"The 2005 season ended in disaster. Poor returns caused early closures and with those closures came cancelled plane tickets, shortened visitor days in rural communities and recreational opportunities that will never be returned," said Bob Rees, president of the NW Guides and Anglers Association and a full time professional fishing guide. "With poor projections for the 2006 season on the heels of a disastrous 2005 season, it will be next to impossible to entice anglers into pursuing the magnificent salmon on the Columbia."
For the third time in the last decade, the court found the federal salmon plan illegal and unlikely to recover salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The most recent plan, which was issued in 2004, failed to identify salmon recovery as a goal while considering dams as an immutable part of the natural environment. The government's continued failure to provide a scientifically credible and legal plan for the region has forced fishing businesses, conservation groups, and tribal representatives to step in. According to fishing businesses and conservation groups, the federal agencies should develop a long-term plan that will work to help salmon, people and the communities of the northwest.
In the meantime, salmon returns continue to plummet and fishing business are asking the courts for immediate relief to help the 2006 migration of young salmon to the ocean. Since 2001, returning salmon numbers have dropped dramatically; some runs have dropped by more than 50 percent. The 2005 wild Snake River spring chinook return was nearly 76 percent below 2001's level.
"We need real relief for salmon now," said Joel Kawahara, commercial fisherman and member of the Washington Trollers Association. "That means more water being spilled over the dams and more water in the river so it can act more like a natural river. We need a plan that brings us sustainable, harvestable levels of salmon and that cannot wait during a year of the federal agencies bickering."
The groups asked the court to order increased flow and spill at Columbia and Snake river dams during the key spring and summer salmon migrations. This plan is very similar to what was asked for last year during the summer migration that resulted in a survival increase of 64 percent for young salmon migrating in-river on their way to the ocean according to an independent scientific study. Spill is widely considered the safest way to move young migrating salmon past dams.
"By increasing the number of baby salmon that survive the hydrosystem in 2006, we will be increasing the number of adults that return in 2008 and 2009," said Bruce Buckmaster, board member Salmon for All. "More adult fish returning means more money to the Pacific Northwest and a healthier economic future for all of us."
In early October, the court gave the federal government one year to rewrite the Federal Salmon Plan, which was ruled illegal in May of this year. The court stated that the federal agencies, working with the states and tribes, must consider all options to achieve the necessary recovery of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers. While the federal agencies, states, and tribes begin crafting a viable plan for salmon recovery, it is of the utmost necessity to take steps to halt the further decline of these fish, and take steps to put salmon and steelhead on the path to recovery.
"Relatively good returns of adult salmon in 2001 provided a glimpse of the enormous benefits these salmon bring when they return to the Columbia and Snake rivers," said Trey Carskadon, president, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "Good salmon runs mean that more boats are built and more people have work and paychecks, builders put people to work as these numbers swell. Real economic benefits are generated through tourist dollars that spill into restaurants, convenience stores, motels and thousands upon thousands of retail operations. Sportfishing isn't just a hobby it's an industry that generates billions of dollars of benefit to this region each year."
Without summer spill on the Snake River in 2005, about 90 percent of Snake River fall chinook would have been removed from the river and siphoned through a series of tubes into trucks and barges, only to be driven hundreds of miles downstream – a costly federal practice that has failed to prevent the decline of salmon populations.
"For too many years, the agencies that run the Northwest's federal hydro system have gouged electricity consumers by wasting millions on actions that have not, and will not, restore wild salmon populations to harvestable levels," said NW Energy Coalition executive director Sara Patton. "While the actions sought in this injunction will have only a minor -- if any -- effect on electric rates, we are all too aware of the rising energy costs families across the country are facing. The Bonneville Power Administration, the Corps of Engineers and especially NOAA Fisheries owe the region an apology for the extra financial burden that those agencies' inaction may have caused."
Earthjustice is providing free legal representation to the fishing and conservation groups in this case.