the film
Economic and dam related articles

Salmon a Convenient Excuse
to Dismantle Snake River Dams

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, April 2003

Columbia River Salmon and Snake River dams are back in the news. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) cut its 2003 fisheries budget from $185- to $139-million. since enactment in 1980, the Northwest Power Planning Act requires BPA to finance fisheries programs and authorizes passing those costs to Northwest electricity ratepayers. BPA is the largest single financial contributor to Columbia River salmon programs.

The National Marine fisheries Service claimed success for the first two years of salmon recovery effort governed by its 2000 Biological Opinion (BIOP). The BIOP rejected Snake River dam removal in favor of the 4Hs formula for restoring threatened and endangered salmon. The 4Hs refer to reforms in Hydropower operation, Habitat management, Hatchery operation, and Harvest management.

Save our Wild Salmon (SOWS) issued its own "report card," flunking the federal salmon recovery program on all counts. SOWS leads a coalition of national environmental groups and others committed to removing the Snake River dams. SOWS repeated its familiar argument that dam removal is the only sure way to protect Snake River salmon.

Other news is waiting to break. SOWS and members of the anti-dam coalition continue their legal attacks on the Snake River dams. One attack claims the dams violate Clean Water Act minimum temperature standards. Others are directed against dam removal alternatives, particularly barging juvenile salmon around dams and emphasis on using hatcheries as ESA compliance tools. This year also sees the first of several formal progress reviews of the salmon recovery program.

Mercifully, the outlines of a practical solution are emerging. Let's call that solution a stable set of flexible tools. Readers familiar with fish and wildlife harvest management will recognize the principles.

Harvest managers make long-term decisions about harvest methods (modern rifle, archery, fly only, bait, etc.) and management units. They also develop principles for determining seasons and bag limits. Actual seasons and bag limits are adjusted periodically to reflect current conditions of resource abundance and harvest pressure. An often-stated goal is managing each year's harvest based on the preceding year's data.

In salmon recovery planning, the stable management tools are long-term investments in fish-saving dam modifications, habitat improvements, a system for barging juvenile salmon around dams, and hatcheries that support rather than conflict with in-stream spawning.

Once in place, this infrastructure will allow managers to respond adaptively to changing conditions. Less barging would be required when ample water was available for all purposes, including flushing juvenile salmon downriver; more barging would be required when water was scarce.

The new generation of supplementation hatcheries adds juveniles (of the same parentage and, therefore, genetics and regional adaptation) to in-stream spawning populations. Such additions can offset excessive downstream mortality, whatever its cause. Where necessary, they can also restore in-stream spawning salmon to barren streams, again whatever the cause.

Every species of salmon listed as threatened or endangered in some region of the Columbia River drainage is represented elsewhere (in the Columbia) by healthy (ESA unlisted) populations. thus, by transferring brood stock within the drainage, replacement programs can match the genetics and regional adaptation of locally extinct stocks.

Adaptability is the key. the better the whole recovery program works, the less hatchery production will be required. Mistakes need not result in permanent local extinction, only greater use of supplementation and replacement hatchery programs

Evolution of an adaptive, cost-sensitive salmon recovery program should cheer electric ratepayers and others who bear the economic burdens of salmon recovery. But, don't count on the same reaction from environmentalists, at least not the professional environmental advocates I have contacted over the past several years.

Barging juvenile salmon around dams comes in for particularly vitriolic attack. See almost any SOWS communication. The fact is, 98 percent of barged fish survive the down-river trip, more than would be expected in a free flowing river. Once at sea, barged fish don't do as well as those that have already survived a trip down the river and passage through or around several dams. However, overall gains in survival due to barging (in-river and ocean) are substantial and unambiguous, relative to in-river passage.

In endangered Species Act (ESA) terminology, (some) hatcheries are called captive breeding programs. Environmentalists support such programs as temporary alternatives to extinction. Examples of species benefiting from captive breeding include the California condor and Snake River sockeye salmon.

But, environmentalists oppose captive breeding programs as permanent replacements for more costly (but theoretically possible) habitat changes, like dam removal. They cite ESA language supporting their position that such substitutions (as well as barging) are illegal, if adopted as permanent measures. Future case law will undoubtedly clarify that point.

A bit of probing discloses that many environmentalists don't believe adaptive programs will be implemented as planned. Fish don't vote or buy electricity, so how can politically appointed managers of a hydroelectric production system be trusted to protect them. In their view, it is safer (for the salmon) to bind managers with irreversible decisions like dam removal.

Probe environmentalists further and find yet other motives for resistance to adaptive, cost minimizing salmon recovery measures.

The anti-Snake River dam campaign is one of many ongoing anti-dam campaigns, few of which involve salmon. A popular anti-dam slogan, "Nature submerged is nature subordinated," illustrates the quasi-religious motives of some participants. Many of their targets are long abandoned dams built in the Eastern U.S. early in the 19th Century. One, sponsored by the Sierra Club, proposes removing California's Hetch Hetchy dam. Among other purposes, Hetch Hetchy provides San Francisco's drinking water. that campaign renews Sierra Club Founder John Muir's crusade against Hetch Hetchy's construction a century ago.

In the Northwest, environmentalists cite threats to salmon as motives for attacking irrigated agriculture, grazing, logging and land development. Elsewhere, they offer different reasons for similar attacks. Where logging doesn't threaten salmon, it threatens spotted owls. Irrigation projects not threatening salmon, threaten suckerfish, and so on. If environmentalists don't like it, expect it to eventually be deemed harmful to an endangered species. (which came first, the chicken or the egg?)

Fitting salmon into a irreversible (and overwhelming beneficial) pattern of intensive land and water resource development is the practical task of Columbia river salmon recovery planning. We are finally making progress. Hopefully, that progress will not be sidetracked by environmentalists seeking to use salmon and ESA as levers to achieve goals dear to them, but unrelated to salmon recovery.

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
Salmon a Convenient Excuse to Dismantle Snake River Dams
Wheat Life - April 2003

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation