LONG BEACH - For the past three years, some Pacific Coast salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act have been returning in record numbers. Such abundance has led to calls to remove their Endangered Species Act protections.

Are salmon on the comeback trail, or will a few years of favorable ocean conditions lead us to repeat past mistakes?

Prompted by a ten-fold increase in Oregon coastal coho returns in the past five years, the Bush administration recently designated $250,000 to study whether the species has revived. NOAA Fisheries will complete the scientific review.

If the study shows that coastal coho are sufficiently healthy, that stock of salmon may lose endangered species protection. Oregon and NOAA Fisheries would share management of the fish.

The salmon return numbers are good for several reasons, including changes in how salmon are managed, said Rob Jones, NOAA branch chief of hatcheries and inland fisheries.

"We've had very good environmental conditions that have helped immensely," he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the process of analyzing the extent of salmon recovery in Washington, Oregon and California and aims to release the findings by the end of the year, according to Patty Dornbusch, NOAA salmon recovery coordinator for the Willamette and lower Columbia basins.

The federal government has designated 26 genetically distinct populations (called evolutionarily significant units) of salmon and ocean-run trout as endangered or threatened on the Pacific Coast.

In tandem with the NOAA analysis, technical recovery teams - made up of biologists, state and federal agency representatives, professors and private consultants - will recommend delisting targets. To determine targets, these teams will consider the health of salmon habitat, the diversity of the gene pool, and trends in abundance, Dornbusch said.

Salmon returns improve on Columbia

According to data provided by Wolf Dammers, a district fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Vancouver, salmon returns on the Columbia River have grown significantly in recent years.

Spring Chinook returns, for example, numbered 91,400 in 1998. In 2000, returns jumped to 250,800, and increased again to 433,200 in 2002.

Fall Chinook returns increased from 255,800 in 1988 to 733,100 in 2002, according to the WDFW data. In 1998, coho returns numbered 168,900, growing to 509,900 last year.

However, these numbers do not differentiate between hatchery and wild salmon.

With the recent growth of salmon returns, is it possible the federal government will investigate the delisting of any of Washington's protected salmon species? Salmon watchers in the Northwest urge caution in praising the coastal coho's return.

"This is the normal cycle of abundance. Historically, the cycle goes up and down," says Robert Warren, executive director at Sea Resources Watershed Learning Center in Chinook. "It's not time to celebrate yet."

As goes the ocean, so go the salmon

As ocean conditions fluctuate, so do Pacific salmon returns, said Nate Mantua, a research scientist at the University of Washington's atmospheric science and marine affairs departments.

"In the last few years, we have seen cooler-than-average ocean temperatures in the Pacific," Mantua said. "Most stocks in our area increased in productivity."

In cooler ocean years, the salmon's food sources - including krill, small shrimp-like animals - thrive in the Pacific from British Columbia to Northern California.

During the string of El Nino years in the early 1990s, ocean conditions were warm and salmon's food web was not nearly so abundant, Mantua said.

"Some of the stocks plummeted in the early 1990s after poor productivity in the '80s," he said.

David Bayles, executive director of the Pacific Rivers Council, says it's premature to talk about removing federal protection for salmon.

"I think the key to understanding this whole thing is that salmon restoration is a very long-term process," Bayles said. "Year-to-year numbers do not tell the tale. We have lots of hatchery fish because ocean conditions have been favorable. The idea that we should suspend protection is preposterous."

The salmon return numbers are misleading because they don't account for the difference between hatchery and wild salmon, said Glen Spain, the Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Only about 2 percent of the historical levels of wild salmon are left, Spain said. Even if the number of wild salmon increase by 100 percent, "you're still dealing with two cents to four cents on the dollar," he said.

Hatchery salmon raised for humans

Salmon are raised in hatcheries to meet the public's demand for fish, Warren said.

"People have come to rely on hatchery fish," he said. "They think that some amount of degradation [in wild salmon] is OK because hatchery fish are always available."

Sea Resources is working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to restore stocks of chum in the Chinook River.

Yet, Sea Resources doesn't operate like a large-scale hatchery, Warren said.

"We don't have a public demand out there. We have a specific goal of restoration, not of production," he said. "You want to get out of [hatchery production] as soon as you can so you don't domesticate the stock - and do restoration work at the same time."

An average of 150 million hatchery fish are released into the Columbia River each year, said Jones, of NOAA. "We have 190 hatcheries in the Columbia River basin," he said. "There aren't a lot of places where you can't find hatcheries."

Fishery managers have worked with hatcheries since the late 1800s. The oldest hatchery in Washington is Sea Resources in Chinook, which began operating in 1893. Washington state has the largest hatchery system in the world.

NOAA is now conducting salmon recovery experiments at 70 of the Columbia River hatcheries, according to Jones. These experiments are part of a process to rewrite the rules for how hatcheries are managed in the hopes of reducing impacts to wild salmon.

"Hatcheries are not a substitute for our streams producing fish," Jones said.

Hatchery fish can be detrimental to wild fish, said fisheries biologist Jim Lichatowich, author of the 1999 book "Salmon Without Rivers," which describes the history of the Pacific salmon crisis.

"In the course of trying to harvest hatchery fish, you can easily overharvest wild fish," Lichatowich said. "If the hatchery isn't being careful in brood selection, the fish can be genetically unfit for their natural environment."

Also, the release of too many hatchery fish can lead to food competition with wild salmon.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, more hatchery fish began to survive due to better disease treatment, better feed, and good ocean conditions, according to Lichatowich.

"People thought we had the problem solved" and could maintain salmon levels through hatchery technology, he said.

The increase in salmon led to overharvesting of both hatchery and wild stocks. Then, when ocean conditions warmed, "the whole thing collapsed," Lichatowich said.

"Hatcheries were supposed to keep salmon up to historic levels," Lichatowich said. "I believe we made a big mistake in focusing on hatcheries in lieu of protecting habitat."

After NOAA Fisheries completes its investigation of Oregon coastal coho's comeback, Lichatowich hopes that the agency submits the study to a panel of independent scientists for peer review.

"There's a lot at stake, and we don't want to repeat the problems of the 1960s that led to the [collapse of the] 1990s," he said.

For now, ocean conditions will favor salmon, Mantua said, but it's not possible to predict conditions more than a year away.

"Chances are really good that oceans will be cool next spring," Mantua said, providing good conditions for juvenile salmon. But, he said, oceans can only do so much toward salmon recovery.

"We can't pin it all on the ocean. It's a very important part of the story, but we need good habitat as well," Mantua said. "These kind of natural climate changes have always happened. An effective recovery plan has to be resilient in the face of environmental changes that the stocks have to deal with."

The secret to restoring salmon, Lichatowich said, is figuring out how to integrate natural and artificial production.

"It's a sad commentary that we haven't figured that out after 125 years of using hatcheries," he said.

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