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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dam it - Columbia River salmon back in court

I recently saw a headline indicating that the issue of salmon management on the Columbia River is heading back to federal courts for the fifth time. Despite reading and re-reading several articles, I haven't been able to sort out the political mess the issue has become, but the bottom line is government isn't coming up with a satisfactory solution for the main problem facing the Columbia's salmon: hydroelectric dams. Surprisingly , the Bush administration's argument that the dams have been in place so long they're part of the base environment so the government doesn't have to worry about them isn't holding up in court. In the meantime, efforts to barge salmon smolts around the dams so they can reach the ocean are having similar ineffectiveness, as they've basically been billion dollar catastrophes that don't bring back any salmon. Regardless of how much salmon habitat you restore or how much you limit fishing (both Oregon and California will not have a commercial or recreational salmon fishing season this year), the salmon populations will not rebound unless there are clear routes between their spawning grounds and the ocean. To save the salmon, some of the dams will have to go.

When salmon are returning from the ocean, the first dam they encounter is the Bonneville Dam, shown in the above photo which I took from a train on the Washington side of the river.

What, you may ask, do Columbia River salmon have to do with San Juan Island killer whales? The answer is actually "quite a lot". Some Oregon and even California salmon spend part of their adult life in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, where the whales can encounter them during the summer and fall months. Additionally, during the winter when the orcas travel further south along the west coast, Columbia River salmon probably make up an even larger portion of their diet.

Where is all this courtroom drama going to get the salmon? Unclear, but we may be headed towards even greater theatrics as the U.S. District Judge James Redden is threatening to have the courts take control of the federal hydroelectric dam system if the government can't bring a real recovery plan to the table. There's no set standard for how this would occur or what all it would entail (likely an independent management panel), but something similar was done for spotted owl controversy (loggers vs. owls in Northwest forests) in the 1990s.


Vera said...

You are smart, you have strong opinions and you have a natural way with words. I see a future for you, where I bet you can make a difference. Get out there and help the salmon!

The K said...

During your talk in Everett I thought about the salmon issue you mentioned and how the diet differs radically between transient and resident orcas. I wondered how likely the southern residents can figure out that they need to eat something else, being as intelligent as we attribute them to be. Your post today got me looking. I guess others have asked that question, too. Specifically, John Ford noted that “Killer whales are smart animals. The question now is whether they are intelligent enough to adapt their appetites to eat something besides big salmon. Can they turn on a dime, or are they trapped in that kind of specialization? ... We’ll have to watch what happens to the whales very closely.”

Monika said...

Vera - thank you! I hope I can make a difference. Hopefully writing and photographing for this blog will open up other avenues for me in the future.

The K - another interesting anecdote about whales changing their prey type is with orcas that were taken into captivity. Back in the 1960s or 70s, a couple of transient whales were netted. At this time, the difference between marine mammal eating transients and fish eating residents wasn't known, and for a month or more the whales refused the dead fish offered to them. The story of them finally accepting fish is also documented by John Ford and others in their book entitled "Killer Whales".