Quick fixes rarely suffice
by U.S. Senator Larry Craig (ID)
In this decade the "quick fix" solution has become a rather trendy way to pass off society's ills. Most recently, it has been manifested by society banning and blaming the symptoms instead of healing the illnesses of our times. By faulting tobacco for cancer, guns for youth violence, tabloids for political corruptness, and in the Northwest - dams for salmon endangerement, it's easy to offer a quick fix for complex societal and individual problems that require long term solutions.
For some time now, the mantra, "It's the dams, stupid," has been the only solution chanted by environmental groups for Northwest salmon. Much time and effort has been spent assessing the risk for salmon in the Federal Columbia River Hydrosystem, and millions of dollars have gone into technological fixes for dams crafted by credible scientists and skilled engineers. However, like most Americans, Northwesterners become impatient when we do not see immediate results, particularly when environmental spin points to a "quick fix" solution. Call me a skeptic, but the notion that salmon decline in the Northwest is caused solely by the federal hydrosystem has always struck me as tremendously naive and shortsighted. Yet, because there has been such a strong resistance from the environmental community to study any other solution than dam breaching, the public is generally unaware that Northwest salmon face even greater problems outside of the Columbia River basin and fresh water.
Last week the Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing focused on the plight of Northwest salmon. Some of the most insightful testimony came from Dr. David Welch, a Canadian government oceanographer who studies salmon in their primary habitat -- the ocean.
"We now know that the assumption that the ocean is a relatively benign and unchanging habitat for salmon is untrue. Enormous reductions in ocean survival of many species of Pacific salmon have occured," reported Dr. Welch. "In each region (of decline), the primary cause of the sharp declines (of salmon) has been a change in ocean survival."
According to Dr. Welch, the seriously limited carrying capacity of the ocean for anadromous fish off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska is quite likely the cause of diminishing stocks of adult salmon in the Northwest. Even if the fresh-water system produced more fish, the depleted habitat in the ocean cannot sustain them. If this is true, virtually nothing done to dams in the Columbia River basin would affect the population of salmon in the long run.
Some scientists within the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have also researched the effects of changing oceanic habitat on salmon. Dr. Edmundo Casillas and his assistant Rick Brodeur have studied this for some time. At a hearing before the Northwest Power and Planning Council in April, Dr. Casillas testified that oceanic climate conditions are a major factor in the decline of salmon and the rise of natural predators. Dr. Cassilas and Welch agree that warming trends have caused the growth of salmon predators and competitors, besides depleting viable habitat.
NMFS' own recently released appendix to the Lower Snake River Feasibility Study, which consists of an analysis of scientific conclusions and recommendations from a group of over 20 regional scientists, suggest that more scientific research is necessary before any confident prediction of the effects of removing the four lower Snake River dams is reached. Juvenile salmon, who are thought to be so badly damaged from the Columbia hydrosystem they cannot survive, are actually doing much better than expected from the pit-tag data obtained from computer chips attached to the fish.
Yet none of this data has registered with the robust and apparently lucrative "cottage industry" of salmon saving organizations that has sprung up in our region, all of them now united in one goal - to destroy the lower Snake River dams. In a blind leap for what they would term progress, these organizations continue to ignore the compelling evidence that the dams are not the primary cause of salmon decline. Indeed, the cause may even be more frightening and more threatening than the dams could ever be.
As scientific studies continue, facts must be our guide, not emotion, passion, or a good intentioned personal agenda that appears to hold captive many in the environmental movement. Oceanic temperature change must be aggressively researched as well as every other area of salmon life cycles before any conclusions are reached. In fact, acknowledging that quick fixes will not address our problems may be the first step in the battle to save our salmon.
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