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Mystery of the Missing Salmon


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Mystery of the Missing Salmon

By Jospeh B. Frazier

Associated Press

posted: 14 April, 2005

9:37 am ET

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Usually by now the Columbia River's spring chinook salmon are heading upstream over fish ladders in the tens of thousands to spawn. But not this year.

``It's a never-before-seen scarcity,'' said Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. ``We're way behind, even compared to the historically low years of 1994-1995.''

It's this bad: For centuries the treaty Indian tribes on the river have caught salmon for the ceremonial First Foods celebration marking the return of the fish. This year they had to get their salmon somewhere else.

Fish biologists had predicted a spring run of about 229,000 chinooks at Bonneville Dam, about 140 miles upstream from the Pacific. But as of Tuesday, near the usual midpoint of the spring run, only about 200 had been counted there.

The chinooks enter the Columbia River from the Pacific at this time of year to return to the streams where they were hatched.

Scientists say they don't have an explanation.

``Nobody knows why, certainly not any of the scientists here I've talked to,'' said Brian Gorman of the Pacific Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. ``It's a mystery. Nobody has a clear idea.''

Gorman said the run is not only late, ``it is mysteriously late.''

Some fish managers wonder whether low water levels as a result of a dry winter _ combined with murky water caused by recent rains _ are keeping chinook from swimming up the Columbia.

``Spring chinook are pretty finicky when conditions are abnormal,''

said Guy Norman, regional director for the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. ``April and early May are the most significant times for spring chinook movement over the (Bonneville) dam. We're hoping for good things to come.''

Fish swimming upstream on the Columbia are tallied at the Bonneville Dam, where they go up fish ladders, which resemble stairs, and swim past a large window.

Their numbers are a factor in setting fishing seasons for sport, tribal and commercial fishermen.

Hudson said he's optimistic ``there are fish out there gathering at the mouth of the river waiting for some biological trigger to send them up.''

The economic impact of the small chinook return is not clear.

``Historically the midpoint of the run is April 26 at Bonneville Dam,'' Hudson said. ``We will have to wait and see where we are then, when we may have a clearer picture.''

Curtis Melcher, marine salmon fisheries manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlfe, said weekly meetings are held to look at the size of the run and the size of the catch, and regulators are not yet ready to recommend trimming the season.

He said sport fishermen are catching some chinooks but not as many as usual. He said many of those caught were bound for the Willamette River and other tributaries below the dam.

Each year juvenile salmon swim downstream through an obstacle course of hydroelectric dams to the Pacific Ocean. In two or three years, through a biological instinct that is not well understood, they return upriver to the stream where they were hatched. There, they spawn and die.

Most of this year's spring run went to sea in 2002 or 2003, said Norman, adding that there were no conditions in those years that would readily explain the dearth of fish this spring.

Hudson said the fish are back in near their usual numbers in the Willamette River, which joins the Columbia well below Bonneville Dam, the first dam the returning fish encounter on their return.

``With an impact of this kind you're usually talking about hydroelectric operations as a likely cause,'' Hudson contended.

Bonneville is required to release a certain amount of water past dams to help fish if the water flow is low to keep young salmon out of hydroelectric turbines. The turbines kill about 10 percent of the fish that go through them.


MP seeks answer to missing salmon

by Eve Edmonds

It's an old fish story about the one that got away - only we're talking about two million that seem to have vanished, and Delta-Richmond East MP John Cummins wants to know why.

Cummins is calling for a judicial inquiry into the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, looking for an explanation as to why so many sockeye salmon disappeared as they made their way up the Fraser River from Mission to the spawning grounds.

"This year's escapement is the lowest on record, lower even than the escapement after the infamous rock slide at Hell's Gate blocked the Fraser Canyon in 1914," Cummins told Parliament last week.

This is the third such vanishing act the salmon have pulled in the last 12 years, Cummins added.

In 1992 and again in 1994, half a million fish went unaccounted for. At that time, DFO blamed warm water temperatures, excessive water flow coming down the river and faulty counting practices for the discrepancy. Those explanations didn't wash with the department's critics and in both cases, an independent inquiry was called. Those inquiries determined the missing fish were a result of over and illegal fishing and DFO's apparent inability to stop it.

But while the reports were damning, they lacked teeth, said Cummins.

"(The) independent inquiries rejected the government's excuses and pointed the finger directly at policy failures, inept management and lax or non-existent enforcement," he said. "(But) without the ability to subpoena witnesses and take testimony under oath, investigators were unable to identify the bureaucrats responsible."

Phil Eidsvik, executive director of the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition, is thrilled at the prospect of a judicial inquiry.

"Without a judicial inquiry, we'll never get to the truth because DFO officers know that telling the truth, without protection from the courts, is a career-ending move."

The inquiry's objective is find out what happened to the fish, but Cummins already has a hunch.

"It's illegal fishing going on between Mission and the spawning grounds. Some complain it's too much commercial fishing, but the DFO's own reports say the fish got passed Mission, but didn't show up at the spawning grounds," the Conservative MP noted.

Not only has the DFO made allowances for natives that are harmful to fish stocks, but it has also refused to even enforce the regulations it does have regarding how much natives can catch, Cummins added.

Fishing just downstream of spawning grounds is lucrative but can have devastating effects on stocks, which is why only natives are allowed to do it, and only for food, social and ceremonial purposes. This season, DFO did allow natives to sell commercially for about three weeks.

Arnie Narcisse, chair of the Aboriginal Fisheries Commission, said Cummins' attitude reflects a "blame-the-Indians" mentality that characterizes all these inquiries. He added that natives are suffering as much as anyone.

"Our people can't even fill the quota we're allowed for food, social and ceremonial purposes."

Narcisse argues the problem is not excessive or illegal native fishing, but poor management and faulty stock assessments.

"The commercial fisheries were opened early because of overly optimistic season forecasts. There was no utilization of precautionary principles. They don't practice risk-adverse management. They just saw the initial numbers and said, 'It's going to be a good year boys, let's open her up.'

"And then they realized that wasn't the case. Now they're pointing fingers again and they're pointing at the Indians, like they do every year."

Narcisse acknowledges that overfishing is having a detrimental impact on fish stocks, but said the natives aren't the only ones to blame.

"If we are going to find solution, we have to look at the entirety of the Fraser. Then we can get into an honest dialogue and get away from this finger pointing."

He's not opposed to having a judicial inquiry in principle, adding that the truth must be sought and action must be taken if the fish are to survive. However, the fact this inquiry is being called for by Cummins makes him skeptical.

"I'm suspect of (Cummins') motives. He has ulterior motives. I don't know if I want to play his game."

DFO spokesman Wayne Saito said that regardless whether a judicial review takes place, his department will conduct a comprehensive assessment of what happened to many of the fish stocks this season, not just the sockeye.

"We aren't denying there is a problem. We had way fewer fish showing up at the spawning grounds than we had forecast. And we're not denying that there is an illegal fishery on the Fraser. But it's too early to know exactly how big an impact that had."

There are a number of factors that come into play, he added.

"It may be unseasonable warm temperature, it may be our initial stock count, it may be illegal fishing."

Saito said he hopes the department will have a report answering some of these questions to present to the public sometime in January.

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