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Senators Focus on Ocean Conditions

Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 11, 1999

Northwest Republican senators this week argued against tearing down dams to restore salmon by citing new scientific evidence that increased ocean temperatures may be a more significant factor in fish declines.

Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, highlighted testimony from two scientists in support of the theory that Pacific Ocean conditions off the Northwest coast are having a greater impact on endangered Columbia and Snake river salmon than river conditions.

Testimony was presented on Wednesday before the Senate water and power subcommittee. Chaired by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., it was the second in a series of subcommittee hearings on efforts by federal agencies and Northwest states to develop a recovery plan for endangered Columbia and Snake river fish.

David Welch, head of High Seas Salmon Research for the Canadian government, said higher temperatures in waters off the southern part of British Columbia have caused most of the reduced ocean survival of Columbia River and southern British Columbia chinook and coho salmon during the 1990s.

Welch said global warming may be the underlying cause of the problem. Warming and freshening of the surface layer is cutting off nutrients needed by plants that fuel the food chain. "It is early days yet, but we are finding that nutrient depletion and declining salmon survival seem to be related to increases in freshwater input and higher sea temperatures," he said.

Welch has been studying Pacific salmon in the ocean since 1990, when he started the research program for Fisheries & Oceans Canada. He works out of the Pacific Biological Station, Nanaimo, British Columbia.

He and his colleagues have found "a number of disturbing changes taking place in the ecosystem of the northeast Pacific Ocean (off British Columbia, which) highlight to a much greater degree than previously believed the importance of the ocean to determining the productivity and sustainability of salmon on the West Coast."

Craig quoted similar statements by National Marine Fisheries Service oceanographer Edmundo Casillas to the Northwest Power Planning Council at its recent Boise meeting.

National Marine Fisheries Service and other biologists have blamed the lack of returning adult salmon in the Columbia Basin on "delayed mortality" related to the travails of smolts in migrating downstream through dams and past predators or being transported around dams in barges and trucks.

Craig scoffed at the explanation, saying "delayed mortality" was a term used to cover a "black hole" of knowledge about what happens to salmon in the ocean. Referring to the four dams on the 140-mile lower Snake, Craig called breaching them "a 100 mile solution to a 1,000 mile" problem.

Craig and Gorton also took note of Welch's comment that because of the limited amount of food in the ocean, increasing the population of juvenile salmon would aggravate the survival problem by increasing competition for food. Sending more salmon smolts downstream "will mean fewer returning salmon rather than more," as a result, Gorton said after the hearing.

At the same time, however, Welch also stressed in his testimony that although his agency's research points to greater overall influence of the ocean on salmon survival, that should not be taken to mean that freshwater habitat is not important, too. In fact, "in this period of massive reductions in ocean survival, the importance of preserving and rehabilitating damage to the freshwater habitat is even more essential," he said in his written testimony.

Welch declined to comment on the impact of dams.

Gorton said the testimony was new and "shocking" and showed that the proposal to remove four federal dams on the lower Snake River was "more foolish than I had felt it was in the past."

"It is clear to me that ocean conditions are vitally important, very likely more important than the kinds of things we're talking about in the rivers," Gorton said. "It's another indication that we can talk all we want about sound salmon science, but there isn't one sound salmon science. There's an awful lot that we don't know."

"What I think that these new ideas do tell us is we shouldn't take any kind of drastic or dramatic actions like tearing down dams. But improving (habitat) and fish passage through dams certainly can't hurt us," he said. The testimony "shows there are more conditions we have to consider than we thought and we shouldn't be spending unlimited amounts of money out of the pockets of the people of the Pacific Northwest without any idea of what kind of positive impact spending that money will have."

During the hearing, all three Northwest senators expressed concerns about NMFS' statements that it will take the necessary steps to restore endangered salmon if a regional consensus on a salmon recovery plan fails to develop.

Donna Darm, assistant Northwest regional administrator for protected resources and chair of the so-called Federal Caucus of federal agencies involved in salmon, denied the statement was a threat, but she said the agency had to fulfill its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

Pressed by the senators to define her statement that "significant changes in the way we do business (and) in the way we use the land and the water" will be required, Darm did not elaborate, although she called the installation of fish screens on irrigation ditches significant. But she agreed that NMFS was unlikely to adopt a "no people" plan, which would restore the Northwest to pre-settlement conditions.

Darm said the timetable for NMFS’ 1999 biological opinion on the hydropower system operation will probably be pushed back to October, to match the new date of the Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact statement on salmon recovery options.

NMFS plans a public workshop in the Northwest in mid-July to explain the development of salmon lifecycle models being used for the biological opinion. When preliminary analyses become available in mid August, NMFS plans another open meeting to explain the results. NMFS hopes to hold a similar briefing for Northwest congressional delegation staff in Washington, D.C., in about two weeks.

Senators also expressed concern about the Bonneville Power Administration's proposed five year-rate plan to create a $1.4 billion reserve fund by 2006. "$1.4 billion is a lot of money, even in this town," Smith said. He said the fund will make BPA a bigger target for a raid by "budgeteers" and would make it harder for Northwest members to defend the agency.

BPA Vice President Steve Wright said the intention was to make their job easier by increasing the probability that Bonneville will be able to make its annual debt repayments to the U.S. Treasury. He said the fund would cover not only potential increased salmon restoration costs but also possible losses due to power market fluctuations.

Bush Takes On Salmon Issue in Washington
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 11, 1999

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