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Editorial: Restoration pays off in record salmon returns

Published on September 15, 2014 12:01AM

Maintaining focus is key to continued success

Back in 1775 when Spaniard Bruno de Heceta sighted the Columbia River from aboard the Santiago, the Native Fish Society figures annual salmon runs were between 11 million and 16 million fish — working out to an average of something between 30,000 and 44,000 every single day of the year.

We are getting a taste of what that was like. Remarkably for the modern era, on the five days between last Sunday and Thursday, these were the daily averages to pass Bonneville Dam: more than 47,000 adult fall chinook; more than 5,000 chinook jacks; more than 9,500 coho; more than 6,000 steelhead. The actual one-day count for chinook Sept. 8 was almost 74,000 adults and jacks.

Returns trailed off toward the end of the week, but still reached daily totals that would be newsworthy in a less-abundant year. As of Thursday, total returns of all species to Bonneville and Willamette Falls approached 800,000. There is still a long way to go before reaching the season forecasts of 1.5 million chinook and 638,000 coho, but it is starting to seem possible. Fall rains, when they arrive, will certainly send new pulses of salmon swimming toward hatcheries and spawning grounds.

Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were justifiably proud last week to tout the hard work and results that have resulted from intense and expensive efforts to make the Columbia hydropower/navigation system more conducive to salmon survival. Together with the tribes, local watershed councils, federal/state fisheries managers and tax/ratepayers, the dam operators have made some genuine progress.

At the same time, it must be noted that little of this would have been achieved without the strong pressure provided by the Endangered Species Act and the determined legal wits of federal Judge James Redden. And though the term “environmental group” is seldom one that engenders warm feelings in the rural Pacific Northwest, the advocacy and legal muscle provided by groups such as Earthjustice have been key in maintaining agency focus on salmon survival.

The conditions salmon encounter during their years in the open ocean remain a matter of paramount importance, something about which humans are lacking in both information and much ability to influence. Other factors, such as declining mountain snowpacks, will also impact future salmon returns. These and other uncertainties demand that we continue to focus on improving fish passage, water temperatures, habitat, hatchery practices and the entire suite of activities that created the conditions that led to this year’s record runs.

There are those who will suggest it is time to declare victory on Columbia salmon recovery. But one great day, one good week, one decent year do not a victory make. We must maintain our focus so that years like this one are the rule, not the exception.


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