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The Oregonian
March 31, 2006
Editorial by Charlie Hanson

The Northwest salmon crisis

A catastrophe that didn't have to happen

The Klamath River watershed and associated coastal fisheries are in crisis. Once the third-most-productive salmon watershed along the West Coast, the Klamath is now the source of less than 5 percent of coast-wide salmon harvests. Because the chinook stock has failed to recover, coastal economies now face an impending fishery closure that will cost millions. The Klamath River salmon crisis is a world-class example of both an ecological and economic catastrophe that could have been avoided.

The current Klamath crisis is a result of a failure to provide appropriate protection of an ecosystem, both in terms of freshwater habitat and an adequate number of reproducing adults. This disaster is truly a human one, encompassing an ecosystem and economy that extends more than 1,000 miles from Monterey, Calif., to Astoria and deep into the rich agricultural communities of the upper Klamath Basin.

In order for Pacific Northwest salmon to survive and thrive, they need adequate cool and connected freshwater habitat in which to reproduce, grow as juveniles and migrate safely to and from the sea. In order to close their complex lifecycle they also need a productive coastal ocean in which they do most of their growing, as well as adequate protection from excessive fishing.

Chinook salmon in the Klamath suffer a multitude of impediments to sustained production, including low river flow rates and resultant increased lethal water temperatures and parasites, as well as ocean and in-river harvest. In 2002, these low flows resulted in a kill of approximately 79,000 adult salmon returning upriver to spawn.

Blaming the current situation solely on ocean fishing is proof of the continuing and mighty challenge of getting natural resource agencies to address the whole ecosystem. The myopic management approach now being proposed, to simply shut down an entire coastal fishery, is a clear sign that government agencies are not implementing the ecosystem approach that they're touting.

In 2004, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy recommended ecosystem-based management as a guiding principle of sound ocean policy. Federal government support for this recommendation is reflected in the mission statement of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The solution to this massive ecosystem-scale crisis — providing adequate freshwater habitat and spawning adults — will take major coordinated sacrifices on the parts of both coastal fishing and Klamath Basin agricultural communities. In addition it will require the organizations responsible for stewardship of our aquatic natural resources to reorganize themselves across broad jurisdictions.

Finally, if the Bush administration believes that this crisis will be resolved by restricting fishing, then why shut down only the fisheries that target salmon? Clearly, other fisheries catch Klamath River salmon incidentally as bycatch, including the industrial-scale offshore Pacific whiting fishery. To focus solely on one aspect of this ecosystem crisis will not fix the problem. Resolving the catastrophe on the Klamath requires addressing issues from the headwaters of the basin to nearly 1,000 miles of coastal ocean. Without an integrated framework, the mighty Klamath River chinook runs and their fisheries could disappear.

In the short term the government should ameliorate this situation with federal disaster relief. Farmers and fishermen need to be compensated for their sacrifices so that adequate water as well as returning adult salmon can be provided to perpetuate and rebuild this valuable resource. A federal disaster designation can then jump-start the long-term solution, an ecosystem-based approach to managing this important fishery.

Charlie Hanson is a fisherman and president of the board of directors of the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, a nonprofit fisheries conservation group that includes commercial and sport fishermen, marine scientists, conservationists and community advocates.

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