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We Can Have Salmon and Jobs

by Shane Scott, Fisheries Biologist
Opinion, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4, 2004

How would you like to do a good deed and save $75 million a year in the process? Several good deeds, actually: Save salmon, support commercial fishermen, help farmers and preserve jobs throughout the Northwest. This spring we have an opportunity to do just that.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was correct in its Feb. 22 editorial that " ... everyone agrees on the need for forward-looking Columbia River management, encompassing the needs of people, salmon and the environment." Unfortunately, the P-I was wrong about everything else.

By clinging to old discredited salmon strategies, it is the P-I that wants to " ... roll back the clock." The federal agencies reviewing "summer spill" are being guided by the latest science -- as they should be.

Bonneville Power Administration expects to spend $77 million this year on summer spill -- with little to show for it. But federal, state and tribal experts have identified alternatives to summer spill that could increase salmon populations this year by 50,000 adults while saving ratepayers $75 million a year.

What is spill? Spill began in the mid-1980s as a way to get fish past dams without going through the dam's turbines. But while the name sounds benign, the experience is not. Operators open an underwater "gate" in the dam, pulling fish 30 feet to 50 feet deeper in the water, then propelling them through the gate into the turbulent water on the other side of the dam. Some of them die, and many end up injured and disoriented, vulnerable to predators.

In fact, the survival rate for "spilled" salmon is only slightly better than for the fish that go through the turbines (98% survival by spill passage, 90% survival through turbines). But because spill redirects water that could have been used to produce electricity, it is the most expensive fish passage method used today.

"Summer spill" is implemented in July and August on four dams on the Snake and lower Columbia rivers to help threatened fall Chinook salmon. But recent federal studies confirm that summer spill saves only about 24 adult fish a year. Why so few? Because by late summer, 90 percent of the fall Chinook already have been barged around the dams and are far downstream.

We're spending $77 million a year to save 24 threatened salmon. That's more than $3 million a fish. It is true that eliminating summer spill could reduce non-listed stocks by about 19,000 fish (about 5 percent of last year's 384,000 returning adults). But those fish are harvested by commercial fishermen anyway. Spending $77 million to save 5 percent of those supermarket fish is like paying $4,000 for a $40 fish.

There is a better way. Two of the alternatives identified by federal experts could increase adult salmon populations by more than 50,000 fish this year for less than $2 million:

  1. Expand a successful program that pays anglers to catch the Northern Pikeminnow, a predator that feeds on young salmon;

  2. Expand a successful program in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River that protects juvenile salmon from becoming stranded in low water.

These alternatives can increase salmon populations and reduce electricity prices in the Northwest. That is important because high-priced electricity kills jobs, a connection made painfully clear during the 2001 energy crisis. Northwest employers struggling to recover from our economic downturn cannot afford ever-increasing energy costs.

Salmon recovery has always been portrayed as a choice between fish and jobs. If one wins, the other loses. But that is not the case. New scientific studies confirm that we can have both.

A decision on summer spill will be made this spring by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with input from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries, BPA and Northwest governors. Adopting these two alternatives to summer spill will produce more salmon, save jobs and help maintain the affordable energy we all depend on.

It is a win-win opportunity.

Shane Scott is a fisheries biologist with the Public Power Council and a former Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
We Can Have Salmon and Jobs
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4, 2004

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