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Commentaries and editorials

NMFS Changing its Opinion on Dams

by Mike Forrester,
Capital Press - October 1, 1999

Some officials in the Northwest's salmon survival discussion tell Capital Press that the key agency in the issue National Marine Fisheries Service - is trying to move the spotlight away from dam breaching as a way to help salmon runs. Officials say that a key element in NMFS' thinking is fish tag data that cast heavy doubt on the idea that dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers are the major cause of salmon deaths.

"NMFS has tended recently to give more weight to PIT tag data than earlier," said Bob Lohn, fish and wildlife director for the Northwest Power Planning Council. By PIT tag data, he referred to passive integrated transponder tags that have brought fish biologists information about salmon migration since the late 1980s and in heavier volumes since the early 1990s.

Will Stelle Jr., NMFS regional administrator in Seattle, said in a recent first-person column, "It's neither fair nor smart to single out the Snake dams. We are therefore working overtime to develop harvest, hatchery and habitat measures that will complement actions taken on the hydro system."

In talking about harvest, hatchery, habitat and hydro, Stelle was referring to the agency's "4H" project, a paper that NMFS staffers are putting together on all salmon survival options in collaboration with marine scientists and public officials in the Northwest.

"There seems to be a popular notion that the only real problem with salmon recovery is the dams," said Brian Gorman, public affairs director for NMFS in Seattle, "and if we breach, we'll be home free. The 4H paper flies in the face of that point of view. The life cycle of salmon is full of insults and while the dams are one of them, there are others. Don't fool yourself that if the region removes dams, we'll be home free."

Some observers say the results of the salmon tag data underlie NMFS' effort to shift what has been heavy regional discussion on breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River.

To what extent have that data been available to the public? Donna Darm, NMFS assistant regional administrator for protected resources, says the data on survival of barged fish has been available about 25 years. But an official of another federal agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that at meeting of agency officials a few years ago, someone asked about salmon survival figures in a mass of statistics and was told that the stats were under peer review. He said they were published without fanfare later.

Members of tribal and some state fish and wildlife agencies and some environmental groups have contended that dams on the Columbia and Snake are mainly responsible for salmon deaths. Main focus in the Northwest salmon discussion these days is on the NMFS Anadromous Fish Appendix, which will become part ot the Army Corps of Engineers' environmental impact statement on the idea of breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River.

Darm said the appendix is undergoing review by various scientists. She said her agency has just added a chapter to the appendix that deals with ways other than dam breaching that could help salmon runs.

Gorman said one of the points raised in his agency's 4H paper is whether salmon runs can be helped without breaching dams. He said the 4H paper is being developed with the help of four workshops in Seattle, tow of which remain to be held -- Oct. 27 and 28 on sicence and policy, and Dec. 2 and 3, for technicians in the salmon field.

"This will be a long-term, highly regionalized, democratic and based in sound science program," Gorman said of the 4H project. The approach has been that we have to work with state and county governments, and when we write rules, they don't duplicate or conflict."

Asked about criticism that NMFS staff had been operating in a closed, narrow focus way, Gorman said, "We've been trying harder lately than a couple of years ago" to be more collaborative.

So does the salmon tag data show that dams are not the major problem for fish? "Essentially, that's right," said Darm. "The data show that for Snake River fish, barging avoids what makes the dams the major problem."

How persuasive is the salmon tag data? Gorman, said several scientists believe more data are needed. He said they feel that the heaviest PIT tag data cover seven or eight years, which amounts to about two life cycles for salmon.

Mike Forrester
NMFS Changing its Opinion on Dams
Capital Press October 1, 1999

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