Decentralizing Management of Salmon Habitat

Recommendations are always based on experience. My experience has been a little unbalanced, particularly in the area of salmon habitat. That seems to be an area where you really have to be right there at the scene to know what we have to do. Some localities need a lot of work. Others don't. Centralized decisionmaking is incapable of making rational habitat management decisions. This is something that belongs with, and ought to be paid for by, the state and tribal governments with sovereignty over the land at issue.

This is the one area where the government is moving very slowly in the right direction, in that state governments and the Northwest Power Planning Council are paying at least lip service to the concept of watershed-based management. Roy Hemmingway, a former member of the Northwest Power Planning Council and salmon and energy advisor to Oregon Governor Kitzhaber, stumps the State of Oregon proclaiming Oregon’s allegience to a program of watershed management councils. He correctly recognizes that only the locals are going to be able to figure out which streams can or should be cleaned up, fenced, or otherwise made more favorable for salmon.

If these leaders intend for the central government to simply serve as a repository of know-how for how to improve salmon habitat, they are on the right track. Right now there are spectacular habitat successes, like Canada’s spawning channels for sockeye in the Skeena River that have created problems of overabundance.3 But there is no agency squarely charged to disseminate knowledge of how habitat and hatchery can really be improved for salmon, so that others can build upon the successes.

Most of the state agencies seem to think that the Council or the federal government can or should provide money for habitat improvement, continuing a system that inherently fails to spend the money in a useful way. And most of the harvest agencies also continue to insist on more and more rules and regulations, not tailored to the needs of particular watersheds, that simply gum up the works.

If habitat improvement really brings salmon back, communities should be willing to invest in it with their own money. If the harvest agencies did not insist on sanctioning the taking of nearly all the salmon before they returned, the agencies could probably convince local communities to invest in habitat. But why should anyone invest in habitat improvement now, when the fish all vanish downstream and never come back? When fishery agencies cannot even report whether they are being caught or not? Local county boards are more likely than the Council or the federal government to ask hard questions about whether programs are going to work before they spend money.

3 “Alaskans Say They’re Not Targeting Canadian Sockeye”, NW Fishletter, July 22, 1997,  9.

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