By Patt Wardlaw

Economist-columnist Thomas Sowell's recently raised the question, "Have facts become obsolete?"  Fish regulators, who have now banned commercial salmon fishing altogether along 700 miles of California and Oregon Coasts for 2006, painfully answered it.  Commercial trollers are justifiably furious and whether sport anglers will be also restricted is still uncertain.

Reports state that, despite fish being plentiful in the ocean, fishing must be cut back to protect the stocks returning to just one of the many coastal salmon rivers, the Klamath.  Only in that watershed are they "declining" as a result of "low water levels" blamed on irrigation "diversions", which have supposedly resulted in "poor water quality".  

There are simply no facts to verify these conclusions.

A study of returning salmon across the last three decades indicates that the lower runs the last couple of years are not out of the ordinary.  Returns vary radically over time from fewer than 50,000 fish to nearly 250,000, unpredictability.  In fact, more spawners returned the first five years of this century, than from 1990 to 1995 or 1980 to 1985. Most of the hysteria about the Klamath stems from the heavily publicized "fish-kill" of 35,000 retuning salmon in the fall of 2002, which was blamed solely on Department of Interior mandated reductions favoring agriculture. 

The truth is that releases from Iron Gate Dam, near the Oregon border, only dropped about 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) in 2002 from 2001, when there was no die-off.  This is insignificant in light of flows around 2000 cfs, downriver, below confluences of the Trinity and other tributaries, where the "kill" actually occurred.  Supposedly, the reduced flows raised temperatures, causing the fish killing disease, but a 70-page report by the California Fish and Game reveals that temperatures actually dropped from 2001 to 2002.  The official return that year, in the "aftermath" of the "disaster", was barely shy of 200,000!  Since Chinook spawn in four-year cycles, the run would logically be expected to be terrific this year, returning from one of the largest spawning runs of the last 28 years.  

But the number of fish reaching spawning grounds has little bearing on the run's anniversary, fours later.  What is most important are water conditions following spawning during incubation and the following spring while hatchlings are growing until the smolt can make their way back to sea.  Favorable conditions during those periods can affect a much higher survival rate of young that will occur with bad conditions following a strong return.   There are no indications this science was taken into consideration.

Hatcheries will always produce the same number of smolt, so they shouldn't be a factor.

It isn't politically correct to dispute the disaster lobby, so regulators may have been also been looking at 2002's original very low "pre-run" estimates, instead of getting the updated facts on the actual size of that run or the big picture.

Many activists, who just buy into "the sky is falling" scenario, have jumped on the take-out-the-dams bandwagon as the ultimate cure for this undocumented "decline" in Klamath Chinook.   To be sure, lumbering and commercial netting, early on, had a devastating impact on this river.  So did all the dams, which later blocked access to historical spawning streams upriver.  But there is absolutely no science concluding that removing them at this late date would solve anything.  That's a separate subject to be explored on its own.

View Klamath River Salmon Run chart

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