Protection. Mitigation. Enhancement. These are powerful words that regional tribes have taken to heart as they fight to overcome the damage done by the existence and operation of the federal Columbia River power system. These words that have become principles were not adopted in a vacuum. They come from the Northwest Power Act, which mandates a program that protects, mitigates and enhances the critically altered habitats that were once home to millions upon millions of healthy fish.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council published a draft program that would remove years of locally-developed, tried and true practices that have built abundance and set a trajectory for delisting in favor of an arcane hypothetical formula that would dial back successful hatchery programs in the Snake River and the mid- and upper Columbia. If this arbitrary set of standards for hatcheries is applied as written, innovative hatchery programs like the Snake River Fall Chinook Program (which the Nez Perce Tribe and other co-managers implement) could suffer wholesale dismantling.
This very program that has taken Snake River fall chinook from 78 returning adults in 1990 to 21,000 wild fish in 2013 could be gutted and suffer a 90 percent reduction. But these impacts aren't limited to Snake River fall chinook. Overall, hatchery production above Bonneville Dam would be reduced by 20 percent.
The damage won't be limited to tribal efforts using hatcheries as wild salmon nurseries to put more salmon back into their natural habitats. The proposed amendments would deal a significant blow to the tribal members and sport anglers who rely on the fisheries that these programs produce. There would be less fish available for tribal members and their families who use these fish to meet their cultural and subsistence needs. The proposed amendments would decrease fishing opportunities and impact the many small towns in Idaho that experience a much-needed boost in their economies by recreational fishing enthusiasts.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council will be coming to Idaho to hold public hearings at Fish and Game offices in Boise and Lewiston, respectively, on the proposed Fish and Wildlife amendments. This is an important opportunity for those who enjoy the bounty of Snake River salmon to tell the Northwest Power and Conservation Council that we want salmon, both hatchery and wild.
The region needs to rally behind our successes. A fish and wildlife program developed by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council should support and add value to the Columbia Basin's successful projects, not hamper them by becoming a new regulatory framework.
The 2013 Columbia River fall chinook return was one for the ages. More than 1.2 million fall chinook made their way to the Columbia River, and among them, a significant run of Snake River chinook. The 2014 return is expected to be even higher and this trend may continue. But these gains can easily be swept away unless these mitigation programs continue to be based on locally developed guidelines that reflect sound scientific practices and respect the ground-breaking work being accomplished every day in tribal fisheries across the Northwest.
The tribes have shown that properly managed hatcheries can increase wild spawning populations, while also providing abundant salmon returns that benefit fisheries throughout the Pacific Northwest. I am asking the region to join the tribes in demanding abundant salmon returns, not scarcity in perpetuity.
Brooklyn Baptiste is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe. He serves as chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and as secretary for Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.