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Still Caught in the Salmon Cycle

by Tracy Warner, Editorial Page editor
Wenatchee World, June 19, 2008

Salmon politics in the Northwest follow a rhythmical pattern, a predictable cycle, the Pacific biennial litigious oscillation. First, the federal government, as required by the Endangered Species Act, compiles a very weighty plan on how the vast system of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers can be operated without jeopardizing the many endangered salmon species. It has a catchy title: the Biological Opinion, or the BiOp. Then follows a lawsuit from the practiced lawyers representing environmental groups, commercial fishermen and Indian tribes, who argue that the BiOp does not propose a sufficient dismantling of the regional power system. The show then moves to the court of federal judge James Redden, who tosses out the BiOp, chastises its government authors for devious sloppiness, orders a new plan, and issues various warnings and threats. The plaintiffs then continue their public relations campaign advocating the breaching of four dams on the Snake River and the disappearance of enough carbonless power to light Seattle, and then some. That is the grail, the true desire, the object of the quest.

Then, they start again.

We have just entered the lawsuit phase. The new BiOp is out, written to replace the previously rejected BiOp, which was written to replace the previously rejected BiOp, etc. The lawsuit has been filed. The public relations campaign is under way. The litigants have paraded their giant salmon to Washington, D.C., where they denounced the government and cheered the potential dismantling of the Snake River dams. Judge Redden awaits.

All this arguing is based on the assumption that the survival or destruction of salmon is determined by human actions taken during the small fraction of their life spent in the fresh water of the Columbia and Snake, and that hydroelectric dams and everything associated with them are the primary obstacle to what should naturally and justly be salmon in breathtaking abundance.

What if that's not true? Science provides hints. For instance, a series of undersea detectors has been installed, from the Columbia north to the Gulf of Alaska, called the Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking (POST) program, operated by Canadian scientists. Small acoustic devices are installed in selected young salmon, enabling scientists to track in detail individual fish through their migrations, from Idaho to Alaska and back. The early findings are interesting.

POST senior scientist George Jackson said this to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council last year, as reported in the council's newsletter: "When you compare just the raw survival estimates, there appears to be no difference in the survival of migrating fish in the Fraser and Columbia rivers. However, when you scale that for distance, survival of the fish migrating out of the Columbia through eight dams is actually higher than the Fraser River (which has no dams). That's just what the data shows. I know it's controversial, but that's what the data shows. The data shows there appears to be no influence (from) the presence of dams in the survival of the migrating smolts. So if all of the dams on the Columbia River were removed, it may actually do no good. It may have very little effect if the real issue with salmon survival is in the ocean. Now, that might be a far-flung statement, but from the evidence we have, something's going on in the ocean."

Removing dams would do no good. The problem is at sea, not the river. If that is the case, the lawsuit-plan-lawsuit-plan-lawsuit cycle is mainly a waste of time, if salmon survival is your real goal.

Tracy Warner, Editorial Page editor