aggressive salmon recovery measures.

"[Judge Hogan's] decision essentially says it would be acceptable to have animals living in zoos, even if they are unable to survive in their natural environment," says Goldman. "[This decision] has resulted in a flurry of petitions to delist [remove from ESA protection] virtually all salmon and steelhead in Washington and Oregon. We consider such action premature."

Economist Darryll Olsen represents the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, one of the organizations that filed delisting petitions.

"We agree with [Judge Hogan's] decision. It is the basis for our filing to delist salmon and steelhead runs in the mid- and upper-Columbia regions," says Olson. "The decision will allow us to get back to first principles of what we are trying to do with the fish stock. Are we really interested in fish or is there some other reason we are invoking ESA?"

Resolving these contending positions has revived a longstanding debate over how artificial enhancement programs can or should contribute to salmon recovery.

The first Columbia River salmon hatcheries were built in the late 19th century. As dams were completed (beginning with Rock Island in 1933, followed by Bonneville in 1938) hatcheries were also built to offset declines in the level of in-stream spawning. The completion of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1941 (without fish passage facilities) terminated all salmon runs in the upper Columbia.

On balance, those hatcheries served their purpose, which was to maintain sport, commercial and tribal salmon harvests. Still, all salmon populations experience booms and busts. After a period of decline, Columbia River salmon runs appear to have entered another boom period. Last year more than one million adult salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia River above the Bonneville Dam, a dramatic increase over recent history.

This year the return approached two million, making 2001 the best year since counting began in 1938. There were also large increases in the numbers of coho salmon returning to the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam. Most of these fish originated in hatcheries. However, percentage increases have been equally dramatic for in-stream spawners, including those listed as threatened or endangered.

The Columbia River salmon recovery effort gave salmon enhancement programs a new purpose, helping to preserve threatened and endangered runs of in-stream spawning salmon. First, this means not harming them, as past hatchery programs sometimes did. To this end, harvest regulations were changed to protect in-stream spawning salmon, while allowing fishermen to harvest more abundant hatchery-spawned salmon. A more controversial measure has been the killing of hatchery-spawned returning adults to avoid competition and interbreeding with in-stream spawners. The latter practice resulted in the notorious fish-clubbing incidents on Washington's Methow River. Similar incidents on Oregon's Alsea River triggered the lawsuit that produced Judge Hogan's decision.

There is a long history of using enhancement technology to restore in-stream spawning salmon runs. Experience on the Clearwater and Snake rivers is described by Charli Petrosky, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG). Early in the last century, the Lewiston Dam was constructed on the Clearwater River near where it empties into the Snake. Built without adequate provision for fish passage, the dam destroyed the Clearwater's spring/summer chinook salmon run. After the dam's removal in 1972, IDFG restocked spring/summer chinook salmon in several Clearwater tributaries.

Juvenile salmon imprint on the water chemistry of their natal streams. As adults they follow traces of those chemicals back from the ocean. If transplanted before imprinting occurs, juveniles will record the water chemistry of the receiving stream. To match as closely as possible the genetics of the former Clearwater spring/summer chinook runs, IDFG took spawners from other Snake River tributaries, primarily the Salmon River. Juveniles reared from the eggs of those spawners were released into Clearwater tributaries prior to imprinting.

This doesn't always work, but it did on the Clearwater. Today all the Clearwater's in-stream spawning spring/summer chinook salmon descend from those transplants. These fish are included in reported totals of Snake River and Columbia River "wild" salmon. However, because they originate from enhancement projects, they are not listed as threatened or endangered.

Among all creatures, the urge to survive and reproduce trumps other instincts. Salmon unable to find their natal streams will seek the best available substitute. Ned Horner, also an IDFG biologist, describes what happened in Lake Coeur d'Alene, which connects to the Columbia River via the Spokane River. However, Spokane Falls prevented salmon from naturally colonizing the lake. Beginning in 1982, IDFG planted juvenile chinook salmon to serve as predators on the lake's overpopulated landlocked sockeye salmon (bluebacks) and to provide a trophy sport fishery. Managers did not expect any natural reproduction. To their surprise, the salmon began spawning in streams and rivers entering Lake Coeur d'Alene, in particular the lower Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe rivers. Today about half of the 70,000 Lake Coeur d'Alene chinook salmon are in-stream spawners.

Fisheries biologists from IDFG, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock tribes are building on such experiences to maintain the Snake River's in-stream spawning salmon. To preserve genetics, spawning adults are taken from selected streams, and juveniles are returned to the same streams. This procedure eliminates predation and unfavorable environmental conditions that would otherwise destroy many juveniles. The increased survival offsets later mortality, whether from natural predators, fishermen or dams. These and similar enhancement techniques are being used to maintain and rebuild all four threatened and endangered Snake River salmon runs, as well as salmon runs elsewhere on the Columbia.

Judge Hogan's decision may spur more such programs, but that decision should not be confused with efforts to remove salmon runs from ESA protection immediately. Immediate delisting would probably mean taking credit under ESA procedures for salmon produced by old-style hatchery programs, not all of which adequately considered genetics. Time will tell how the new (genetic diversity preserving) approach to salmon enhancement fares in the interplay between fisheries scientists, management agencies, private advocates, politicians and the courts.

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About The Author

Robert Stokes

Robert Stokes provided commentary for The Inlander from 2001 to 2009. He served in the Army in Germany, taught economics at the University of Washington, loved to fish and had two daughters and four grandkids over in Seattle. But he never quite left Spokane Valley; he returned in the mid-1990s to take care...