Hatchery salmon are doing OK, but we're a long way from healthy salmon runs

Lots of salmon are being hooked this summer, but does that mean salmon runs are restored and we can declare victory, as the Bush administration suggests?

This administration loves simple black-and-white statements, but salmon recovery is a topic that doesn't lend itself to easy answers.

Some kinds of hatchery salmon are doing fairly well, it's true. Though still at best only a small fraction of the salmon that once ran in Northwest rivers, today's hatchery fish are adequate for the carefully regulated sport and commercial seasons of the past few years.

But the fact hatchery salmon are returning indicates nothing whatsoever about how well wild stocks are doing. It's like comparing baa-baa fuzzy sheep at the county fair to bighorn mountain sheep leaping wild amongst the stony crags - millions of the man-raised variety could never begin to compensate for extinction of their wild cousins.

And even to the extent hatchery salmon are prospering, it is because North Pacific ocean conditions have so dramatically improved. For reasons not fully understood, there has been a surge in the quantity of bait fish, allowing those salmon who make it through the dam system to rapidly gain weight once they reach salt water.

This year's three-year-old salmon run began life before the last presidential election, so its success or other characteristics owes nothing to Bush decisions, good or ill. Next year's run will be the first on which this administration's management will have any bearing.

Next year's 2001 salmon brood will be the survivors of a drought year, a year during which the administration implemented less than 25 percent and secured funding for less than 45 percent of the measures called for in the Federal Salmon Plan for Columbia and Snake River salmon.

Also in 2001, the federal Bonneville Power Administration ceased salmon protections at federal dams, leading to the lowest in-stream salmon survival in the Columbia system since salmon were first listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Despite these abuses, it's conceivable salmon returns will be adequate next year as well. Prime ocean conditions can compensate for many misdeeds, but can also change back to poor or mediocre without notice.

In fact, the only way to ensure lasting salmon recovery is to obey nature's laws and those enacted by Congress, as interpretted by courts. This means restoring the broken chain of habitat between the ocean and vital spawning beds. This means meeting the court-imposed June 2004 deadline for a new federal Biological Opinion, which is in effect the rulebook for recovery efforts. And this means making decisions based on objective, non-politicized scientific facts. Nothing should be off the table, including bypassing Snake River dams.

Salmon need an unbroken chain of habitat, not politics.

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