Salmon continue to struggle while federal agencies declare victory

Federal agencies charged with salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest released a self-evaluation of their efforts this week. The report, called a Comprehensive Evaluation, presents a one-sided view of the agencies’ progress over the past five years and fails to address measures necessary to move salmon recovery forward.

“A close look at the evaluation reveals that threatened and endangered wild salmon and steelhead, especially in Idaho, are still far from recovery,” said Tom Stuart, a central Idaho fisherman and a member of the IRU Board of Directors. “Despite $600 million spent annually to implement the plan, these poorly focused efforts fail to protect or restore salmon that still face extinction. And, let’s not forget how silly it is to ‘grade’ a salmon plan that a federal judge already ruled illegal. It already has an F.”

Published by the Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, the report is one of several procedural steps toward release of a new draft salmon recovery plan due in August, with a final version expected in December.

Specifically, the Comprehensive Evaluation measures how the agencies believe they are doing with implementation of the 2008/2010 salmon plan, called a biological opinion, which was ruled illegal by a federal court in 2011. It remains in place, however, until the new plan is published.

“Most wild populations are at best holding steady or at worse declining, despite being listed under the Endangered Species Act two decades ago,” Stuart said.

The Obama administration’s new biological opinion is due at the end of this year and must be significantly strengthened and supported by science if it is to have any hope of passing legal muster and meeting the needs of salmon. As recent adult returns reflect, Columbia-Snake salmon and steelhead need significantly more help if they are to begin approaching recovery levels. The status quo is failing salmon, fishing jobs and the Northwest.

Notably, the benefits of directing water over dam spillways to help young salmon migrate to the ocean, a practice called “spill,” is largely ignored in the federal self-assessment. Since 2006 when spill was ordered by a federal judge, salmon have benefited. Spill helps a dammed river work more like a river, and a significant body of science supports the practice.

An April report, called the Comparative Survival Study, confirms that spill is boosting returns for endangered salmon and steelhead. Further, it concludes that more spill would be even better, potentially bringing some species to recovery levels. The report urges a multi-year test over a range of water, dam and ocean conditions to gauge the benefits of expanded spill.

“Unfortunately, the tangible benefits of increased spill over the past seven years are largely ignored or discounted in the agencies’ self-assessment,” Stuart said. “As long as the lower Snake River dams remain in place, spill is one of the only things we can do to improve salmon survival, as they pass through the hydrosystem and back.”

Stuart said that expanding on the successes of the spill program in the upcoming salmon plan is the best chance for boosting salmon survival, and provides the Obama administration an important opportunity to meet the requirements of salmon science and the law.