The good news about salmon so far this year is that the news is mixed. Columbia spring chinook returns continue to be strong, with the count reaching above 7,700 in a single day last week.

This is very good, though still lagging behind in overall terms, with total returns of about 23,000 through April 15, compared to a 10-year average of 34,000. Still, runs have tended to be rather late recently, so there could be an amazing surge at some point, particularly if we get a decent spell of hard rain.

But overall, the picture remains troubling. The ocean salmon seasons announced last week for California and much of the Oregon Coast have been fairly termed as a "token." Fish runs tied to the Sacramento River are teetering on the edge of extinction by almost any objective measurement. The eye-catching statistic in last week's Associated Press story was a dive from 770,000 spring chinook in 2002 to less than 40,000 in 2009, with a predicted uptick to 245,000 this year.

Elsewhere, the often-overlooked smaller coastal streams are also struggling to sustain smaller and smaller salmon populations. The Quinault Indian Nation this month reported that chinook runs on the Queets and Quinault rivers are pitiful, with as few as about 100 fish returning some years.

Though it remains fashionable in some quarters to minimize the importance of global warming, the Quinaults are under no such illusion. In a striking series of photos accompanying their report in the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission's NWIFC News, the death of Anderson Glacier is vividly portrayed. Loss of cold-water flows and increased summertime sediment are hammering salmon.

All this emphasizes the continuing need for structural changes in river operations and awareness of our own peril. One day, the struggles of the salmon will be recognized for what they are, a loud claxon call that fundamental natural systems are gyrating out of alignment. We must pay attention.

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