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Editorial: Salmon return amid changing water conditions

Published on September 8, 2016 12:01AM

Temps, birds and sea lions continue to pose obstacles

Late summer’s influx of returning salmon has finally started in earnest thanks to recent rainfall, a natural phenomenon that coincides this year with much interesting fisheries news of a legal and regulatory nature.

For the many around the Columbia estuary who pay attention to such matters, this week’s good rain was cause for thanksgiving, as the pulse of fresh water signaled to salmon that the time has come to rush toward spawning beds and hatcheries. Tuesday’s count of fall Chinook passing Bonneville Dam reached 32,446, nearly three times as many as the day before.

Coho, too, noticed the switch to more autumn-like conditions. This Tuesday, 3,120 adults passed Bonneville, up from 368 just a week before. The total for the year through Tuesday was 10,876, a few more than last year on the same date, but far below the 10-year average of 26,907.

Clearly, salmon are an exquisitely fine-tuned gauge of conditions in the river and ocean — moving, reproducing and dying in a carefully choreographed dance with the seasons.

Water temperatures

As the planet marches toward another record-setting year for heat, warming temperatures in the Columbia River watershed are ratcheting upward in terms of public concern and agency attention. Dealing with the issue will become an extremely active new front in the battle over competing uses for the Columbia/Snake system.

The always informative Columbia Basin Bulletin reported this week that five conservation groups are edging toward a lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency over the EPA’s lack of action. Last year, water temps were sometimes far more above the 68 degree F danger zone for salmon, hot enough to decimate an endangered run of Snake River sockeye salmon. Only 1 percent of the run survived as far as their spawning grounds.

Though litigation is undesirable way of achieving environmental ends, in this instance the EPA stalled out on finalizing temperature pollution rules it was on the verge of implementing in 2003. At times, only a federal court order provides EPA with the backbone to overcome counter-veiling political pressures.

“We need a comprehensive plan to deal with dams’ impacts on water temperature, or we may be telling our kids stories about salmon instead of teaching them to fish,” an attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper said.

Habitat alternative

In the competition between economic interests and salmon-recovery goals on the Columbia, most residents would agree it’s best when everyone comes away a winner. NOAA Fisheries is helping achieve this by experimenting with a new variety of mitigation bank in the Kelso area.

Long familiar as a tool to make up for filling wetlands, this first-in-the-region habitat bank allows private developers to buy credits that private sponsor Habitat Bank LLC will turn into funds to pay for a restoration project on the Coweeman River, Columbia Basin Bulletin reports.

This complex multi-agency deal is an admirable way to rebuild a nice, solid piece of habitat of sufficient size to make a noticeable difference. While developers still have to minimize construction impacts, in some cases these habitat-bank credits will allow development that would otherwise have been unable to overcome habitat-loss objections.

Fish birds, sea lions

Also noteworthy is news that a federal judge will allow continuation of efforts to bring double-crested cormorant numbers into closer alignment with the Columbia River’s carrying capacity. In addition, problem individuals of another salmon-eating species, California sea lions, can continue to be killed for another five years by the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, according to a new decision by NOAA Fisheries.

Both decisions will dismay those who wish wildlife could live in perfect harmony in the modern world without human intervention. But most local residents consider predator control to be a responsible and pragmatic way of keeping the environmental scales in balance, while safeguarding salmon runs that are nurtured at great expense.

Those tough chum

Finally, it is worth briefly noting the inherent durability of our region’s least appreciated salmon, the chum. Washington State University research recently found young chum were completely unaffected by a toxic stew of urban runoff that quickly kills coho.

With white flesh that was unappealing to our ancestors who liked their salmon the redder the better, chum were deliberately driven toward extinction in Willapa Bay, but continue to endure both there and in the Columbia estuary. Their presence is good for the environment — and they’re good to eat, particularly smoked.

We should appreciate them more.


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