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Science Groups:
Don't Discount Breaching

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 1, 2000

Two Northwest fishery science organizations attempted this week to counter press coverage they say is giving the impression that dam breaching is not a necessary tool in Columbia Basin salmon recovery efforts.

"Recent news pieces have reflected the opinion that the science of salmon restoration no longer supports breaching the four lower Snake River dams. Professional fishery science organizations have reached a different conclusion," according to an article submitted to media throughout the Northwest by the Idaho and Oregon Chapters of the American Fisheries Society. The AFS stance was forwarded to media by Oregon Chapter President Dennis Lussuy.

"As a large and diverse group of concerned scientists, we are clear on this: if the public wants these populations restored, restoration actions must include breaching -- as well as significant action on habitat, hatchery, and harvest problems. Anyone still hoping that further minor tinkering will restore these dwindling populations is not listening to the evidence," the chapters wrote in an article sent to Northwest media.

The AFS is responding to recent newspaper articles and opinion pieces that focused on a scientific paper, "Recovery and management options for spring/summer chinook salmon in the Columbia River Basin," published in the Nov. 3 issue of Science. The paper was authored by Peter Kareiva and Michelle McClure of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University.

While acknowledging that Lower Snake River dam breaching would benefit salmon, the paper's authors cite the scientific uncertainty about how much breaching would aid in the recovery of listed spring/summer chinook.

"Remarkably, even if every juvenile fish that migrated downstream survived to the mouth of the Columbia, and every returning unharvested adult fish survived to reach the spawning grounds, the index stocks would continue to decline," the authors said of their modeling effort. The Center's Cumulative Risk Initiative modeling, headed by Kareiva, was key in the development of NMFS draft hydrosystem biological opinion.

"Thus, management aimed solely at improving in-river migration survival cannot reverse the SRSS chinook decline," according to the published paper. One goal of dam breaching, the Science article pointed out, is to improve in-river survival.

The major uncertainty is to what extent the barging of juveniles past Snake and Columbia river dams affects their subsequent ability to survive -- in other words, the extent of transportation-related delayed mortality.

"If this indirect mortality were 9 percent or higher, then dam breaching could reverse the declining trend of SRSS chinook salmon. Unfortunately, estimating the magnitude of any indirect mortality from passage through the Snake River dams is difficult…," according to the Science paper.

The NMFS scientists say "modest reductions in first-year mortality or estuarine mortality would reverse current population declines." The NMFS draft BiOp proposes aggressive "off-site" mitigation measures to improve spawning and rearing habitat and reduce hatchery impacts on wild, listed salmon and steelhead populations. The draft would set aside any recommendation on Lower Snake dam breaching for at least five years while it monitors the success of off-site actions and attempts to improve salmon survival through the hydrosystem.

The AFS response says recent news articles that highlight the NMFS science paper's conclusions "erroneously suggest that science supports not breaching the Snake River dams."

"Unlike the Nov. 3 Oregonian article and the NMFS employees' paper on which it reported, the draft NMFS Biological Opinion (BiOp) emphasizes substantive actions on these other 'H's.' We strongly applaud NMFS for its attention to these factors, but significant action on these H's alone will not suffice."

"Recent news reports might lead readers to believe Snake River salmon can be restored with only 'modest' measures, without breaching the lower Snake River dams. Professional fishery biologists have reached a different conclusion," say the AFS chapters.

The American Fisheries Society is a professional organization of scientists from many backgrounds, including state, tribal, and federal agencies, timber and power companies, consulting firms, and universities.

"We are not an environmental advocacy group. Most of us are not policy-makers. Our common tie is a professional responsibility to promote credible scientific information and to facilitate informed resource decisions," according to the joint statement from the Idaho and Oregon AFS chapters.

The Oregon chapter, Idaho chapter, and Western Division of AFS have all passed resolutions stating that dam breaching is an essential element of Snake River salmon restoration.

The Oregon chapter said: "If society-at-large 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; Substantive actions to address detrimental impacts associated with harvest management, hatchery practices, and habitat alteration will be required ..."

"The resolution also committed to 'continue to assist agencies and the public in the review and analysis of Snake River fisheries science and management' -- thus this response," according to the AFS article sent out this week.

"As the resolution plainly states, we do not maintain breaching is "a panacea" (as others have portrayed). Breaching is necessary, but must be accompanied by action on habitat, harvest, and hatcheries."

"The public is rightly skeptical of the suggestion that only 'modest' improvements are needed -- modest efforts have failed to restore wild Snake River salmon and steelhead. There are significant problems with the NMFS mathematical model that has been cited in these recent news pieces, but we think there are broader problems with NMFS position."

The AFS followed with a critique of that NMFS model and its conclusions.

-- "If improving spawning habitat were the silver bullet, there would be healthy salmon populations where there is good habitat. In reality, there are miles of excellent habitat in the Snake River basin without salmon. What's declined is not first-year survival, but survival after juvenile salmon negotiate the eight dams standing between them and the ocean. That decline started when the dams went in and affects Snake River salmon more than salmon from the lower Columbia River (where salmon pass fewer dams) -- pointing to the hydrosystem as the most credible explanation. Since the dams went in, Snake River spring/summer chinook have very rarely returned in sufficient numbers to sustain the population.

-- "Restoration to fishable levels, not just avoiding extinction, is the appropriate goal. Failure to restore Snake River salmon to sustainable, fishable levels fails to meet our Treaty Trust responsibilities or provide sustainable fishing for the public. Without substantial actions, soon, remaining endangered wild Snake River salmon will not be restored and may well go extinct – as Snake River coho salmon already have."

-- "The 'modest decrease in mortality' the NMFS modelers say is required to avoid extinction translates to an increase in first-year survival beyond what is seen in wild salmon, even in prime wilderness habitats. Ironically, the one action offered in that paper (not reported in the recent news pieces) as one that might actually produce the desired improvements was -- dam breaching. They noted breaching would eliminate any delayed mortality from transportation, may increase the vigor of salmon and thus improve survival once below the last dams, and that if this improvement was sufficient "could reverse the declining trend" of these salmon."

"A key remaining uncertainty is the sources of mortality Snake River fish experience after having passed all the dams. We believe they include not only elements of the natural ocean environment, but also delayed effects of earlier life-stage experiences -- like passing eight dams. Like a smoker who dies of lung cancer, it's not the last cigarette that did him in, but the effects of a lifetime of smoking," wrote the AFS.

by Barry Espenson
Science Groups: Don't Discount Breaching
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 1, 2000

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