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Historic Week for Fish in the Pacific Northwest

Next week, as we celebrate 40 candles on the cake for the Magnuson Stevens Act, Oregonians got some pretty significant wins for fish this week. It’s been a long time coming, and even for common-sense measures such as dam breaching and protecting our forage base, it takes a long time and an incredible amount of collaboration to get the job done, especially in our polarized society these days.

Our first birthday wish came true earlier this week, when we got “registered” in the Federal Register, officially protecting unmanaged forage fish for the species we rely on most. These forage species, such as Pacific Sand lance, Pacific saury and a multitude of other species including critical squid species, are all under-appreciated but offer a critical role in the abundance and viability of the species we love to pursue. By protecting these “unmanaged” forage fish, the federal government, through our grassroots effort, has put in place a blanket protection program that will not allow any directed commercial fisheries to take place on them without a deep understanding of the damage (or lack of) that such a prosecuted fishery would have on these stocks. And that’s the crux of the issue.

Historically, fish, whether they were top-level predators (sharks, tunas) or low level food fish (Pacific saury, Pacific Sand lance), were fished upon, without knowing the consequences of fishing down the population. When it became apparent that the population was on a decline, in most cases due to over-fishing, the populations were so depleted, it may take several decades to rebuild their populations before we get to harvest them again. Obviously, the more depleted the population is, the longer it takes to rebuild the population. Fishery managers are left to deal with reactionary measures versus an initiative such as the one just adopted that is visionary, foreseeing the world-wide trend for forage fish extraction for other uses such as livestock feed, aquaculture or fish oil. Is that how you think the best use of the public’s fish can be utilized? Science has shown that forage fish, left in the ocean is worth twice its value to other commercially important food fish, than they are caught in a net and processed for other sources of income. Just the facts, Ma’am.

So how about this; federal agencies are quite used to us telling them what’ wrong with their systems, how about we take a minute and thank them for taking this positive action in support of our public’s fish? Simply go here to submit a friendly comment to NOAA, thanking them for protection our forage prey base for future generations of sport anglers! Who knows, maybe it will create some positive momentum for future actions that keep our fisheries intact for generations to come!

Col. River gorge springer

Bob Rees with a prized Columbia River Gorge spring Chinook

And as for the other birthday candle to blow out? How about, despite congressional opposition to taking out 4 Klamath River dams, likely due to partisan politics, stakeholders in the decades long conversation, along with leadership from both Oregon and California, just signed a historic agreement on April 6th, that will incrementally bring down the greatest barriers to fish in the basin. Called “one of the largest river restoration projects in the history of the U.S.,” river advocates know what this means for this basin and its wild salmon. Here are some facts, likely facts that many people don’t know about the damage dams have caused our precious fish runs:

  1. Juvenile salmon need velocity to migrate downstream. Even though I studied salmon in college, it wasn’t until later in life that I learned that baby salmon and steelhead don’t just turn west and start swimming to the ocean, they need to get pushed downstream! With their faces always in the current, the stronger the water velocity, the quicker and more efficiently they get to the ocean. That’s why the Columbia has been so productive in recent years. Too bad we had to take the federal government to court to win that flow and spill regime for our fish!
  2. Dams make reservoirs and salmon need shallow water to spawn in. Have you ever seen salmon spawning? You’ll note that they are typically spawning in shallow water, often tailouts. That’s because this is the section of river that gets the most consistent flow, especially upwelling, where oxygen gets delivered to incubating eggs that are buried in the gravel. No upwelling, no oxygen, no hatching (yes, I did learn that one in fisheries class). Salmon can’t spawn in reservoirs and that’s what we’re left with on most of the Columbia River.
  3. Most of Oregon’s ocean caught Chinook, south of Cape Falcon, are born and reared in California rivers. To quote the article, “Chinook seasons off Southern Oregon and Northern California live and die based on the relative health of adult salmon bound for California’s Klamath and Sacramento rivers.” What’s bad for California, is bad for Oregon. What? Now you welcome California migrants? (Maybe if they have fins, anyway.)

It can’t be all bad news anyway, two strong initiatives in one week; a pretty good one for fish. Now, let’s get a strong reauthorization for Magnuson Stevens, just to put the icing on the (birthday) cake, shall we? Happy Birthday to MSA!

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