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Commentaries and editorials

Beware Fish Biology
Written by Federal Lawyers

by Patrick McGann
Lewiston Tribune, September 13, 2004

Most of all, we'd like our cake and eat it, too. And that is exactly what NOAA Fisheries says we can do on the lower Snake River with its latest biological opinion.

The trouble is, what should be the most credible science on the river, the government's, sounds more like legal maneuvering than science. There's a reason for that.

In a nutshell, NOAA Fisheries says that by spending $6 billion on dam improvements over the next decade, fish will be protected and so will the dams.

What most of us want is fish and dams both. Failing that, we are forced to choose between them. It is a rock and a hard place. But wishing otherwise doesn't help.

This opinion puts dams on the same plane as the continued viability as the fish, and since the fish are flesh and blood and the dams are concrete, guess which wins if NOAA is wrong.

This opinion tries to differentiate between the dams and the operation of the dams. Bob Lohn, Northwest director of NOAA Fisheries, says the new approach concludes that the dams pose no harm to fish simply by being there.

The trouble, of course, is that there are certain physical truths that run counter to that notion. Flow velocity. Pool depth. Dredging. Water temperature. And others too numerous to mention. They will be there to varying degrees as long as the dams are there, unless, of course, NOAA is suggesting the dams could be operated as if they weren't there.

Michael Garrity of American Rivers, naturally, says this is all hocum.

"There is no provision to require recovery," he says. "This plan manages salmon on the brink of extinction and hopes they don't get worse."

That is an important point. El Nio is going to return. The last few years of relative salmon abundance was predictable. And the next collapse is just as certain when, not if, ocean conditions unravel again. That is the test this plan won't stand up to.

Going to great lengths to minimize the harm the dams do is vital for eastern Washington and Idaho. And that part of this plan is very good. But eliminating consideration that the harmful effects on fish of the dams themselves is legal, not biological. But then again, this opinion was designed for a court room, not the river.

Patrick McGann
Beware Fish Biology Written by Federal Lawyers
Lewiston Tribune, September 13, 2004

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