Something's going right; Columbia salmon are back

July 16, 2010 

It was never certain the plan to save Columbia River salmon and steelhead would work, so news that recent fish runs have far exceeded expectations comes as a huge relief.

It means the current plan for fish recovery is working and must have been the right choice.

From the start, some environmentalists have insisted breaching dams on the lower Snake River is the only way to save the endangered fish.

This drastic measure ended up as an option of last resort in the federal salmon recovery plan, even though many scientists were skeptical dam breaching would help.

Some experts wonder if such a move might even make things worse, since it's not clear what happens to the fish if one of these dams were breached and tons of sediment and contaminants were flushed downriver.

To the dismay of some environmental activists, less severe measures were tried first, and it appears these methods have been more successful than biologists could have imagined.

On July 6, the overall chinook run past Bonneville was 326,176, compared with the 10-year average of 232,284.

The sockeye run was even more astonishing, setting a record. The 10-year average was 87,675. The latest reported run was a whopping 353,044 fish. That compares with a previous high mark of 237,748 set in 1955. This is especially impressive considering the count has been recorded at Bonneville since 1938.

Steelhead are just starting to enter the Columbia River, but the count at Bonneville was 50,711 hatchery-raised and 22,497 wild steelhead. The average from 2000-09 is 26,675 hatchery and 9,188 wild steelhead.

Such enormous gains in these fish runs are stunning. Some species were on the edge of extinction, and now their numbers are climbing. This doesn't appear to be some weird blip, either. Biologists with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle say predictors show promising fish runs next year and beyond.

Idaho and federal agencies are raising and releasing 140,000 sockeye smolts annually and even more are expected to be raised under a portion of a three-year $325 million federal BiOp plan designed to restore fish runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Dams have been modified and spillways have been improved for the fish. The habitat where fish spawn has been restored and protected. Methods to control predators also have been put into place. All these measures added together have made the difference.

In addition to the manmade changes, biologists believe favorable ocean conditions over the past few years have played an important role in the increased returns.

We hope those conditions continue to be helpful.

In any event, the huge increase in the number of fish returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers is amazing, and those involved in the fish recovery project have done an outstanding job.

Saving a species from extinction and helping it thrive is no small thing.

It's great to have the fish back.

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