Every year at this time, fat and happy salmon begin finding their way up the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon to spawn. Every year at this time, fat and happy eaters begin trooping to fine fish houses to enjoy what many believe to be the finest eating fish around.
But not this year. The salmon are in the river, but they won't be on the plates--barring a last-minute reprieve from the federal government and state courts.
The reason is a complicated story that revolves around endangered species and the battle for water rights in the Northwest.
There is no shortage of Columbia River salmon--approximately 100 million are raised every year in hatcheries along the river. But farther up the Columbia system are the spawning grounds for the Snake River salmon--a wild fish whose numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate and which last year was listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
Under the provisions of the act, fishing can be permitted in areas where the Snake River salmon run only if biologists certify that there is little or no chance of the wild fish being caught by mistake. Though it takes genetic analysis to tell a Snake River salmon from a Columbia River fish, historically the Snake River salmon don't begin their return until the middle of March--well after the two-week Columbia River harvest.
Biologists working for Oregon and Washington filed papers attesting to the safety of the wild fish, and seven days of commercial fishing were set up over a two-week period in February. The first three-day season went off smoothly--565 fish were caught--but just before the second four-day season could begin, it was discovered that the National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal agency responsible for overseeing the law) had neglected to sign off on the paperwork. With only 24 hours notice, the second four-day season was canceled.
The omission was discovered by attorneys for a coalition of companies that rely on electricity generated by Columbia River water. This is not coincidental: In order to preserve the wild fish, the federal government has placed limits on how much electricity can be produced by dams on the Columbia River. The coalition has filed suit, challenging the law. A spokesman for the association was quoted as saying the shutdown was the only way to ensure that everyone shares the burden of saving the endangered fish. "They're just trying to make the state look bad before the trial begins," counters one Oregon state official.
"This is just unprecedented," says Jon Rowley, owner of FishWorks, a company that promotes various seafood from the Pacific Northwest, including Columbia River salmon. "This is a complete bureaucratic snafu."
Rowley retains hopes that the second season can be saved after a promise to speed the process was extracted from NMF officials during an emergency meeting last weekend of restaurateurs, retailers and wholesalers. But he is not overconfident. The industry coalition has threatened to file suit if permission is granted.