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Commentaries and editorials

Group Slams Dam Study

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald
- October 13, 1999

Dam-breaching advocates have launched another salvo toward the White House with the release of a harsh analysis of federal salmon science in the Northwest.

A group of state, tribal and federal scientists finished a study late last week that criticized the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for downplaying the effectiveness of dam breaching to restore threatened and endangered fish stocks on the Lower Snake River.

They said more data - along with years of delay on a dam decision - probably won't eliminate the uncertainty about whether it's best to tear down the lower four Snake dams or try other methods to restore the fish.

And they challenged the fishery agency's use of numbers to say that barging fish downstream could be a solid recovery measure.

The head of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association fired off that study Monday to the NMFS assistant administrator in Maryland along with a letter asking her to muzzle employees in the agency who talk down the effectiveness of dam breaching and "get this mess back on track."

"This is stupid and insulting ... to suggest that the dams are not a problem for fish and that if we continue doing what we're doing they are going to be fine," said Liz Hamilton, with the sport-fishing association.

NMFS concluded this spring that breaching has the best chance of fish recovery in a wide range of potential future scenarios but said it is "not certain that breaching is absolutely necessary."

Environmentalists are sensing an attempt by NMFS to delay a decision on the dams, which have become a national environmental battleground.

One environmental newsletter included an article Monday headlined "NMFS helping hydro wiggle off the hook."

"Something smells fishy," stated a story in the Columbia-Snake Rivers Campaign about a federal official who said Snake River fall chinook and steelhead could possibly be rescued by some means short of dam breaching.

NMFS spokesmen could not be reached Tuesday. In April, NMFS officials toured the region, saying new information about barging is showing it's better than previously thought. About 98 percent of fish barged downstream to the ocean survive the trip, but the big question is whether those fish are weaker than fish that make their own way to the ocean.

The fish agency - in part responding to the calls by many in the region for a solution less drastic than breaching - is developing a fish-recovery strategy that includes a look at harvest, hydropower, habitat and hatcheries.

Those who signed the October report are from the Oregon, Idaho and Washington wildlife departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Columbia Basin Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

They put some blame for ocean mortality on the hydrosystem - and they were critical of how NMFS interpreted the "D-values," the term for the difference in survival rates between barged and in-river fish.

They said NMFS used D-values that were almost twice as high as "reasonable assumptions," thereby falsely reducing the effect of dams.

"(NMFS) is not telling the whole story," Hamilton said.

Jeff Curtis, with Trout Unlimited in Oregon, also said NMFS has long tried to downplay the effectiveness of dam breaching choosing instead to look at the benefits of barging fish around the dams - exactly what dam defenders support as the correct perspective.

Last week's report "clearly shows that NMFS is out of step with virtually all of the other fish management agencies in the Columbia Basin, which are saying that partial dam removal is the key to restoring Snake River salmon," he said.

Mike Lee
Group Slams Dam Study
Tri-City Herald October 13, 1999

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