Last month, while late-winter storms pounded the Cascade and Sierra mountains and flooded dozens of salmon streams in the Pacific Northwest, members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council huddled around a table in Seattle and pored over marine biologists' latest predictions for West Coast salmon. The news was shocking: The spring and summer runs of chinook salmon, once numbering in the millions, in California's Sacramento River had dwindled to a few thousand. The message in the data was unmistakable: Like many of its cousins to the north, the Sacramento chinook could be extinct within a few seasons.
In response, the council canceled all summer commercial salmon fishing off the California and Oregon coasts, a projected $200-million hit to the industry and the coastal communities that depend on it to survive. But more than economics was at stake. The salmon is the coastal ecosystem's "keystone" species, one on which more than 500 other species depend for their own survival.
Unfortunately, the salmon fishing moratorium cannot possibly undo decades of political mismanagement of the region's aquatic resources. The fishermen and scientists know that the salmon's long-term survival will depend on overcoming the four horsemen of its looming apocalypse -- wildly fluctuating ocean conditions, habitat degradation, widespread agricultural pollution and dams. The question is whether the politicians will get out of the way and let the scientists run the show.
Congress anticipated that they wouldn't, so it pinned the efficacy of the 1973 Endangered Species Act on scientists, who could identify and implement the environmental measures that would support the biological needs of the fish. Unfortunately for the salmon, that's not how the law has worked out. A generation of politicians has devised myriad ways -- through lawsuits, stalling tactics and endless "follow-up" studies -- to get around the scientists and protect such industries as agriculture, aluminum smelters, barge operators, loggers and power producers. This endless political "logrolling," as lawyers call it, is a big reason why salmon populations have continued to decline for 30 years.
The Klamath River in southern Oregon flows through the center of a textbook case of logrolling. In the early 1980s, the Klamath Indians sued the state of Oregon to ensure that sufficient water was flowing in the river so that oceangoing fish, including salmon, could get to the ocean and back. The Indians depend on the fish for their economic and cultural survival.
But farmers who depend on diversion of the river's dam-captured water to irrigate their crops joined the state of Oregon to fight the suit. Although the farmers and Oregon lost in federal court, the case was far from over. The farmers brought two more suits -- encouraged and supported by regional and national politicians -- in hopes of keeping a larger share of the river's water. They lost both times, but throughout the legal contests, the water levels on the Klamath remained about the same, and the fish counts continued to plummet.
Nor did the setbacks in court stop the farmers from trying to keep the scientists at bay. Following the promptings of scientists, a federal court in 2002 ordered water spilled from dams on the Klamath to help juvenile fish reach the sea and to help adult fish migrate upstream. Outraged farmers prevented the spill. Then the Bush administration stepped in to restore peace and resolve the dispute. But while negotiations between the tribes and the farmers were stalled, the Interior Department withheld water from the river, a decision that played a significant role in the death of 33,000 adult chinook salmon on the rocks of the lower river.
Now it seems that the days of logrolling may soon be over. For many years, Don Chapman, the federal government's chief biologist on the Columbia River in the states of Washington and Oregon and a highly influential salmon expert, had argued that salmon and dams could coexist if more money was spent on making dam turbines more fish-friendly, upgrading habitats and improving "fish slides," which help salmon get around dams. Then in 2006, he dramatically reversed course and announced that dam removal was the only solution for pulling salmon from the jaws of extinction.
Chapman based his new opinion on an analysis of what could be done about the factors that threaten the salmon's survival. This is what he found.
* Wildly fluctuating ocean conditions: In the short term, scientists are powerless to stop them because they result from global climate change. They can only hope that salmon stocks are resilient enough to survive the new perils of predation and hypoxia (reduced oxygen content in the water) on continental shelves.
* Widespread agricultural pollution: If all agricultural and industrial pollution stopped tomorrow, the fact is that chemical toxins have been warehoused in millions of cubic yards of sediments that have been collecting behind dams for more than 50 years. There are no quick ways to cleanse those sediments.
* Habitat degradation: The billions of dollars spent on habitat enhancement over the last 30 years have done very little to improve fish counts. The value of improved spawning grounds are reduced to zero if the fish can't get to them.
All this led Chapman to conclude that removing dams that block salmon from reaching critical spawning habitats and the ocean is the only realistic way to save the salmon.
But will the politicians allow them to be removed?
They may have no choice, because U.S. District Judge James A. Redden, the special master of the Columbia River basin in charge of enforcing the Endangered Species Act in the Pacific Northwest, will probably have the last word on the fate of the salmon. After lambasting the 2006 salmon protection plan from the Bush administration, which is charged with enforcing the act, as "shameful," Reddin said that he would not rule out dam removal to fulfill his obligations under the law and save the salmon.
Any day now, Reddin is expected to rule on the administration's latest proposal for salmon recovery. The question he faces is whether the time has come for the courts to let science trump politics. If the answer is in the affirmative, perhaps the salmon will not go the way of the dodo bird on our watch.