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Not Even Close to Reality

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, April 2006

Part 5 - Salmon and Dams

Let's talk about how salmon populations are "listed" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Listing begins the process that launches ESA's powers against natural-resource users, directly through actions of ESA enforcement agencies (NOAA Fisheries for Columbia River salmon), indirectly through litigation by private environmental groups.

First some personal background.

"Sometimes you wonder if what the Lieutenant doesn't know officially, he doesn't know at all." That line comes from Richard McKenna's 1963 novel Sand Pebbles. The book is about a U.S. Navy vessel caught in the turmoil of post-World War I China. The passage expresses a crewman's amazement at his commander's ability to ignore inconvenient reality.

The two decades following my reading of McKenna's book gave me frequent opportunities to participate in professional fisheries management as an insider, perhaps more accurately a "semi-insider." These occurred when I was asked to serve as an economist on fisheries advisory committees, study groups and so on. Few other participants knew much about economic principles. Many disliked them. However, in those days (late '60s to mid '80s) external politics and sometimes regulation dictated consideration of economics. A reasonably trouble-free way to comply with that annoyance was to put a young academic economist on a committee, then let him understand his principal duty was silence.

Such assignments let me observe and reflect on the gap between what was known (or readily knowable) about fisheries science and management and what was known "officially," meaning stated during the public phases of management meetings or written in published reports. In those days modern (Sierra Club style) environmentalism had not achieved its current power. The drivers of the fisheries science and management culture were a much older "fight for the fish" tradition among fisheries biologists, a "research-for-its-own-sake" attitude toward fisheries science, and the budgetary and turf interests of fisheries agencies. Key to the latter concern was rapport with commercial fishermen and processors. I sometimes broke the covenant of silence. Once a biologist, old enough to have worked for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (first precursor to today's NOAA Fisheries), lost patience with my nattering. He put it to me straight. "We work for our constituents [commercial fishermen and processors], they wrote the law." To write these columns about Columbia River salmon and dams I reviewed NOAA Fisheries ESA compliance documents produced during the 1990s. Everything cannot be learned about bureaucratic processes from the outside. However, what is in the public record suggests little has changed since I was dressed down by that old-school fisheries biologist, for not understanding the difference between "us" (biologists, bureaucrats and fishermen) and "them" (everybody else).

Officially, the ESA listing procedure is supposed to resemble a medical diagnosis. Ethical doctors don't give patients unwarranted clean bills of health just to make them happy, nor do they exaggerate ailments to pad bills. Those that do are condemned by medical professionals and layman alike, perhaps even the offenders in their private moments. Not so ESA involved fisheries scientists. At the civil service level within the agency, "getting a listing" is the brass ring, the first prize - the end game. ESA listings extend the jurisdiction and buttress the budgetary justification of listing agencies (NOAA Fisheries for salmon and other marine and anadromous fish, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for other species). Listings also benefit the agencies' traditional constituents. As evidence of this, Columbia River salmon harvesters support the most draconian post-listing ESA enforcement measures, provided they bear primarily on hydro or other non-fishing interests. The purpose of scientific investigation is not determining whether a listing decision is warranted. It is defending that decision against "outside" criticism, from administration officials above the agency, from the Congress, or from private parties through public comment and litigation.

To illustrate, let's pick up last month's discussion of how ESA-legal salmon populations were defined. Chinook salmon are recognized as a species by scientific bodies independent of the ESA enforcement process. Chinook salmon number in the millions, range throughout the North Pacific ocean, and spawn in rivers from Northern California to Western Russia. NOAA Fisheries scientists used ESA's "distinct population segment" (DPS) provision to split the species four times. Columbia River chinook salmon were deemed biologically different from other North Pacific chinook populations; all hatchery salmon were distinguished from all "wild" (in-stream spawning) fish; and adult chinook returning to the Columbia in the spring were distinguished from fall returners.

Even finer distinctions were made. The numerous fall returning, chinook salmon that spawn in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia, just upstream from the mouth of the Snake, were deemed biologically distinct from the smaller population (also in-stream spawning, fall chinook) that returns to the mainstem of the Snake River. Also separated from those "wild" (in-stream spawning) Snake River fish was the substantial population of Snake River fall chinook maintained by the Lyons Ferry hatchery on the lower Snake, though that hatchery was built for the specific purpose of offsetting declining in-stream spawners with biologically comparable (same broodstock) fish. From these distinctions emerged the Snake River (in-stream spawning) fall chinook salmon Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU).

By similar splittings, 17 ESUs were defined in the Columbia River drainage. Thirteen were subsequently listed as endangered (highest risk of extinction) or threatened (lesser risk). (For the benefit of regular readers, last month's 12 ESUs excluded steelhead.) See last month's Wheat Life column and the reference below for the NOAA Fisheries rationalization of the ESU concept and its application to specific salmon populations. If you get lost in bio-speak, use the wonderful new online resource Wikipedia to look up definitions. Those listing decisions invoked ESA's powers throughout the Columbia River and adjacent lands. They made NOAA Fisheries (an agency created to serve marine fishermen) a land- and water-use czar in the Inland Northwest. Through ESA's "citizen enforcement" provision they similarly extended the power of salmon fishing industry and national environmental group lobbyists. The latter power is now being exercised in Judge James Redden's court. The NOAA Fisheries justification for listing Snake River (in-stream spawning) fall chinook as threatened is quoted below from the April 1992 federal register.

"Snake River fall chinook salmon have substantially declined in abundance and are currently limited to a fraction of their former range. Hydropower development, water withdrawal and diversions, harvest and inadequate regulatory mechanisms are factors contributing to the decline of [this] species [meaning ESU] and represent continued threats to [its] existence. . . . In making its final determination NMFS [now NOAA Fisheries] considered the 1991 estimated escapement of 318 wild [in-stream spawning] adult fall chinook salmon above Lower Granite Dam. This represents a considerable increase over the 1990 escapement of 78 adults."

What could be more threatened than a "species" reduced to 318 members? Perhaps, if it were really a species, meaning scientifically recognized and incapable of breeding outside its membership, even with human assistance. But that's not even close to reality. With the exception of minor physiological and behavioral differences, the 318 were (and are) part of a vastly larger population of Columbia River fall returning chinook salmon. Components of that population successfully interbreed and often intermingle for that purpose. What separates the 318 from their brethren is assignment to a category that never existed before ESA enforcement began in the early '90s, and which exists nowhere else today, outside the NOAA Fisheries ESU classification scheme.

For the rest of the story lets turn the mirror a bit.

The following discussion relies on the same NOAA Fisheries documents covering the same period (early 1990s), plus dam counts provided by the Fish Passage Center; the difference being the combination in one ESU of all fall chinook salmon returning to the upper Columbia River (above Bonneville dam). Internal differences (Snake versus Columbia returning, in-stream versus hatchery spawning) are recognized. However, they are not, as in the NOAA Fisheries classification, given the biological-legal significance of differences between bats and buffalo.

What results is the following argument for not listing any Columbia River fall chinook salmon spawning above Bonneville dam under ESA. That would not (in the early '90s, or today) mean letting the population die out or losing any component. It would mean leaving management in the hands of those who were previously responsible, who would be responsible without ESA listing, and who do most of the work today under ESA rules.

The Columbia-River-above-Bonneville-dam-fall-chinook ESU (my creation) is a strong, internally diverse population. Total adult returns (in stream spawners, plus all hatchery fish) were 226,404 in 1986, 150,191 in 1991 and 583,422 in 2004.

A significant component of that ESU is the in-stream spawning population of the Hanford Reach, the last free flowing segment of the Columbia River in the U.S. That river segment has long benefited from special dam and reservoir operating rules that protect spawning fall chinook salmon. Approximate Hanford Reach production (in-stream spawners plus biologically comparable hatchery fish) was 91,132 in 1986, 38,093 in 1991 and 104,726 in 2004. Those totals consisted primarily of in-stream spawners.

Also contributing are hatchery programs that maintain "natural" (meaning pre-European development) population genetics. Notable among the latter is the Lyons Ferry (Snake River) hatchery. Built in 1984 to mitigate for Snake River dam salmon mortality, Lyons Ferry uses only native Snake River fish for broodstock. The facility's approximate production (returning directly to the hatchery) was 2337 adults in 1986, 3856 in 1991 and 6,149 in 2004. Lyons Ferry also supplies juveniles to programs that supplement in-stream spawning above the Snake River dams, as discussed below.

The ESU's other components include in-stream spawning Snake River fish. Natural straying and interbreeding as well as successful human transfers between regions demonstrate the health and adaptability of the larger population, of which these currently depressed components are an integral part. A notable example of successful human transfer is the flourishing salmon population of Idaho's Coeur d' Alene Lake and surrounding rivers, derived from Columbia River fall chinook broodstock. Another example is restoration of nearly extinct in-stream spawning salmon to the Clearwater River (a major tributary of the Snake).

These successes suggest depressed segments can be maintained. Or, given financial resources, rebuilt to desired levels. Since the early '90s such programs have been undertaken with the following dramatic results. Approximate Snake River in-stream spawners were 782 in 1986, 633 in 1991 and 14,960 in 2004, based on dam counts.

Along with other mid and upper Columbia salmon, the Columbia-River- above-Bonneville-dam-fall-chinook ESU has benefited (since the '80s) from a barge transportation program that moves juveniles around dams and through reservoirs. By 1992, survival in barges was known to be in the high 90-percent range. Subsequent tagging studies demonstrated good river-plus-ocean survival, relative both to in-river transit and overall survival needs.

Somewhere in that mountain of promise (well evident by 1992), NOAA Fisheries found a mole hill of despair: the 318 "wild" fall chinook salmon the agency estimated returned to the Snake River in 1991. The previously cited federal register notice suggests that estimate carried considerable weight in its listing decision.

That's how listing works, like it or not.

Next we move to risk assessment and recovery planning.

That will take us near the end of the process that produced Biop2000, the Clinton administration's Columbia River salmon - ESA compliance plan. Long term followers of the salmon-dams issue will recognize measures in that plan that made Snake River dam removal a major Northwest political issue during the 2000 election campaign. Readers of this and preceding columns should begin to understand how those measures were wired into the ESA compliance process at its beginning, nearly a decade prior.

Related Pages:
Snake Fall Chinook Studies Get More Complicated by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 12/20/6

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
Not Even Close to Reality
Wheat Life, April 2006

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