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Commentaries and editorials

Fish Fuss

by Lesley Stahl, co-host
CBS' 60 Minutes, November 19, 2000

One of the big issues in the campaign out in the Northwest was whether a series of dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers should be torn down in order to save the endangered salmon. It pit Republicans against Democrats, environmentalists against industrialists. There's no argument that those dams in Oregon and Washington have provided cheap hydroelectric power, a good deal for the people in those states, but not the salmon. Once so plentiful, it was said you could walk across the Columbia River on their backs. Since the dams went in, the salmon have been disappearing. And under the Endangered Species Act, the government is required not to let that happen. And the lengths to which they're going to not let that happen, and the billions they're spending to not let that happen, are staggering.

(Footage of dam)

STAHL: (Voiceover) The measures are so elaborate, the observer is left to wonder: Who thought this up? Take this labyrinth of pipelines at the dams.

This whole system built just so that the little baby fish don't have to go through the dam.

Mr. DOUG ARNDT (Biologist, Army Corps of Engineers): Right, in order to keep them away from the turbines.

(Footage of Doug Arndt; damn, salmon; raceways, tunnels; barges)

STAHL: (Voiceover) Biologist Doug Arndt, of the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dams, says the turbines kill about half the fish that go through them. And so, 20 million young salmon a year are diverted as they go downstream into specially-built raceways and sluices, shot through tunnels, into the pipelines and are then loaded onto barges. The fish are given a lift on a barge, courtesy of the US government.

Mr. ARNDT: We're going to take all these fish down the river...

STAHL: Down the river.

Mr. ARNDT: ...and it's going to be about a 300-mile trip.


Mr. ARNDT: Take about a day and a half.

(Footage of barge in the ocean; salmon; river)

STAHL: (Voiceover) Ironically, the well-intentioned barging may interfere with the salmon's homing instinct, which is essential to their survival since after their trip down river, they go back up the river as adults to spawn, homing in on the very spot where they were born.

Are they getting hurt? This looks...

Mr. ARNDT: No.

STAHL: ...pretty traumatic.

Mr. ARNDT: This is actually a very, very good system.

(Footage of salmon; trucks; workers)

STAHL: (Voiceover) The salmon are also loaded onto trucks. Imagine that, fish on road trips.

Mr. ARNDT: They tried airplanes, they tried trucks.

STAHL: They tried flying them?

Mr. ARNDT: Flying, different ways of getting the salmon safely to below the--the hydroelectric system.

(Footage of dam; barges; artificial shoreline; surface fish collector; observer)

STAHL: (Voiceover) To help the fish that aren't barged or trucked get past the dams, the corps built this artificial shoreline that cost $80 million, and this surface fish collector that cost $200 million. But after two decades of spending, the results are dismal: Coho salmon are already extinct, and runs of chinook and sockeye salmon are on the Endangered List. To stop the decline, environmentalists are insisting that some of the dams be torn down. So now, northwesterners are facing a choice between their beloved salmon and their beloved dams. Bruce Lovelin is president of the Columbia River Alliance, an industry group that's lobbying to keep the dams.

Mr. BRUCE LOVELIN (President, Columbia River Alliance): These dams are still providing very, very cost-effective power, about half a cent a kilowatt hour. I mean that's--that's much, much lower than anyplace in the country. You probably pay 10 cents or 15 cents a kilowatt hour for your power at your home.

(Vintage footage of preparation to build dams; town along Columbia River; map)

STAHL: In the 1930s, starting with Bonneville, the federal government built six dams along the Columbia River. Then in the '60s and '70s, four more dams went up on a tributary, called the Snake River, once the mother lode of salmon.

(Footage of dams)

STAHL: (Voiceover) It's these last four dams that have been targeted for removal. Ed Chaney is a former state wildlife official, who heads Chinook Northwest, an environmental group.

Mr. ED CHANEY (Chinook Northwest): These four dams came on late in the s--grand orgy of dam building in the Columbia River. The salmon, frankly, were doing fairly well, not good, but doing fairly well with all these other dams in place. When you started adding the four dams, it was the cumulative effect that finally broke the camel's back.

STAHL: The tipping point.

Mr. CHANEY: That's right. The tipping point.

(Footage of salmon; dam; fishermen; logging; farming; Portland, Oregon)

STAHL: (Voiceover) The salmon population has plummeted from 16 million at its peak, to just over one million today. The dams are one reason, but there are others. Too much fishing over the years, damage to the rivers and streams by logging and farming, and urban pollution. Salmon migrate right through the middle of downtown Portland, Oregon.

Mr. CHANEY: All of those things have contributed to the diminishment of those once enormous populations. Only one thing threatens the salmon with extinction, however, and that's the dams.

(Footage of salmon worker; group holding meeting; government workers, consultants, fish scientists)

STAHL: (Voiceover) To save the salmon and keep the dams, the government spends a bundle on a system involving eight different federal agencies. That doesn't begin to account for all the local government workers, private consultants and university fish scientists who inspect, poke and measure. It's come to be known as the salmon recovery industry.

Mr. LOVELIN: What does it do?

STAHL: With all that money?

Mr. LOVELIN: Well, it's--it pays for biologists, Jeeps, computers, bureaucracy, administrative overhead.

STAHL: To do what?

Mr. LOVELIN: And a little bit of salmon recovery.

(Footage of Bonneville Fish Hatchery, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife; salmon eggs; baby salmon; dam workers; hatchery fish; researchers)

STAHL: (Voiceover) Another expense: hatcheries. So far it's cost $500 million to produce salmon in vats and buckets to replace wild fish killed by the dams. But you have to wonder: Since large numbers of hatchery fish are also killed by the dams. On top of that, they've been studying the problem for 25 years in a plethora of research projects. In this one, adult fish are tagged, and fed a tracking device.

I--I can't believe this. This all--every one of these has a microchip in it?

Unidentified Woman #1: Mm-hmm.

(Footage of workers inside trailer)

STAHL: (Voiceover): In another study, in a cramped trailer near one of the dams, 20 women and one young man plant computer chips in tens of thousands of baby salmon. You might call this study the `fish 'n' chips' project.

I just got fish on me.

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm sorry.

STAHL: That's all right.

Mr. ARNDT: You are now initiated.

STAHL: I'm initiated. I'm in the sisterhood. OK.

(Footage of robofish)

STAHL: (Voiceover) Scientists get more information from robofish...

Unidentified Man: We call it a sensor fish.

(Footage of man holding robofish; dam)

STAHL: (Voiceover) ...a rubber beauty filled with sophisticated electronics. As it goes through the dams its sensors record the impact of the turbines. Price tag: $5,000 apiece. But they're reusable.

What's that one?

Ms. LUCILLE WORSHAM (Fish Counter): That's a chinook.

(Footage of Stahl; Lucille Worsham; fish in underwater window)

STAHL: (Voiceover) But if you think it's all high-tech, meet Lucille Worsham, who, for the last 15 years, has sat all day inside Bonneville Dam staring at an underwater window. She's one of 65 professional fish counters.

You know, I understand that they've tried to come up with some high-tech way to do it. And they've never come up with anything better than you.

Ms. WORSHAM: That's true, and we're glad, we fish counters.

(Footage of Worsham counting fish)

STAHL: Lucille has documented the decline of the salmon. This year she's seeing a surprising increase which scientists attribute to changes in the ocean's temperature. But it's still not nearly enough to get the salmon off the Endangered List.

Money--all of this has just cost a fortune, this effort to save the salmon.

Mr. CHANEY: Billions have been wasted, not spent to save the salmon. Billions of dollars have been wasted and that's the real tragedy here.

STAHL: You know, we've talked about the barging. They've got pipes, they've got diversionary routes, they've got ladders, all of this manmade, all of it costing money. But--but, the point is, to try and save the fish.

Mr. CHANEY: No. The point is--is to try to avoid fixing the dams.

STAHL: Save the dam project?

Mr. CHANEY: That's exactly right. These are save the dam facilities.

(Footage of Chaney; Save Our Dams!! signs on barn, car window; farmland; logging company; barge; power station; dam; fishermen)

STAHL: (Voiceover) Environmentalists like Ed Chaney are up against a powerful save-the-dams coalition. Virtually every politician in this neck of the woods is against removing the dams--both Democrats and Republicans. So are the farmers who are afraid of losing the irrigation provided by the dams that turned what used to be a desert here into an agricultural breadbasket. The timber industry is afraid of losing inexpensive barging for their products. Without the dams there wouldn't be any navigation on the river at all. Aluminum companies and other heavy power users are afraid of losing their bargain-priced electricity. They like shifting the focus away from the dams. What do they blame for the salmon's decline? Fishing, particularly by Native American tribes which, under the terms of a treaty, are allowed to catch endangered salmon. And hard as it is to believe, your dollars pay for that too.

Mr. LOVELIN: They've recently paid, I think it's over $500,000 for--to purchase new gill nets for commercial harvest by the Indian tribes.

STAHL: Harvest of the salmon?

Mr. LOVELIN: Harvest of the salmon.

STAHL: The endangered salmon?

Mr. LOVELIN: Yeah, that's right. And--and--and...

STAHL: Wait, the government is buying the nets?

Mr. LOVELIN: The government is buying the nets. You can quite literally, I mean, go on the banks of the Columbia River and buy an endangered salmon for $2 a pound.

(Footage of `fresh fish' sign; Yakima Tribe members; chinook salmon)

STAHL: (Voiceover) He's right about everything but the price. We found Yakima tribe members selling chinook salmon out of the back of a truck, but at $4 a pound.

Unidentified Customer: How much is that?

Unidentified Yakima Tribe Member: $64.

Unidentified Woman #3: $64?

Unidentified Yakima Tribe Member: Yes.

Mr. CHANEY: You can put the Indians out of business and the fish are still going to go extinct.

STAHL: Because?

Mr. CHANEY: Why do--why don't we stop giving the aluminum industry all this cheap electricity? Why don't we stop subsidizing the waterway transportation people? Why doesn't somebody else have to give up something? Everybody wants to beat up on the Indians who are catching a tiny, few fish. What's wrong with this picture?

(Footage of newspaper article; dam)

STAHL: The issue is so contentious and politically sensitive, the Clinton administration decided to put the verdict off for another five years. Whether the dams stay in or eventually come out, either way, there's no end in sight to the spending--$500 million a year and rising. And as we've seen, a lot of it goes to correct the unintended consequences of man's good intentions.

(Footage of Caspian terns)

STAHL: (Voiceover) OK? So how did these guys get in the act, the Caspian terns? They're salmon predators. But they eat so many, it's putting a dent in the government's rescue efforts. What's the Army Corps of Engineers doing about it?

Mr. ARNDT: Moving. Relocating the--the terns to a different--to a different place where they won't take as many fish.

STAHL: You're kidding.

Mr. ARNDT: No, actually I'm quite serious.

(Footage of Caspian terns; river; island)

STAHL: (Voiceover): But the same Corps of Engineers that's now trying to move them, brought them here in the first place. The terns weren't here until the corps dredged the river and created this island right in the middle of the salmon's migration route. That done, they decided it would be nice to turn it into a bird refuge. By 1998, 20,000 terns had settled in. This year, as the corps started to move the terns, the bird lovers swooped in. The Audubon Society went to court and got the project stopped, but not before $600,000 had been spent.

Now is it true that the corps is actually combing through tern droppings, or guano, to recover the computer chips, to see if they've been eating the sa--the salmon?

Mr. ARNDT: W--I wouldn't say it quite like that. What I would say is the researchers are going through with rakes in the sand.

(Footage of Caspian terns; dam piping; barge; counting machine)

STAHL: (Voiceover) This could give new meaning to the term government waste. And meanwhile, the spending on the piping, the barging and the counting, goes on.

Prepared by Burrelle's Information Services, which takes sole responsibility for accuracy of transcription. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce any copy of the material except for user's personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be reproduced, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any manner that may infringe upon CBS Inc.'s copyright or proprietary interests in the material.

Lesley Stahl, co-host
Fish Fuss
CBS' 60 Minutes, November 19, 2000

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