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Scientists Pretty Much Agree About Dam-Breaching

by Dave Hohler
The Oregonian, March 25, 2000

And make no mistake: If society chooses to recover fish species,
the four barriers on the lower Snake River will have to be breached

Allow me to clear up a major misconception regarding the issue of breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River. This misconception was made dramatically clear in The Oregonian's news report ("Hearings sentiment leans to breaching," March 23) in which the regional commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was quoted as suggesting that science remains inconclusive on the breaching issue.

Speaking on behalf of the Oregon chapter of the American Fisheries Society, let me state unequivocally that there is no significant disagreement among fishery scientists. If society decides to recover the salmon and steelhead stocks in the Snake River watershed at a sustainable and fishable level, the four dams must be breached and breached soon. This is a summary of a resolution adopted without any dissenting votes at our annual conference this February.

We are not an environmental advocacy group. Our 500-member chapter comprises fishery and aquatic scientists. A significant number of us have masters or doctorates in our field. Coming from many employment backgrounds, including state, tribal and federal government agencies, timber and power companies, colleges and universities, and private consulting firms, we encompass a wide variety of work environments.

However, members shed their employers' points of view when they meet at conferences. Most of our society's activities revolve around workshops where experts present research papers to further the understanding of fish behavior, their ecological systems, the effects of environmental pressures, and similar subjects that provide new findings for biologists and the public. On those rare occasions when we speak as a group, we are an independent voice of fish science.

The chapter's Snake River position is based in part on two recent scientific reviews -- the Independent Scientific Advisory Review and the Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses. Both concluded that establishing more natural river conditions on the Snake and Columbia rivers offers the best hope of preventing extinction of Snake River salmonids. We relied on a number of studies by our members including a regional review of wild salmon and steelhead runs. That publication indicated that although the Snake River contains the largest area of the best salmon habitat remaining in the Columbia Basin, it stands out because it has no healthy runs. The precipitous decline of salmon runs throughout the Snake River basin coincides with the addition of the lower Snake River dams, but runs that face fewer dams -- John Day River, Hanford Reach, for example -- have not similarly declined.

Our members are acutely conscious of our roles as scientists. We are not policy makers. Our resolution provides the public and decision-makers with the most biologically defensible interpretation of the scientific information. We are not calling for dam breaching. We simply want to ensure that those who will make the choice about breaching the dams are fully aware of the consequences to the fish of breaching and of not breaching. No longer do they need to wait for the fishery science to be resolved before making a decision.

Our resolution states another significant conclusion: Returning the lower Snake River to a free-flowing state is necessary, but not sufficient, if fish are to be saved. Major changes must be made in harvest management, hatchery practices and habitat alteration. However, those hoping that tinkering with harvest, habitat or hatchery practices without breaching will somehow prevent the extinction of these salmon runs, and allow tangible human benefits such as fishing, are wrong.

Dave Hohler, a research biologist who works for the U.S. Forest Service at the Pacific Northwest Research Station at Oregon State University, is president of the Oregon chapter of the American Fisheries Society.
Scientists Pretty Much Agree About Dam-Breaching
The Oregonian, March 25, 2000

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