The mystery of the disappearing salmon


More than half of the Chinook salmon expected during the springtime run on
the Columbia River have gone missing this year. This year's salmon season
was expected to mark about 225,000 fish swimming past the Bonneville Dam,
about 140 miles inland from the Pacific coast. Less than 10 percent of that
estimate have been counted so far and, expectedly, the full run could come
in as low as 70,000 fish.

While the tribes looked forward to a seasonal allotment of 25,000 fish for
ceremonies this year, so far tribal fishermen have brought in fewer than
5,000 fish, according to statistics released by the Columbia River
Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Perhaps for the first time in history, the
fish Native communities require for their springtime ceremonies had to be
gathered from last year's frozen catch or from other tribes and friendly
fishermen downstream.

An important component of the Indian diet in this region, the loss of the
Chinook salmon run this year will seriously impact nutritional health in
traditional Native communities.

The tourism industry in general, and the Indian and non-Indian commercial
fishery in particular, are also both seriously affected. In fact, it is
likely little or no commercial catch will be possible on the Columbia this
year. The valuable Chinook salmon ($5 - $6 per pound) are the principal
harvest for commercial fishermen on the West Coast. Federal fisheries
administrators have now prohibited commercial and sport fishing above the
Bonneville Dam, signaling a loss to commercial fishermen of one-quarter to
one-third of their profits for the entire year.

While some people are optimistic that the salmon run may yet come in and
speculate that the salmon are massing out to sea, perhaps waiting for some
biological trigger that has yet to go off, most scientists are not
expecting miracles. Most scientists, in fact, don't know what to expect

The biggest quandary is how to figure out what is going on, as human
assaults on nature, both globally and regionally, compound and threaten
fragile ecosystems. Suggestions of cause are widely cast and include all
manner of possibilities. There is the likelihood of over-fishing, both by
humans and by the hundreds of sea lions that have figured out the ladder
system set up so the salmon can climb past river dams. But this could not
account for the catastrophic loss reported this year.

Then there is the ongoing drought, which drops water levels and discourages
the fish from swimming inland. For many observers, the most likely culprit
would be the Bonneville Dam's turbines, which kill some 10 percent of the
running fish each year. When water is low, however, that percentage can go
much higher. Apparently, the salmon have returned at around regular numbers
in the river and streams below the first dam encountered at Bonneville.

Warming ocean temperatures are also suggested as a possible cause. The
springtime run of smelt up the same river was also exceedingly small this
year, suggesting that perhaps a change in the ocean has reduced both fish
populations. The low return levels of this year are unprecedented.

The federal salmon plan, such as it is, might be the clearest culprit. It
has been denounced by the tribes as being political rather than scientific
for its failure to vigorously address fish recovery and for giving undue
preference to the Columbia River power system over the needs of the

Departing radically from 13 years of research conclusions, the plan by the
National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) plan, titled
the 2004 Biological Opinion, has fundamental flaws, according to tribal
leaders: particularly the abandonment of recovery as a goal, and a
declaration of the hydropower system as an unchangeable part of the
Columbia Basin's natural landscape. The federal plan effectively kills the
possibility that man-made dams could be breached and the river allowed its
more natural flow.

Three Columbia River tribes have filed court briefs on behalf of a
coalition of conservationists, businesses and sport and commercial
fisheries that has brought suit against the federal agencies. They urge the
federal managers, in the words of Robert Lothrop, director of policy
development and litigation support at Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish
Commission (CRITFC), "to let enough flow through the system for the young
salmon to find their way through the pools behind the dams."

As Indian Country Today correspondent Jean Johnson reported recently: "the
Northwest experienced a drought in 2001, the second-worst low water year on
record. The Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers
relied heavily on barging salmon that year. Since then, the 2001 juvenile
fish that out-migrated on their three- to six-year ocean cycle have
returned in significantly fewer numbers than salmon from other years, when
sufficient flow and spill allowed them to remain in the river. With drought
looming, the tribes in company with the coalition are trying to head off a
replay of that disaster."

We stand with the tribes and their allies in their clear attitude, as
expressed by CRITFC Executive Director Olney Patt Jr.: "We oppose any
action that adversely impacts the salmon." Without over-simplifying an
issue as complicated as the cycles of migration of fish and animals in
their natural state, we cannot help wondering at what disastrous point the
need for a cohesive and positive approach to human relations with nature
will become obvious to American business and the federal agencies they
increasingly control.