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Washington's salmon plan is first to state minimums to restore runs

Specifics on the number of fish needed for viable stocks in the lower Columbia Basin aim to guide federal decisions on delisting
Thursday, December 16, 2004

For the first time, a Pacific Northwest state has specified how many salmon will be needed in streams and rivers to get the fish off the Endangered Species List: an average of 10 times as many chinook salmon in key spawning areas in the lower Columbia River.

That and other detailed goals for lower Columbia salmon runs were spelled out Wednesday in the first of many long-awaited recovery plans for the 19 salmon populations listed as threatened or endangered across the Northwest since 1991.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke presented the plan to federal fisheries officials, who will use it as a foundation for deciding the criteria for ending federal protection of salmon under the Endangered Species Act. In the Columbia River Basin alone, the costs of protecting salmon have surpassed $700 million a year.

The numbers show a wide gulf between existing degraded conditions and the ultimate goal, which could take many years to reach: rivers churning with enough coho, chinook and steelhead not to only avoid extinction, but also be capable of supporting viable fisheries for Native American tribes, commercial fleets and sport anglers.

To get there will require great leaps in productivity -- the ability of one generation's spawn to return in larger numbers. Gains as high as 200 percent are called for in the case of one fall chinook group and 1,000 percent for one critical group of chum salmon. The plan's authors divided salmon into small subpopulations, sorted by the streams and creeks where adults return to spawn. They then assigned recovery goals for each of the subpopulations based on significance for the viability of the overall population of the lower Columbia.

"Implementation of this plan will be no easy business," said Bill Dygert, acting chairman of the Lower Columbia River Fish Recovery Board. The board coordinated the recovery plan with local, state and tribal governments, local landowners and advocacy groups.

Challenges to overcome

Among the challenges will be balancing the economic burden imposed on the people and industries that must change their ways: developers, dam operators, agricultural water users and fishing fleets.

Washington's group made value judgments that may not please everyone. For instance, it declared that not every historical population needs to be restored. Rather, the group called for focusing efforts on core groups that are highly productive, that carry genetic diversity, or that are widely dispersed to serve as insurance against catastrophes, natural or human-caused.

For the most significant, or primary subpopulations, the bar is set high. Contributing populations have been assigned medium increases. But in some heavily degraded streams with fish populations deemed less important, the goal is merely to maintain existing run sizes.

Larry Cassidy, Locke's Cabinet appointee to the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board and Washington representative to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said it's a practical necessity "to look at where you are going to get the best bang for your dollar."

Concerns arise

While praising the plan, some advocates for salmon expressed concern about the commitment to carry it out.

"This recovery plan is only is good as we make it," said John Barnett, chairman of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. He said, for instance, state lawmakers will have to authorize money to make it work.

Cassidy said that as the first plan out of the shoot, the lower Columbia blueprint will set a strong precedent for the rest of Washington and Oregon.

"We're pushing hard," he said. "It's time to get it done."

Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said his agency will use the work done in Washington as the basis for setting delisting criteria, which are due to be published next spring. But Lohn said that for delisting purposes, the necessary population sizes and productivity levels are likely to be lower than the Washington plan calls for.

"They've set a higher standard, and we are supportive of that," Lohn said. But he added, "Our job is to tell them what the minimum is."

Because not all habitat restoration and other work will succeed, the lower Columbia planners said the goal must go beyond the mere minimum number of salmon runs and run sizes thought necessary to avoid extinction.

Joe Rojas-Burke: 503-412-7073; joerojas@news.oregonian.com

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