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Winter/Spring 2004 Vol. 4 No. 1

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From Coast to Coast

Endangered Fish in Pacific Northwest and Maine Face Similar Hurdles to Recovery

Upper Klamath Lake, photo by Ellen Morris Bishop, Oregon Natural Resources Council

A National Research Council committee has weighed in for the second time on one of the nation's most contentious battles over water rights. A few years ago, federal officials became concerned that the water levels in Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake and low flows on the Klamath River, which runs from the lake through northern California, were causing further harm to already endangered and threatened fish. Subsequently, water for irrigation was severely restricted, pitting farmers who depend on the water for crops against the tribes of the upper and lower Klamath basins who have fished the lake and river for centuries. The decision to limit water for farming was reversed two years ago, however, when the Research Council committee's first report found insufficient scientific evidence to back the need for higher water levels or flows.

In a second report issued last fall, the committee maintained its skepticism of more stringent restrictions on irrigation water as an effective means to protect the fish -- two species of suckers in the lake and coho salmon in the river. It said the federal agencies involved should instead focus more on other causes of harm, such as excessive algae growth that depletes oxygen in the lake, dams that block spawning migrations, competition from hatchery fish, and high summer water temperatures.

The committee called for a new fish recovery plan that takes a broader ecosystem-wide approach, to be issued by the federal government within two years. The 12-foot-high Chiloquin Dam, in particular, should be removed because it blocks access to as much as 90 percent of the spawning habitat for suckers above the lake. The suckers may also benefit from adding oxygen to the lake, which should be tried on a trial basis, the report says. To lower the temperature of tributary water in the summer, which is probably the biggest threat to coho salmon, cool water should be procured through the purchase, trading, or leasing of groundwater, and woody vegetation should be restored along banks to provide shade. And hatcheries may need to alter their operations or even close if it is shown that hatchery fish lower the wild coho's chances of survival.

To guide recovery teams that will administer research and monitoring efforts, a master plan should be developed and be reviewed periodically by outside experts. The committee estimated that it will cost between $25 million and $35 million over the next five years to implement the report's recommendations, excluding costs for major projects like dam removal.

Atlantic salmon in Maine on journey upstream to spawn, ©Bill Curtsinger/National Geographic Image Collection

Looking to the opposite side of the country, another Research Council committee has issued a report that says urgent action is needed if Maine's seriously depleted Atlantic salmon are to rehabilitated. As is the case in the Klamath basin, removing dams would help, especially where removal would make the most spawning and rearing habitat available. And scientists should experiment with adding lime to rivers to offset acidity that may be killing young salmon trying to reach the ocean.

The committee questioned whether hatcheries in Maine are doing more harm than good. It said that using hatcheries to boost the salmon population remains an unproven strategy and they should be used sparingly until more is known. Hatcheries should mainly provide a secure environment for wild salmon, which remain genetically distinct despite years of mingling with millions of hatchery salmon and an unknown number of escaped farm salmon, the report says. In addition, streams should not be stocked with hatchery salmon or non-native fish that crowd out wild salmon or deplete their food supply.

The state's current prohibitions on commercial and recreational salmon fishing need to continue, added the committee, which also recommended a decision-making approach for the state to follow in which stakeholders participate.   -- Bill Kearney

Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin: Causes of Decline and Strategies for Recovery. Committee on Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Division on Earth and Life Studies (ISBN 0-309-09097-0; $54.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies). The committee was chaired by William M. Lewis Jr., professor and director, Center for Limnology, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder. The study was funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service at the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Marine Fisheries Service at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Atlantic Salmon in Maine. Committee on Atlantic Salmon in Maine, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology and Ocean Studies Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (ISBN 0-309-09135-7; $55.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies). The committee was chaired by M.T. Clegg, professor of genetics, University of California, Riverside. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Both reports are available from the National Academies Press,
tel. 1-800-624-6242.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences