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Environmentalists Still Swimming Upstream in Effort to Save Salmon

IN an effort to aid the recovery of Northwest salmon populations, the salmon-fishing industry will be quiet this year along the Oregon and Washington coasts.

On Friday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, made up of state, tribal, and industry fishing officials, set the limit at zero for the ocean catch of the prized coho and chinook varieties of salmon north of Cape Falcon, Ore. Tribes will be allowed a reduced catch of 16,400 chinook. Moderate fishing will be allowed off the California coast. Sport fishing season in inland waters of the Puget Sound will have strict time and location guidelines and often a one-fish limit.

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Yet many experts say these moves, while sure to help prospects for the endangered salmon species, will not solve the problem. As the council met near San Francisco, fish advocates had their eyes on another meeting.

Overly modest steps

In Portland, Ore., Judge Malcolm Marsh of the United States District Court told the federal agencies controlling Columbia River dams to reevaluate their salmon-recovery policies under the Endangered Species Act. Late last month, in a lawsuit brought by Oregon and Idaho, Judge Marsh ruled that the federal agencies had acted ``arbitrarily and capriciously'' in approving overly modest steps to aid salmon.

The decline of the billion-dollar fishery ``shows how badly we've done on managing the habitat and running the dams,'' says Michael Rossotto, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon in Seattle. Environmentalists say since salmon populations have been declining during 15 years of barging young fish around eight dams to help them seaward, new measures are needed.

But Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, says the salmon decline is not necessarily linked to the barging policy and that the proposed new measures will hurt the region's economy. The alliance represents economic interests such as farmers, industrial power consumers, and barges that use the Columbia and Snake rivers to transport $10 billion worth of grain and other goods annually.

Impact of El Nino

One factor both sides agree on is that the ocean ecosystem has been severely affected by an ocean-warming weather pattern, known as El Nino. Salmon populations bounced back after El Ninos in 1982 and 1968, notes Doug Fricke, who ordinarily would troll for coho and chinook. ``[I've] got my finger's crossed,'' the fisherman says.

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But Robert Francis, a University of Washington scientist who studies the issue, says El Nino should not distract people from taking steps to reduce human-induced salmon deaths. Environmentalists assert that in the Columbia River basin, 90 percent of salmon deaths are caused by hydroelectric dams.

Mr. Lovelin says this number is too high since it is based on data from 1973, when few fish were barged and dams did not have screens to keep fish out of turbines. Almost all turbines are screened today.

Environmental groups propose measures that would make the dammed river act more like a natural river to flush juvenile fish out to sea: The amount of water spilled over the dams during migration will likely rise this year, even though this reduces irrigation-water storage.

Fish advocates are also boosting a plan to lower the water levels behind dams during key months each year. This measure is known as ``drawdowns.'' The Army Corps of Engineers has pegged the cost at $4.9 billion.

Lovelin says this cost does not include replacement of lost hydropower and that the dam modifications would take about 15 years. Moreover, the low water levels would prevent Snake River barges from operating. Finally, there is no guarantee that the new effort would help the salmon. ``That's a guess,'' he says. Mr. Fricke counters that barging has failed and that the drawdown approach ``looks like it's the only potential way that works.''

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