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Testimony of Robert J. Masonis
American Rivers

9/14/00 - Delivered before the Committee on Environment and Public
Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water Works

Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and other distinguished members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for inviting me to testify before you today regarding the Administration's draft plan to save Columbia and Snake River salmon. I am the Director of Northwest Conservation Programs for American Rivers, a national river conservation organization, and Board Chair of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, a coalition of over 50 commercial fishing associations, sport-fishing groups, fishing-related businesses and conservation organizations from across the Northwest. American Rivers and the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition have been active for many years in the effort to recover salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The recent release of the National Marine Fisheries Services' draft Biological Opinion was an important milestone in the region's effort to develop a recovery plan for the listed salmon in the Snake and Columbia River Basins. The challenge now is to improve the draft and finalize it on schedule by the end of 2000. One issue that is clearly not disputed among scientists is that the time to act is now if we are to recover salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin; further delay is unacceptable.

Let me start by stating that we believe the general framework set forth in the draft Biological Opinion represents a workable, logical approach to addressing this extremely complex issue. While we support this general framework of action and adaptive management, we believe that the draft Biological Opinion is severely lacking in several critical respects, including the adequacy of the specific remedial actions and the implementation timeline. I will explain these concerns in more detail in a moment.

I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the National Marine Fisheries Service scientists who have worked hard over the last year on the Cumulative Risk Initiative. They have made significant contributions to our understanding of the current, tenuous state of Columbia and Snake River salmon. Their work has shown that many of the listed stocks are at high risk of extinction in the short term, and that we must move forward with aggressive, effective actions if we are to get these stocks on the road to recovery before it is too late.

But the draft Biological Opinion suffers from several deep flaws that must be remedied if it is to pass scientific and legal muster.

First, the draft Biological Opinion largely ignores the extensive, sound analysis of the team of federal, state, and tribe scientists known as PATH. There are other witnesses, including PATH representatives, who are better equipped to address the crucial differences between CRI and PATH, and the failure of the draft Biological Opinion to adequately address the PATH findings, so I will not cover that same ground here. But it is abundantly clear to us that during the last year the National Marine Fisheries Service has largely taken the science "in house" and failed to adequately consult with the other federal, state, and tribal scientists, including those who were part of PATH. Consequently, in several critical areas NMFS has substituted its own scientific judgments for those of the PATH scientists without analysis demonstrating that the PATH findings and judgments are flawed. Second, the aggressive, non-breach recovery actions the Administration has touted as the cornerstone of the draft Biological Opinion are, in fact, not there. Instead, the document sets forth laudable objectives, promises tough performance standards (to be developed at a later date), and then sets forth a list of actions that consist mostly of studies, investigations, pilot projects, and planning processes. Remarkably, the hydropower system measures are essentially the same as those set forth in the 1995 Biological Opinion, with no hard flow requirements and a continued reliance on fish barging, a practice which has been roundly and deservedly criticized by the region's scientific community.

For example, proposed measures include: a two-year study by the Bureau of Reclamation to determine the extent of unauthorized water use in the basin, and a five-year draft feasibility analysis of potential changes in existing flood control operations to aid salmon. These purportedly "aggressive" actions will not save one fish in the near term, and may not ever.

Our point is not that these steps are not worthy of pursuit, they are, but they are not measures that will boost listed stocks in the short and long term. Such actions would include requiring adequate flows in all tributaries containing spawning habitat or requiring sufficient flow augmentation to provide for the migratory needs of salmon and steelhead. The final Biological Opinion must require implementation of such actions in a timely manner dictated by the needs of salmon.

Third, the draft Biological Opinion fails to define "recovery" levels for the listed stocks. Of course, the adequacy of the proposed actions cannot be determined without first determining what is necessary to achieve "recovery," as required by the ESA. It also bears emphasis that it is "recovery" that the region's four Governors have defined as the goal, not merely avoiding extinction. The final Biological Opinion should rectify this major flaw by setting forth an aggressive schedule for defining recovery goals for each of the listed stocks and then adjusting the Biological Opinion as needed to achieve those goals.

Fourth, the draft Biological Opinion fails to provide for timely implementation of lower Snake River dam bypass should other recovery actions either not be implemented or prove inadequate. The current timeline puts off a decision on bypassing the lower Snake River dams for at least eight years, and implementation would be closer to 15 years out. That is inconsistent with the needs of Snake River salmon. The Cumulative Risk Initiative projects that Snake River spring/summer Chinook and fall Chinook populations will be half the size they are today in less that five and ten years, respectively, if current trends hold.

There is no dispute that bypassing the lower Snake River dams is the single best recovery action for Snake River stocks, and it must therefore be available if and when the fish need it. To make that possible, the final Biological Opinion must contain a firm commitment to completing all preparatory work for dam removal no later than 2005, and a requirement that the action agencies must seek immediate authorization from Congress in 2005 to bypass the dams if Snake River stocks are not firmly on the path to recovery. To do otherwise would be to ignore the best available science and greatly increase the risk of extinction for Snake River stocks.

In closing, American Rivers and the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition are committed to working with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the other federal agencies to remedy the deficiencies in the draft Biological Opinion before the final is issued. The necessary changes do not require new analysis or modeling, but rather can be made based on available information developed by PATH, CRI, and other credible sources and should be completed no later than the end of the year. There is absolutely no excuse for further delay. Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead need strong, effective measures now if we are to realize our collective goal of recovering healthy, harvestable stocks.

Thank you.

Robert J. Masonis, American Rivers
Testimony of Robert J. Masonis
Committee on Environment and Public, Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water Works - September 14, 2000

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