TRYING to improve the lot of Pacific Northwest salmon is turning out to make the spotted owl controversy look like child's play. The salmon depletion is more complicated scientifically, it affects more individuals and economic interests, and it involves legal questions dating back 140 years.
The National Marine Fisheries Service on March 20 proposed its plan to protect and restore endangered stocks of wild salmon that migrate up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to lakes and streams in Idaho.
Under the watchful eye of federal courts, the agency has been working on blueprints for recovery since the first salmon species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.
The 500-page recovery plan includes several elements: buying up boats and permits from fishermen; rearing wild salmon in captivity to preserve gene pools; and changing hydropower dam operations to protect migrating fish.
Not surprisingly, the federal plan came under immediate criticism from all quarters.
To 'flush' or barge?
Conservationists and professional fishing interests say the only solution to salmon scarcity is to increase water flow by drawing down reservoirs, thereby ''flushing'' young salmon past dams when they are en route to the Pacific Ocean. Salmon spend several years at sea before returning to their birthplace to spawn.
''The [federal] plan depends on a government program that hasn't been effective since its inception 20 years ago,'' says Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. ''It takes salmon out of the water, puts them on barges and trucks, and hauls them to the ocean.''
Industry representatives, on the other hand, question the cost and scientific soundness of the federal salmon-recovery plan.
''We remain skeptical of further tampering with the operation of dams,'' said Bruce Lovelin executive director of the Columbia River Alliance.
The alliance last month issued its own recovery plan, which emphasizes the barging of young salmon past the dams while rejecting reservoir drawdowns.