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Commentaries and editorials

Saving Columbia River Salmon: Going
Where the 'Best Available Science' Leads Us

by Demian Ebert
The Oregonian, March 11, 2011

In a recent commentary in The Oregonian, Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, stated that salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin is now being guided by science and pointed to increased survival of juvenile salmon and improved returns of adult salmon as validation of recovery efforts. But attributing improvements in salmon and steelhead returns to the recovery program alone is misleading.

Survival of juvenile salmon in the Columbia River has increased because of improved passage conditions, due largely to increased spill at the dams -- ironically, an action that was imposed on federal agencies by court order. Improved ocean conditions have resulted in increased adult returns for some populations of salmon and steelhead. Unfortunately, most of the returning fish are from hatcheries. Wild fish populations remain far below recovery levels.

Although Lubchenco asserted that science supports the NOAA plan, a comprehensive review by the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society concluded the plan relied more on monitoring than on specific actions -- monitoring that's adequate for tracking the status of salmon, but not adequate for ensuring their protection and recovery.

Let's face it: Science alone will not guide salmon recovery; ultimately it will be a societal decision. But the public should not be misled into believing that the best available science has been fully implemented, as NOAA contends. Many human actions have contributed to the decline of the Columbia runs of salmon and steelhead, including habitat degradation, overharvest and poor hatchery programs. Dams, reservoirs and operation of the hydropower system have been major contributors to the decline -- especially for Snake River populations -- and are also contributing to the decline of other native species, notably the Pacific lamprey and white sturgeon. Yet much of the NOAA recovery approach is a tacit acceptance of the status quo when it comes to the hydropower system.

In 2000, the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society -- representing hundreds of fishery professionals -- passed a resolution that "The four lower Snake River dams are a significant threat to the continued existence of remaining Snake River salmon and steelhead stocks; and if society wishes to restore these salmonids to sustainable, fishable levels, a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams, and this action must happen soon." We reaffirmed this resolution in 2009. The Idaho Chapter and Western Division of the American Fisheries Society, collectively representing thousands of aquatic scientists, have also passed similar resolutions.

Furthermore, results from a scientific assessment -- a five-year effort of regional scientists convened by NOAA -- indicate that the action with greatest certainty of recovering Snake River salmon and steelhead is breaching the lower four Snake River dams.

Yet NOAA now considers even the study of breaching the Snake River dams to be essentially an action of last resort, triggered only when fish runs fall to perilously low numbers. Should society decide to implement dam breaching, many years of study and planning would be required. Comprising several generations of fish, this could severely limit the value of the action if important salmon and steelhead populations go extinct before the first shovel of dirt were moved.

Lacking the information necessary to assess the technical, physical and biological effects of breaching the Snake River dams, NOAA cannot meet its stated objective of using the "best available science" to develop recovery actions.

The Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society encourages a proactive, comprehensive study of dam breaching, with independent and open scientific review, so that this recovery action could be thoroughly considered and implemented in a timely manner. Hundreds of dams in the United States have been removed, with a growing record of immediate and positive responses by rivers and native fish. If society decides recovery of these imperiled fish is truly important, we should consider this science-supported recovery action for the Snake River and its fish.

Related Pages:
Columbia River Salmon: Letting Science Guide Salmon Recovery by Jane Lubchenco, The Oregonian, 2/26/11

Demian Ebert is president of the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.
Saving Columbia River Salmon: Going Where the 'Best Available Science' Leads Us
The Oregonian, March 11, 2011

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