The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) said the new biological opinion addresses the issues imposed by the federal court last year, and goes beyond the legal requirements to protect salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act.

A prior NOAA Fisheries biological opinion was invalidated in 2003 by the US district court in Portland, which ordered revisions to be carried out, focusing on areas where there were going to be definite biological benefits. In response, the federal agencies responsible for the operation of the dams – the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), US Army Corps of Engineers and US Bureau of Reclamation – have focused their efforts on providing the greatest biological benefits.

‘Our updated proposal, along with other actions being taken in the Columbia river basin and our willingness to work with regional parties, demonstrate the federal commitment to salmon recovery,’ said Steve Wright, administrator of the BPA.

Investments have been made to ensure juvenile salmon pass safely through spillways with more efficient use of water resources, including the instillation of a US$20M ‘fish slide’ at Ice Harbour dam on the Snake river next year.

In addition, NOAA Fisheries are developing locally driven recovery plans for listed species in 2005 and 2006 and will describe numerous specific actions to improve the ecosystem.

‘Since 2000, 11 of the 12 listed runs of salmon in the Columbia and Snake river basins have experienced significantly improved numbers, and eight have had years that either doubled, tripled or quadrupled,’ said Bob Lohan, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest region in Seattle. ‘The BiOp will help us build on these improvements because it defines commitments to improve riparian areas as well as boost fish passage and survival at the dams.’

However, despite the NOAA’s claims, some environmental groups are concerned about the effect that the dams’ continued presence will have on salmon in the rivers. Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, described the move as representing ‘a total failure of leadership’.

‘We want salmon recovered to… self-sustaining levels,’ said Michael Garrity of American Rivers, an environmental group. ‘Dam removal has been shown to be the only measure that has proven to get to that goal.’

The government’s plan to keep the dams represents a policy shift from the Clinton administration, which ruled that they represented a serious threat to the salmon population of the rivers.

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