Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Scientists predict decline in 2011 for Columbia Basin salmon.

Regional fisheries managers just released their predictions for 2011 Columbia/Snake River salmon returns and – despite the regular assurances from the federal government that they have salmon recovery well in hand – the situation does not look so rosy. This is bad news for salmon and for the people whose jobs rely on them. Before getting into 2011, however, let’s review what happened in 2010.

Last year, federal agencies in charge of Columbia Basin salmon recovery rather loudly anticipated “record returns”. They like to say that because, of course, it sounds good. The phrase strikes salmon advocates, however, as more than a little cynical. Historic returns to the Columbia Basin ranged between 16 and 30 million fish each year, so calling a return that is less than a million a “record” seems rather misleading. In determining a “record run”, the government conveniently only started counting after the dams on the Columbia and lower Snake were completed and much of the damage was already done. It was our famous American Mark Twain who complained “there are three types of lies: “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Case in point.

Unfortunately for both imperiled salmon and working people, 2010’s much-heralded record returns failed to materialize. All 2010 chinook runs to date (final Columbia Basin Fall Chinook numbers are still being tallied) were lower than predicted, sometimes substantially lower. The various stocks can be counted in tens or hundreds of thousands. All chinook runs combined so far, about 800,000 swam past Bonneville dam near Portland Oregon in 2010, the first of many dams they may encounter on their perilous journey upstream.

It is also important to remember that roughly 80 percent of these salmon and steelhead are hatchery-origin, not wild, self-sustaining populations.

Hatcheries are important for producing the fish that are caught by commercial, recreational and tribal fishermen – supporting thousands of jobs in scores of communities on the Pacific Coast and inland to Idaho. Though essential in the near-term for fishing communities, hatcheries are not a long-term solution. Rebuilding wild, self-sustaining stocks is the key to the long-term future of Northwest salmon and the people whose jobs depend on them. Wild Columbia Basin salmon returns – most of which are imperiled today – are just a fraction of these overall return numbers and can be counted today in the hundreds, thousands or at most tens of thousands.

Sockeye salmon were the exception of 2010. Across the Pacific Coast, sockeye returned in unexpectedly high numbers. Scientists are attributing this largely to the excellent ocean conditions (lots of food) that greeted these fish when they migrated downriver as juveniles and entered the ocean in 2008. 33 million sockeye returned to the dam-less Fraser River in British Columbia just north of here. Over 2,000 Snake River sockeye returned to their high elevation spawning grounds in central Idaho this year, a significant increase from dismal returns over the last two decades.

What should we expect in 2011?

Early analyses indicate population declines compared to 2010. With only one or two exceptions, estimated returns will be one-third to one-half smaller than last year’s runs, and back near the average over the last ten years. This will mean less fishing opportunity and less fishing-related jobs in 2011. Stay tuned as these estimates are updated in the next several months. The salmon themselves should start showing up in the real world at the mouth of the Columbia River in late March or April.

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