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Commentaries and editorials

Effectiveness of Smolt Transportation

by Rob Masonis
Columbia Basin Bulletin - March 14, 2003

John McKern's diatribe in last week's feedback section attacking the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, American Rivers, and former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt for criticizing federal salmon recovery efforts misses the mark and reflects the kind of thinking that has plagued salmon "recovery efforts" for decades.

It is ironic that McKern, who accuses American Rivers and former Secretary Babbitt of ignoring the science, so badly misrepresents the science and the efficacy of Snake River dam removal. While it is true, as McKern states, that in drought years transportation improves survival of juvenile salmon to the point of release below Bonneville relative to fish that migrate in-river, that is only one small piece of a much larger problem.

The key fact is -- and has been since the juvenile transportation and dam bypass systems were put in place -- that neither juvenile salmon transported in barges nor juvenile salmon migrating in-river return in numbers sufficient to recover Snake River stocks. This key fact is conveniently and routinely ignored by the federal agencies and, apparently, by McKern.

Since McKern does not think much of American Rivers' view of the science, I offer the following direct quote from the region's Independent Scientific Advisory Board: "It is impossible to reconcile a maximum transport approach to salmon recovery with protection of the remaining diversity of salmon and steelhead populations." Enough said.

McKern's fundamental mischaracterization of the issue also leads him to wrongly conclude that removing the lower Snake River dams would be harmful to salmon (i.e., dam removal = more fish migrating in river = lower survival relative to transportation = more dead fish). Let me put this argument to bed simply by citing the National Marine Fisheries Service's Biological Opinion. The BiOp shows that dam removal -- even under the most conservative assumptions -- would improve spring/summer chinook salmon survival more than the actions called for by the current non-breach plan; in the best case scenario dam removal would increase survival by by a whopping 400 percent. Not to mention the fact that mainstem spawning fall chinook would see an enormous increase in spawning habitat if the dams were removed. So I ask, who is ignorant of or refusing to acknowledge the science?

Like the parable about the blind man touching the tail of an elephant and declaring that it is much like a snake, McKern focuses on just one issue, the relative survival of transported versus in-river migrants from Lower Granite to Bonneville dams, to draw erroneous conclusions about the effectiveness of the Corps' fish transportation program and of dam removal on lower Snake River salmon and steelhead. Unfortunately, this flawed perspective, which appears to have many adherents within the Army Corps of Engineers, has led to considerable ratepayer and taxpayer waste over the years, and it holds no promise of recovering wild Snake River salmon and steelhead to healthy, harvestable levels -- the goal agreed to by the region's four governors.

In closing, if I had a dollar for every scientist who has worked on salmon issues in the Columbia Basin -- including many in federal and state agencies that have taken an "official" position against dam removal -- who has said to me that dam removal is essential to recovering Snake River stocks, I would have supplemented my income handsomely. Politics, Mr. McKern, not science, is the reason that dam removal is not being pursued at the moment, and in the meantime the region continues to waste millions of dollars placing gadgets and gizmos on the four lower Snake River dams that will not achieve the desired outcome.

Rob Masonis, Director, Northwest Regional Office, American Rivers
Effectiveness of Smolt Transportation
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 14, 2003

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