Thursday, October 1, 2009

We need to ensure salmon recovery, not an “insurance policy”

by Bobby Hayden

On healthcare, the Obama administration’s current call for change is based on the notion that doing nothing means Americans will continue to pay the price – in both cost and quality of care. That we can all agree upon. Unfortunately this notion is not being applied in the Northwest to the administration’s new plan for Columbia and Snake River salmon. After roughly $10 billion in American taxpayer and Northwest energy ratepayer money spent on measures that have brought wild salmon and the salmon economy no closer to lasting recovery, it’s time for a new direction.

The federal government has called their latest plan for Columbia and Snake Rivers an “insurance policy” for salmon. While this new health care messaging is clever, the truth is the plan will continue the same system that has kept wild salmon on life-support for two decades. In their plan, NOAA Fisheries has included a suite of contingencies for salmon based on “significant decline triggers” (levels that would trigger action). Based on the numbers, however, salmon returns would have to get dangerously low for several years running before any initial actions are taken. And none of these initial actions include a substantive look at real changes to the biggest killers of juvenile salmon: the dams.

So basically, we know your arteries are clogged and your blood pressure is skyrocketing but we’ll just wait until you’re going into cardiac arrest before you go into surgery… for a knee replacement.

According to officials at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the agency in charge here), the plan will “prevent further declines.” Aspiring to prevent further declines? We already have thirteen populations of salmon and steelhead officially at risk of extinction under the Endangered Species Act. This plan, at its very best, promises only to stabilize the already severely depressed populations. There’s no game plan here to position these fish for actual recovery in the future, and that should be unacceptable to those of us who care about salmon, about smart public policy, and about sound science.

NOAA has announced that it will use the same exact jeopardy standard developed by the Bush administration. This meager benchmark could be met if only one additional fish returns to spawn compared with the previous year. Make no mistake: if upheld, this plan will weaken the Endangered Species Act and the result will set a clear – and harmful -- precedent across the country. The future of efforts nationwide to restore ecosystems and imperiled wildlife, and to hold the federal government and private industry accountable, is at stake.

But this isn’t just about the law; it’s about jobs too. By striving to only "prevent further declines," this plan will leave fishermen along the West Coast in dry dock, tackle and fly shops struggling or closing, and fishing guides out of work. Many other businesses in the Northwest, while not directly tied to salmon, will feel the hit as well. Fishing communities have already made big sacrifices and suffered tremendous job losses to compensate for the dams' deadly impacts in the Columbia-Snake Basin, and this "new" plan includes no promise of actions that could lead to the actual recovery of healthy, abundant, and fishable populations.

At best, the Obama administration’s plan protects the current status quo - depressed salmon populations threatened with extinction and a depressed salmon economy with communities struggling to get by. Rather than an “insurance policy” that only kicks in once salmon populations are in the ICU, how about ensuring healthy and abundant salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers for future generations? Our region’s communities deserve a way forward that gives salmon - and the salmon economy - a plan not for relapse, but real and lasting recovery.

The Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, it’s partner groups, and thousands of advocates around the country will continue to encourage the establishment of a truly inclusive collaborative process that includes all the interests who have been involved in this debate for the last two decades. A science-driven stakeholder negotiation process represents our best opportunity to develop a cost-effective, biologically-sound salmon restoration plan that is durable, works for both salmon and people, saves money, and creates good family-wage jobs in areas like fishing, clean energy, and construction.

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Bobby Hayden is the Western Regional Representative for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. He splits time between Eugene and Portland, Oregon.

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