Science and Opportunity
by Jeremy Brown & Pat Ford
It is a time of hope for people working to restore wild salmon. One of the toughest conflicts is in the Columbia/Snake Basin, where federal policy has been frozen in un-creativity for eight years. Now, election changes, looming court verdicts, dialogue between farmers and fishermen in Western Washington, and the recent all-party settlement to remove four dams on the Klamath River offer an opportunity on the Columbia/Snake. Fishermen, farmers and ratepayers have a big stake in seizing this opportunity.
Good science must be a foundation in any settlement. So we welcome the point in The Bellingham Herald's Dec. 6 "Our View" editorial headlined "New science may change tactics to save salmon," that people and policymakers should attend to new salmon science as well as accumulated science. We also agree that, despite many millions spent on Columbia/Snake salmon, payoff has been disappointing - another reason to make sure good science underlies our investments.
But other points in the editorial were incomplete. The editorial mentioned only one study as an example of "new science" - a recent analysis of juvenile salmon survival in the Fraser and Columbia/Snake rivers. It interpreted that study's results too broadly. And its suggestion that salmon recovery focus more on "ocean projects" could easily lead to even worse investment results.
We agree the Fraser/Columbia study should be considered by those working to restore Columbia salmon. So should other recent science.
Two examples: this summer the Fish Passage Center, which for 20 years has housed the vast data record for salmon survival through Columbia/Snake dams, released an analysis showing that increased spill of water over those dams during juvenile salmon migration led to more adult salmon two and three years later. This great news validates a practical tool - spill - which dam managers can use to produce more salmon and salmon jobs. The increased spill is owed to Tribes and fishing/conservation groups, who won it in court against federal opposition.
Second, University of Idaho researchers just published an analysis showing that barging and trucking of juvenile Columbia/Snake salmon by federal hydro agencies leads to lower survival than for salmon that migrate in the water. Since barging and trucking is the dominant management tool used by dam agencies to "help" salmon, this is a crucial finding. Fishermen have long thought the hundreds of millions so far spent barging salmon have largely been wasted; this new study suggests we are right.
The Fraser/Columbia study has been used in the media to argue that a focus on Columbia dams is misplaced. We don't think the study reached or leads to that conclusion.
We agree with Carl Schreck, professor of fisheries at Oregon State University and one of the study's authors, who said, "It would be overly simplistic to say that dams have no impact on (young salmon) survival, because we know they do."
For example, the study did not address delayed mortality - accumulated stresses on young salmon migrating through up to eight dams and reservoirs, or sluiced into mixed-species barges for downstream travel. That delayed mortality seems to be what is at work upon the barged salmon analyzed in the Idaho study.
Finally, we urge conservatism when weighing money for "ocean projects" against money for protecting and restoring freshwater and estuary habitats.
We support gathering the best possible science, and we have much more to learn about salmon during their ocean years. But it is difficult to define "ocean projects" that would actually boost salmon survivals, and there is no doubt that restoring critical freshwater habitats will increase survivals.
There is no doubt, for instance, that removing the four lower Snake River dams will increase survival for four now-endangered salmon and steelhead species, and for hatchery stocks which support critical fisheries and jobs.
With lower Snake dam removal, and with spill, the most critical issues for analysis are economic, engineering and political: can we restore Columbia/Snake salmon while also benefiting Eastern Washington wheat growers and Northwest electricity users? We think the answer is yes - if a new federal government, and members of Congress from the salmon states, seize the opportunity we now have to create a process like that on the Klamath where the key parties can sit down to find common ground on science, jobs, law, and community.
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