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Fish Biologist Paints Different Salmon View

by Kathy Gray
The Dalles Chronicle, August 29, 2008

PUD hears why salmon recovery is divisive issue

Why did 500 endangered sockeye salmon return to Idaho this year? Why are upriver salmon stocks doing very well this year, while stocks that spawn below Bonneville Dam aren't?

The answers rest to a greater degree in the ocean than in the dammed rivers, says Shane Scott, a consulting fish biologist who spoke to Northern Wasco County PUD Tuesday on the topic "Why differing opinions on salmon recovery?"

Scott is a former policy director for Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and has worked for the Northwest Public Power Council and Northwest River Partners. He presented a much different picture of the salmon issue than is usually portrayed in mainstream media.

The subject is a topic of enduring interest to public utilities like Northern Wasco, which receives more than four fifths of its power from federal hydropower. The federal dams along the Columbia River are at the center of controversies related to the latest biological opinion on salmon recovery produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - Fisheries (NOAA).

Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife is at the forefront of efforts to oppose the opinion, which would significantly change the direction of recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest. Scott outlined the various perspectives on the subject for the PUD board.

"There are differing opinions between Oregon and the majority of other groups," Scott said. Washington fish and wildlife is notably quiet on the subject, preferring to let their Oregon counterpart take the lead. The reason for that, he said, is because Washington's political focus is more on the Puget Sound area, while Oregon's is along the Columbia.

"[Washington] is more likely to let Oregon, the ODFW and the tribes fight that fight," Scott said.

The states also don't have the money for recovery efforts, he added, so Bonneville Power Administration revenue is the primary source of recovery funding.

Political will and public opinion also play a role in the differing viewpoints on recovery, Scott said.

"Some people just believe dams are the cause," he said, noting that salmon numbers have declined since dam construction. "But corrolation is not causation. Things happen regularly that contributed to the decline of salmon."

The Fish Passage Center, an organization of states and tribes, is at the forefront of the "salmon wars," Scott said. Their study findings, which Scott criticizes as bad science, are based on a study that released tagged salmon in Idaho and counted how many adults returned to the area.

NOAA, which is the deciding authority for biological opinions under the Endangered Species Act, concluded that the study is not a functional model that would allow the analysis required by the biological opinion and that it has not received independent scientific review.

"The adult return rate was based on very few adults and selective use of data," Scott noted.

But those findings are perhaps the most quoted in mainstream media, because they are more aggressive in promoting their findings than NOAA's own researchers. Scott attributed that to NOAA scientists' caution with results, which aren't always very conclusive.

"They don't want to be the science police," Scott added.

NOAA's opinion, Scott said, is based upon the best available science and a two-year research process outlined by the previous salmon agreement. Its conclusions and recommendations involve a "4-H" approach: harvest, hatcheries, habitat and hydropower.

Scott outlined the migratory cycle of salmon to illustrate mortality rates:

Decline of Columbia River salmon was well under way by the time the first dam was built in 1938. Aggressive commercial salmon harvest and habitat degradation from timber harvest practices had reduced their numbers by two thirds since 1860, Scott noted.

"I'm not trying to say dams aren't part of the problem, they're just not all of it," he said.

Later, hatchery fish were looked at as a solution, and a means to perpetuate the large salmon harvests. But hatchery fish competed with the wild fish and showed weaknesses in the rivers.

In addition, fishermen fishing for hatchery chinook are also catching endangered Snake River sockeye, Scott noted.

"Now it's looking like maybe that was not the best idea, but we're living with the legacy," Scott said.

Scott also talked about the large amount of work on freshwater habitat, but noted that NOAA's findings indicate adult salmon returns are independent of juvenile survival rates. Poor survival in the freshwater stages can still yield a high rate of return.

"The ocean controls the fish population," Scott said.

Regarding the dams, Scott noted that most Columbia River Dams are meeting their 95 percent downstream survival rate target. The Dalles and John Day are the two exceptions with survival rates of 91 and 92 percent respectively.

The new biological opinion proposes changing the use of dam spill in fish recovery, Scott noted.

"Oregon's opinion is that if spill is good, more is better and that it's the safest route of passage," he said. 'NOAA fisheries view is that it's a valuable tool, but not always the safest."

Passage through the blasting water can cause gas bubble disease, he said.

Regarding flow augmentation, Oregon view and the NOAA's coincide: Increased river flow yields increased adult returns. But augmentation can't make up the difference between a dry year and a wet year, Scott noted.

Scott was also critical of salmon harvest rates, saying that a 60 percent harvest has an unavoidable effect on the population.

On the benefits of lowering the John Day reservoir, Scott was skeptical. He said a lowered reservoir could improve survival rates 2 to 3 100ths of a percent, but would eliminate river transportation, affect agricultural irrigation and require reconstruction of fish passages.

"Is the survival benefit worth the change?" he asked.

Again, Scott stressed that while a multipronged approach to fish recovery - including harvest, hatcheries, habitat and hydropower - is worthwhile, 70 percent of the population variation is due to the ocean's temperature. He displayed a chart showing that best salmon runs over the last 10 years have occurred during the coldest part of the Pacific's temperature oscillation.

He concluded by saying he believes NOAA's biological opinion should stand.

"It's the best science of anyplace in the world," he said. "We know more about these fish than any animal in the world."

Related Pages:
We Can Have Salmon and Jobs by Shane Scott, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4, 2004
Survival of Snake River Salmon & Steelhead by, Data compiled June 2004

Kathy Gray
Fish Biologist Paints Different Salmon View
The Dalles Chronicle, August 29, 2008

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