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Salmon Crossroads Conference:
Splitting, Lumping, Denial, the Trough, Good Show

by Cyrus Noe
NW Fishletter, November 26, 2003

The salmon recovery corps has trouble dealing with its established interactions, and some elements are having even more trouble dealing with a changing and upwards situation in salmon run dynamics. The Salmon Crossroads conference in Portland Nov. 14 was a noteworthy event involving the corps (troubled and otherwise) in discussions on the turnarounds in salmon runs. In some respects, it turns out, the event was as notable for what was not said as for what was said.

For example, what record runs? If you wandered in unawares of the conference's record-runs theme during scientist John Stein's lead-off panel presentation, you would not know that there has been any such thing as record runs. Stein of the NW Fisheries Science Center power-pointed numbers that showed that good ocean conditions do not uniformly benefit spring chinook spawning creeks, with some doing better than others.

But he said nothing about the generality of record runs. The second speaker, Ed Casillas of NOAA Fisheries, parsed bits and pieces of ocean condition changes about which, we were assured, more needs to be known. But he offered no summary of conditions or their possible effects on salmon runs.

Both scientists were splitters, offering not even a hint of lumper summaries suggesting what record runs might portend, however provisionally. Perhaps they were worried that if they so much as mentioned record runs, some of us attending might have taken that as official scientific sanction and started celebratory dancing in the aisles at the Lloyd Center DoubleTree conference room.

Bruce Suzumoto of the NW Power and Conservation Council staff, who expertly backgrounded hatchery issues in that first panel, nailed the no-lumping problem. "Scientists have yet to come to terms with record runs," he said. Indeed.

I have not run across any salmon policy player who says that record runs mean salmon recovery has happened. But there are indications on the examples of Stein and Casillas that there is effective denial that breaking records going back 65 years is of moment to salmon recovery.

Death Spiral Debunked
The denial here involves facing up to the fact that the salmon death spiral dogma that has informed recovery thinking for decades is flawed. I have been criticized for that opinion, but it's true, even if its truth does not solve lots of problems. In technical terms, it has become likely that substantial improvements in wild runs mean updated regression analysis should all but eliminate extinction risks in jeopardy factor calculations for most listed stocks. Except for Redfish Lake sockeye, which are so marginal that trying to save them is a travesty.

That's another story. The conference on record runs, ably moderated by consultant Al Wright, did not generate much in the way of new direction suggestions, save for references to cost effectiveness. The pursuit of costs began with the opening remarks of BPA Administrator Steve Wright, who introduced keynote speaker David Anderson, deputy director of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. "People want us to recover salmon," Wright said, "but people expect government to be cost-effective."

Anderson works in a White House agency with responsibility for coordinating federal agency approaches to key environmental issues, and NW salmon recovery is large among those. In that connection, he said the administration is emphasizing through CEQ the importance of personal stewardship in volunteer efforts. He urged those working in NW salmon recovery to "stay focused on results and consequences and spending money wisely."

This column is not panel-by-panel reportage on the conference, but rather impressions of what was, despite foregoing criticism and criticism to follow, a useful enterprise. The second panel on recovery perspectives began with Washington Power Council member Tom Karier's preview of the Third Annual Report to the NW Governors on BPA expenditures on the Council's fish and wildlife program. The BPA total to date is $6.4 billion over 25 years. This is the sum that backed up the observation made by BPA's Lorri Bodi, that Northwest salmon recovery is the biggest such conservation enterprise anywhere and at any time.

The cost of regional salmon recovery efforts--which could well be as much as $10 billion from all sources over recent decades--coupled with record runs has not dampened fish management spending appetites. Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority Executive Director Rod Sando told the conference that he in effect thinks recovery efforts need to be accelerated. But he appeared to want to dissociate record runs with recovery efforts. "We hit the lottery," he said of the runs.

The Buck Stops Where?
A basic difference between Sando's fish manager recovery establishment and the utilities who provide recovery money is that the utilities are responsible to--and have a direct service and financial relationship to--people for whom they also have an obligation to serve. Utilities are obligated to a defined set of ratepayers whose names are known and whose money is billed and collected.

It is increasingly difficult to define fish manager lines of responsibility, or their goals and objectives--if any. They contend mightily for their politicized version of fish and wildlife benefits with little accountability and even less connection to, or regard for, larger public policy concerns. Rod Sando, for example, told the conference he saw a conflict between BPA's obligation to provide power at low cost with its fish and wildlife obligations. He complained that "program delivery" is "suffering from a financial crisis" and lacks "adequate funds."

Sando's view is seriously out of phase with reality. BPA lost its low-cost power competitiveness on account of fish costs as much as anything. Karier identified the BPA billions spent in recovery efforts that Bodi suggested are unparalleled anywhere, and I think surely belong in the Guinness Book of World Records. Then there is the reality of record runs.

The purpose of this account is not to beat up on NOAA scientists or Rod Sando. But it needs to be noted that the conference demonstrated again that fish management continues to be seriously out of phase with the people who pay fish recovery bills, and that good salmon news hasn't made any discernible difference so far. Following Bruce Suzumoto's remark, it also showed that scientists haven't come to terms with record runs.

Following are notes on what some panelists had to say. Lorri Bodi believes that among contending parties, there is 80 percent agreement and 20 percent remaining at issue. That's an interesting observation, but I can't decide whether it's good news or not. Rob Walton of NOAA Fisheries Salmon Recovery calls for a definition of recovery--a noble idea that needs to be tried for all of its difficulty.

NOAA Fisheries Science Center economist Mark Plummer made an engaging luncheon speech that began with the observation that fussy babies can often be soothed by wrapping them in swaddling clothes--something that he related metaphorically to science and fish and wildlife policy development. Fish and wildlife policy makers would like to be comforted by being swaddled in science, Plummer said, but that's of questionable policy value.

Jack Ohman of The Oregonian brought no cartoons for which he is deservedly famous. He said that the salmon situation reminds him of the chaotic situation in the Middle East and has him wondering who the salmon wars Yasser Arafat might be.

Jack Kaeding, executive director of FishFirst, quoted one of that volunteer organization's fish scientist resources to the effect that the record runs need to spur efforts to improve spawning habitat so that a flood of adults will have enough places to spawn. Jim Veseley of The Seattle Times made a graceful and intelligent speech relating our concern for salmon runs to our regional affinity for "wilderness in our backyards." Larry Cassidy of the Power & Conservation Council (and incoming chair of the Pacific Salmon Commission) pointed out that fish counts over Bonneville may be of interest, but "recovery is in the watersheds."

John Esler of Portland General, who chairs the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission, picked part of the cast and hosted the final forum group, which included Liz Hamilton of the NW Sportsfishers Association, Bill Rudolph of NW Fishletter, Greg Delwiche of BPA, Plummer, Rick George of the Umatilla fish program, Sando and Bob Lohn, NOAA fisheries regional director. Forum members were responsive to audience questions, but in the model of NW public discussions, didn't mix it up among themselves. Lohn of course has no difficulty in saying that record runs may be with us for some time.

I pitched in with a challenge to something related to a question from Umatilla Coop's articulate manager Steve Eldrige, which was, how long will recovery continue? There was talk of the need for re-emphasized recovery programs in good times to prepare the region for the "trough" of the next downturn. The logic here is that if good times only mean you need to redouble efforts in anticipation of a dreaded trough to come, then recovery would last forever. I can't remember much in the way of an answer.

Conferences are not negotiating sessions to reach consensus on truth, beauty and salmon recovery. The purpose of the conference was to get attention paid to new recovery directions in light of big runs, and my take on it all in personal observations and in talking with some who attended was that it was a pretty good show. There is talk about follow-up events for which you are invited to stay tuned.

And as for the runs from my non-scientist lumper take, let me offer the following. When we shut down our FishWeb for the season at the end of October, Bonneville Dam counts totaled 918,073 chinook adults and 75,137 jacks--this comparing to 10-year averages of 333,166 and 45,197. At Lower Granite, 98,607 adults and 20,799 jacks had transited, which compares with 10-year averages of 38,050 and 5,271.

Let discussions of new directions continue.

Cyrus Noe
Salmon Crossroads Conference: Splitting, Lumping, Denial, the Trough, Good Show
NW Fishletter, November 26, 2003

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