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A fish's role in the ecology debate

The $1 billion spent on salmon recovery may only be the start. A region weighs the economic and environmental issues.

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Salmon have been the leading cultural icon in the Pacific Northwest since well before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored the territory 200 years ago. But now these oceangoing travelers are facing new challenges as steep as the Columbia River dams that precipitated their decline into near-extinction.

A recent series of legal actions and political decisions aimed at protecting fish would limit use of pesticides, curtail river dredging, reduce water available for irrigation, and change the operation of power-generating dams. All this adds up to the likelihood of economic conflict across a region the size of Western Europe.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences and another federally appointed panel of scientists have weighed in with controversial warnings. Federal judges have gotten into the act as well.

But wait. Why should one worry about any of this as long as man-made fish hatcheries can fill our backyard grills with succulent salmon by the millions?

It's not as simple as that, say experts, who liken hatcheries to zoos - hardly natural habitat. Wild salmon, they say, are smarter and heartier - better able to withstand the challenges of nature, including things no one has thought of yet. And they may well be an exceptional "keystone species" whose demise could adversely impact whole ecosystems.

It could be the most graphic illustration of the "law of unintended consequences" as the country tries to balance economic wants with environmental needs. And it's likely to mean that the $1 billion spent so far on salmon recovery may be only a down payment on one of the most expensive environmental efforts ever.

Salmon are anadromous fish, which means they are born in the gravel beds of cool streams, head downriver to the Pacific Ocean as juveniles, and return several years later to spawn (and expire) in the same place where they were born.

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