Judge's decision means a genuine study of Snake dams' impact on salmonAdvantageous ocean water temperatures and abundant quantities of bait fish have brought a small renaissance in hatchery salmon in the Columbia.
This has been most pleasing to summer and fall recreational fishermen and the river's charter boat operators. But look a little closer, talk to anyone on the commercial end of things, and a far meaner situation is revealed. The salmon crisis of the 1990s is far from over.
It's been a strange spring, salmon-wise. A big early return of three-year-old upriver Chinook actually wreaked havoc with gillnet seasons. Non-tribal fishermen were only allowed a 2 percent impact on the wild upriver run this year. Since many wild fish were mingled with marked hatchery salmon, many thousands of large hatchery fish had to be allowed to pass unimpeded.
The upriver Columbia spring run is currently forecast to total 193,000, compared to a pre-season prediction of 145,000, something like three times the 10-year average.
The Willamette spring run has been late, but also strong with a predicted total return of 110,000.
Predicted coho returns also are relatively lavish, with Columbia River and Oregon coastal runs predicted near or above a million fish for the fourth year in a row.
Considering all this good news, it must have seemed strange to casual observers when U.S. federal Judge James Redden last week ruled federal fisheries managers aren't doing enough to help endangered salmon runs recover.
Redden ruled NOAA Fisheries' salmon recovery plan is flawed because it rejected any possibility of breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington. Unless there is a successful appeal, fisheries managers will have to go back and do the serious analysis they skated by the first time in what was widely seen as a retreat in the face of intense opposition by Northwest politicians and upriver business interests.
This year's returns and those in 2001 are a testimonial to the Northwest's elaborate and artificial system of hatcheries, that obviously can be quite effective in producing fish when ocean conditions are favorable. Expensive barging of salmon smolts, water spills from dams to enhance in-stream flows, and other labor-intensive steps also may play some role.
Such things are, however, no substitute for a river system that functions as it should. For salmon to thrive in any self-perpetuating manner, the Columbia-Willamette-Snake system needs serious renovation and restoration.
The decisions in the 1960s and '70s that allowed construction of the Snake River dams would almost certainly never pass legal muster today. The dams were controversial at the time, but slid into existence thanks to plenty of political grease of the same slimy consistency that fended off breaching studies these past couple of years.
When all is said and done, dam breaching may still be more than our nation and region is willing to do to restore salmon. But Redden's decision will mean appropriate objective studies, allowing an informed decision after taking our international and tribal obligations into account.