Scientists who study the Columbia River estuary say salmon are hogging too much of the restoration spotlight.
At a summit on the Columbia in Vancouver, Wash., today, Catherine Corbett of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership reflected on a conference of 200 scientists that met in Astoria earlier this month.
One of the takeaways from the conference, she said, was the realization that the scientific community should diversify its research beyond salmon to other species and to the broader landscape.
"To maintain biodiversity, we should balance salmon and other objectives," she said. "We need to look at how to incorporate other species' needs into our restoration actions."
Hundreds of millions of dollars in dam mitigation funds have clearly affected the type of research and restoration projects that get funded on the Columbia.
Officials expect federal dam operators will spend nearly $250 million this fiscal year to offset the environmental impacts of dams throughout the Columbia River Basin. A lot of that money goes toward restoring habitat for the 13 threatened and endangered species of salmon and steelhead.
But having salmon alone won't make the river a functioning ecosystem; The key to that, Corbett said, is diversity.
Bernadette Graham Hudson, a scientist with the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, said diversity will provide the river basin with the resilience it needs to withstand changes in the climate and the introduction of invasive species – two issues that will affect more than just salmon in the river.
There's also beaver, smelt, lamprey, mollusks, waterfowl, turtles and Columbia white-tailed deer that all play important roles but don't get nearly as much attention from scientists restoring habitat.
Water quality – specifically the old and new contaminants that have been detected in the river – is another issue that needs more study, she said. Scientists still don't know, for example, what effects toxic contaminants have on fish and wildlife when they interact with each other in the river.
And even with all the salmon habitat restoration work that's been done, there's still an outstanding question of whether hatchery salmon are undermining the habitat benefits for wild salmon.