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Short-term success belies long-term problem
Here we go again. A second year of big returns of hatchery chinook returning to the Columbia River - coupled with more good returns of coho to Puget Sound - and some folks already are talking loudly again about easing salmon habitat protection measures.
Unfortunately, what these returns really amount to are two small spikes on the overall downward trend of the salmon resource. Two years of good returns do not amount to salmon recovery. In fact, these larger returns actually may cause more harm than good.
They encourage shortsighted thinking and even a little amnesia. They cause people to think that these larger returns mean that our salmon recovery efforts are beginning to pay off. They cause folks to forget that the bulk of these fish are from hatcheries and that many of our wild chinook stocks continue to struggle to rebuild their populations.
These past two years of good returns are mostly the result of favorable ocean conditions, and little else.
These larger returns certainly haven't been the result of vast improvements to salmon spawning and rearing habitat in our watersheds. Lost and degraded freshwater salmon habitat continue to be the main cause for the decline of wild salmon stocks. And until we address those issues in a truly meaningful manner, everything else we do will have little effect.
Take harvest reductions, for example. Treaty tribes in western Washington have voluntarily cut their harvests dramatically over the past 20 years in response to declining wild salmon populations. Some fisheries have been reduced by as much as 90 percent. Some fisheries have been eliminated completely, yet we have not seen those stocks rebound. Clearly, harvest reductions alone will not achieve salmon recovery.
Hatchery reform is another example. Hatchery reform is a systematic, science-driven effort to address how hatcheries can help recover and conserve naturally spawning salmon populations and support sustainable fisheries.
Harvest reductions and hatchery reform are important parts of our wild salmon recovery effort. But we have little chance for success unless we address salmon habitat needs with the same conviction that we have used in addressing impacts of harvest and hatcheries.
These past two years of larger returns don't mean that we can sit back and rest, though. We still have a long ways to go. Two things are certain. A salmon's life cycle begins and ends in freshwater habitat. That's where salmon recovery begins and ends, too.