New Draft of Salmon Recovery Plan – No Big Changes?

salmonhydro damAnother deadline is approaching in the lengthy court battle to protect endangered Northwest wild salmon, and this week the federal government has done its part to meet it by submitting a draft version of an updated plan. However, conservation and fishing groups say there's nothing new in the "biological opinion."

The draft does go into more specifics about what the government is planning, but Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda, who represents the challengers, said that based on the previous bi-ops, that doesn't mean the projects will happen or that they'll work.

"We've seen that, particularly starkly, in the Columbia River Estuary," he said. "They're now about four years behind even where they thought they'd be at this point, and they don't really have a great plan to catch up."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency that produced the plan, said the government is spending more money in the Columbia River Estuary on fish habitat projects and will continue to operate the dams on the Columbia system as it has been, for the most part.

Three previous biological opinions have been rejected in federal court for not doing enough to protect salmon. In Mashuda's view, the best thing about this week's bi-op is that it is still in draft form.

"This does not have to be the final biological opinion," he said. "We could go back and NOAA could go back in the next several months and redo this biological opinion to include measures that will do something for the fish in the short term, and one that would comply with the law."

One ongoing concern of fishing and environmental groups - as well as farmers, shippers and others who use the Columbia River system - is that the plans haven't recommended bringing all stakeholders in on the discussions about how to improve the salmon runs, Mashuda said.

The court-ordered bi-op has to be finalized by the end of the year. It's now up for public comment through Oct. 7.

The draft supplemental biological opinion is online at nwr.noaa.gov.

September 11, 2013/Chris Thomas, Washington News Service