Larger Returns Don’t Equal Salmon Recovery

August 7, 2002

Here we go again.

A second year of big returns of hatchery chinook returning to the Columbia River – coupled with more good returns of coho to Puget Sound – and some folks already are talking loudly again about easing salmon habitat protection measures.

Unfortunately, what these returns really amount to are two small spikes on the overall downward trend of the salmon resource. Two years of good returns do not amount to salmon recovery. In fact, these larger returns actually may cause more harm than good.

They encourage shortsighted thinking and even a little amnesia. They cause people to think that these larger returns mean that our salmon recovery efforts are beginning to pay off. They cause folks to forget that the bulk of these fish are from hatcheries, and that many of our wild chinook stocks continue to struggle to rebuild their populations.

These past two years of good returns are mostly the result of favorable ocean conditions, and little else.

El Nino, that weather phenomenon that occurs every four or five years and lasts for about 18 months each time, was absent when the past two years’ worth of returns went out to sea as youngsters. El Nino brings higher ocean temperatures that cap the colder, nutrient-rich waters off our coast, resulting in less food for growing salmon. On top of that, the warm water brings larger numbers of salmon-eating predators – such as mackeral – closer to shore where they greet young salmon just beginning their ocean migration.

These larger returns certainly haven’t been the result of vast improvements to salmon spawning and rearing habitat in our watersheds. Lost and degraded freshwater salmon habitat continue to be the main cause for the decline of wild salmon stocks. And until we address those issues in a truly meaningful manner, everything else we do will have little effect.

Take harvest reductions, for example. Treaty tribes in western Washington have voluntarily cut their harvests dramatically over the past 20 years in response to declining wild salmon populations. Some fisheries have been reduced by as much as 90 percent. Some fisheries have been eliminated completely, yet we have not seen those stocks rebound. Clearly, harvest reductions alone will not achieve salmon recovery.

Hatchery Reform is another example.

With the listing of two Puget Sound salmon stocks under the Endangered Species Act, tribal and state managers have put a new focus on evaluating the role of hatcheries in wild stock rebuilding efforts. For the past three years treaty tribes have been implementing the Hatchery Reform process. Hatchery Reform is a systematic, science-driven effort to address how hatcheries can help recover and conserve naturally spawning salmon populations and support sustainable fisheries.

Nineteen tribal Hatchery Reform projects were funded this year, varying from a coho smolt radio-tagging program to facility and hatchery water quality upgrades. Each tribal and state hatchery has completed a Hatchery Genetic Management Plan as well, which guide how salmon stocks and hatcheries will be managed to protect wild salmon runs. New hatchery management software also has been developed to enable electronic transfer of key hatchery information directly to tribal, state and federal agencies. Tribes also are identifying and implementing changes to salmon rearing and release strategies to reduce impacts to wild salmon.

Harvest reductions and Hatchery Reform are important parts of our wild salmon recovery effort. But we have little chance for success unless we address salmon habitat needs with the same conviction that we have used in addressing impacts of harvest and hatcheries.

Everyone likes to see more salmon returning. Tribes have adopted a conservative package of fisheries for 2002 that will allow for rebuilding of declining wild stocks, especially Puget Sound chinook, while allowing sustainable harvest of healthy stocks. Time, location and gear restrictions enable tribal fishermen to be highly selective in their harvest. These measures ensure that stronger runs of hatchery fish, for example, can be harvested with minimal impacts to weak wild stocks.

These past two years of larger returns don’t mean that we can sit back and rest, though. We still have a long ways to go. Two things are certain. A salmon’s life cycle begins and ends in freshwater habitat. That’s where salmon recovery begins and ends, too.

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer (360) 438-1180