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Sockeye salmon spawning. A proposed mine in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska could put up to 145 kilometres of streams at risk in a prime West Coast salmon fishery, the U.S. EPA said Friday.

Gary Stewart/The Associated Press

When salmon runs were cut off to the upper reaches of the Columbia River, the loss to native communities was culturally devastating, says the head of a native group that wants the restoration of fish stocks to become part of a renegotiated Columbia River Treaty.

"The loss of salmon is equal in cultural impact to the residential schools … I think that gives you an order of the magnitude of cultural loss," Bill Green, director of the Canadian Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission, said Monday.

Mr. Green said his organization, together with the Okanagan Nation Alliance in B.C. and 15 tribes in the U.S., are now pushing to have the restoration of salmon runs become a key part of talks between Canada and the U.S. over the Columbia River Treaty.

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The 50-year-old international agreement, which deals with how the river is managed for flood control and power generation, is up for either renegotiation or cancellation by either side this year. Mr. Green said when the dams were built on the Columbia, First Nations weren't consulted – and he argues that is an oversight that should be corrected in a new treaty.

Mr. Green said an extensive review of historical literature has shown that salmon were caught by tribes far upstream, in southeast B.C., before runs were cut off by the dams.

"We found historically, Chinook salmon went all the way to the headwaters at Columbia Lakes, so that's 2,000 kilometres upstream from the ocean," said Mr. Green. "We found sockeye used to be in very large numbers in the Arrow Lakes … an annual average return of around six million. … So it was truly a breathtaking resource. And all [of those salmon runs were] totally wiped out."

Mr. Green said governments on both sides of the border have a legal obligation to restore those salmon stocks so native communities can resume harvests they traditionally relied on.

The Columbia, which once had runs of 17 million salmon each fall, now sees only about two million fish return. And none of those fish make it to the upper Columbia.

Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams, in the U.S., and the Keenleyside, Brilliant and Waneta dams in B.C., were built without fish passageways, completely cutting off salmon from upstream spawning grounds.

A joint paper recently released by U.S. and Canadian tribes states that salmon can be brought back through a variety of techniques, ranging from building fish passageways to catching migrating salmon and then barging them past dams, before releasing them to continue their journey.

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"[Salmon] reintroduction is critical to restoring indigenous peoples' cultural, harvest, and spiritual values," states the proposal. "Reintroduction is also an important facet for ecosystem function."

The paper states the number-one goal of the project should be to "restore naturally spawning and hatchery-based runs of sockeye and Chinook," but coho and steelhead stocks should also be included.

The First Nations proposal states that potential donor stocks need to be identified from which extirpated runs can be restored, disease threats have to be identified and specific methods for getting salmon past dams have to be worked out.

"There are technical solutions, but you've got to do it a step at a time," said Mr. Green.

Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said U.S. tribes have made the restoration project "a high priority issue" and are holding a salmon conference in April to which government officials and others are invited.

"It's going to take contributions from both sides of the border," he said of the restoration project. "But I'm absolutely convinced this can be done."

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Mr. Lumley said if planning work gets under way this year, salmon could be returning in significant numbers to the upper Columbia River in 20 years.

"I'm 50 years old. I want to see this happen in my lifetime," he said.

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