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Fishy Politics

by Editorial
Register-Guard, December 12, 2005

Turns out that endangered salmon may survive longer than a federal agency Congress created to help save them. The Fish Passage Center is a tiny agency with 12 employees and a $1.3 million annual budget. Created in 1984, the center was formed to provide critical information in the government's multibillion-dollar effort to revive the Northwest's waning salmon runs.

The center's biologists and computer scientists did a precise job of monitoring the salmon that swim through the federal government's Columbia River hydroelectric system. Apparently too precise for Sen. Larry Craig's taste.

The center has thoroughly documented the hydro system's devastating impacts on salmon. Those findings have made a lot of folks unhappy, including utility officials and their champion in Congress, Sen. Craig, R-Idaho, whom the National Hydropower Association has named "legislator of the year."

Citing data and analyses from the center, U.S. District Judge James Redden last May rejected the Bush administration's $6 billion plan to improve the Columbia basin's hydro system, saying it failed to adequately protect endangered fish.

Last summer, Redden again cited center findings in ordering that water be spilled over federal dams to assist salmon migration. While such spills improve fish survival, they also can result in the loss of power generation worth millions of dollars.

Not long after Redden issued that order, Craig grabbed his harpoon and went after the center with the fury of Ahab. Last month, he succeeded in inserting language into an appropriations bill that banned funding for the center. Craig justified the move on grounds that the center's data were biased and unreliable. "Data cloaked in advocacy create confusion," he said. "False science leads people to false choices."

Craig cited a report from an independent scientific advisory board that had reviewed the center's work. Yet one of the report's authors, fisheries ecologist Charles Coutant, told The Washington Post that the board found the center's work to be "of high technical quality." He said Craig had given "a misleading impression about our board's view of the Fish Passage Center."

Since Craig succeeded in choking off the center's funding, the governors of Oregon and Washington, Indian tribes and fish and game agencies have argued that the center is needed to provide high-quality information on the status of salmon. Last week the Northwest Power and Conservation Council said it has begun the time-consuming task of finding another agency to do the complex, demanding job of analyzing salmon and steelhead survival.

Congress should save everyone a lot of trouble - and maybe save some salmon, too - by restoring funding for the Fish Passage Center.

If Craig doesn't like it, why, he can just go fish.

Fishy Politics
Register-Guard, December 12, 2005

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