NMFS Splits the Baby

Despite the best efforts of the state and tribal anti-transportation zealots, NMFS endorsed continued transportation of juvenile salmon in its biological opinion on Federal Columbia River Power System operations for 1995 and future years. NMFS even recommended a few improvements to the transportation system, including buying more barges to permit the direct loading of fish from all four collector dams.33

As a sacrifice to the states and tribes, NMFS recommended that spring transportation from McNary Dam be halted. The stated reason? Even though the scientific tests had found about twice as many transported fish returning, as a statistical matter, there was some (small) chance that there would be no benefit from transportation.34

As a result, the $15 million facility at McNary Dam has been idle every spring since 1995. And because spring chinook are no longer being transported from McNary, there is no further research to remove the remaining statistical uncertainty. The only evidence we have is that transportation at McNary nearly doubles the survival of fish, the evidence is deemed to be not good enough, and no one may collect any further evidence.

In the meantime, less political reviews of dam management continued to endorse transportation. In late 1995, the National Reseach Council concluded that based on the available information, “transportation appears to be the most biologically effective and cost-effective approach for moving smolts downstream”.35 Indeed, they declared that it “is the mitigation tool of choice until inriver migration shows higher survival rates than does barging fish”.36 The reason: “No investigator to date has provided the Columbia River region with experimental results that demonstrate higher survival of inriver migrants than transported migrants at any discharge level. Until such experimental data become available, transportation should continue to be used.”37

An interim review of transportation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December 1996 concluded that critiques of transportation lack support in sound science, and that

“In light of the research, it appears that transportation is successful and, therefore, Snake River salmon should be recovering. One explanation for the poor recent adult returns, regardless of the treatment group, is the prolonged drought and poor resulting environmental conditions that have plagued the region in the past 12 years. Other survival inhibitors may include massive increases in hatchery releases during a period of low, near-ocean productivity, anomalous concentrations of huge schools of mackerel farther north than normal during the recent and persistent El Niņo events (mackerel feed on smolts entering the ocean), recent large increases in pinniped (seals, etc.) populations that feed on adults returning to spawn, and a massive non-native shad population that may be competing with juvenile salmon for scarce resources.”38

33 NMFS, Biological Opinion on FCRPS Operations, Mar. 2, 1995, at 127 (RPA #25).

34 NMFS, Biological Opinion on FCRPS Operations, Mar. 2, 1995, at 110.

35 NRC, Upstream at 9 (Prepub. ed.)

36 Id. at 206.

37 Id. at 216.

38 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “Interim Status Report”, at 4-11.

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