The Latest Attacks on Transportation

Rebuffed in the Courts, state and tribal bureaucracies followed a time-honored approach to dealing with independent science groups like the Snake River Salmon Recovery Team and the National Research Council that didn’t give the right answer on transportation. The tactic was simple: the state and tribal forces urged the Northwest Power Planning Council to appoint yet another scientific review group to assess transportation: the Independent Science Group.

The Independent Science Group’s conclusions on transportation were a product of its general anti-technological bias. The Group argued that

“Efforts to develop technological solutions to individual human-imposed ecosystem changes have been based on the best of intentions and often on sound, if narrowly focused, science. . . . Yet the fact remains that salmon have continued to decline despite actions based on these assumptions. It is our belief that this is the result of the guiding premise that for each identified source of mortality there is an individual technological solution. This piecemeal approach to ecosystem restoration presumes that we have sufficient knowledge to identify all direct, indirect, synergistic and cumulative impacts of our actions and that we can identify a technological solution for each impact. The recognized complexity and dynamic nature of ecosystems and the lack of success of this paradigm identifies this as an act of hubris.”

Packed into this paragraph is the whole basis of the current “back to nature” fad for salmon recovery. The simple goal of putting more salmon in rivers is quietly replaced with the overriding imperative of “ecosystem restoration”, so that all measures must be judged inadequate. The fact that salmon have declined—largely due to climate, overfishing, and competition—is cast as a failure of technology and science. And science itself is replaced with a quasi-religious confession of unworthiness to the task of salmon management.

The ISG provided a complete list of the Transportation Benefit Ratios based on the studies discussed above. But as usual, the summary was misleading. The ISG asserted: “Transportation appears to have increased the survival of fish to the point of release in about half the experiments conducted during 1968-1990”.39 The unspoken implication is that transportation did not increase survival in half the experiments. The truth is that not enough fish returned in half the experiments to get a statistically-significant result.

With a biased summary of the research results, and an anti-technological bias, the ISG concluded that “[t]ransportation should be considered an experimental, interim measure pending restoration of normative conditions . . .”.40 The ISG’s report was good enough for the Oregonian, which asserted that transportation, a "traditional salmon recovery strategy", was "supported by pretty flimsy data". The editorial was entitled "Self-evident salmon truths".41

When somebody tells you that a truth is self-evident, it is apt to be a sign that we have passed from the realm of science to the realm of politics, as in "we hold these truths to be self-evident . . ." The Oregonian's Declaration of Independence from science is echoed throughout the Northwest. Environmental groups are distributing flyers all the time that ask citizens to write to their politicians and tell them that barging doesn't work. Nobody bothers to look at the facts. The bottom line is simple: transportation works. It has not succeeded in recovering the salmon by itself, but should not be expected to.

The state and tribal forces have also continued their attacks on the transportation system through their increased involvement in federal salmon spending. Throughout the fall of 1996, in meeting after meeting, state and tribal representatives (albeit not those from Idaho and Montana) urged NMFS to recommend to the Corps that it not proceed to buy additional barges to improve the transportation system, as specified in the Biological Opinion. The battle did not end until November 22nd, when NMFS finally terminated the debate and directed the Corps to award the contract less than a week later.42 Doubtless the delays increased costs.

Oregon Representative Elizabeth Furse, a mouthpiece for harvest managers, and Idaho Representative Mike Crapo, the heir to the Cecil Andrus “blame the dams” strategy for saving Southern Idaho irrigators, have joined forces to promote attacks on transportation. They are demanding that federal dam operators uncritically “accept and implement the recommendations of state and tribal fish agencies” to cut transportation.43

Idaho’s Governor Phil Batt told Idaho citizens in early 1997 that “[m]ost reports recommend a gradually declining use of barging” and that he “accept[ed] that wisdom”.44 He has convinced the entire Idaho Congressional Delegation and other Idaho interests to sign off on a plan to restrict transportation operations so as to leave two-thirds of the juvenile salmon leaving Idaho in the river.45

At this point, the only group of fishery agency scientists still willing to stand up for transportation are the elite federal fisheries scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service Montlake Lab in Seattle. Unfortunately, NMFS’ policy branch has all but silenced them. When their chief Michael Schiewe sought during a meeting of the biological opinion Implementation Team in March 1997 to offer scientific criticism of Idaho’s plans, policy enforcer Brian Brown told him, in substance, to shut up. Other scientists in the Lab have found outright misrepresentations of scientific papers in Idaho’s “analyses” of efforts to assist juvenile salmon. The Montlake Lab is one of the last bastions of science in Northwest fishery agencies, perhaps because of its close proximity to, and close relationship with, the University of Washington.

On March 25, 1997, the Columbia River Alliance delivered a notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service and several other federal agencies because, among other things, the Service had caved in to state and tribal pressure in reducing the fraction of salmon transported. Shortly thereafter, on April 4th, the Service held a meeting of the “Executive Committee” of high-ranking federal, state and tribal officials to consider a proposal by the state of Idaho and several of the tribes to barge only one-third of the fish in the river. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke ranks with the other federal agencies to support the proposal. But the National Marine Fisheries Service turned it down, with NMFS Regional Director Will Stelle pointing out that if they transported less than half the fish, they’d probably get sued, and probably lose. This I counted as one of our litigation successes.

The state and tribal forces continue to inflict the death of a thousand cuts on the transportation system. No attention is paid to further improvements that could increase survival dramatically. For example, research conducted by private salmon ranching companies has demonstrated that the survival of released smolts can be doubled by towing a net pen full of smolts several miles out to sea, beyond the range of many of the salmon predators in the estuary (particularly birds).46 Other research found a 50% survival increase when coho were released downriver at Tongue Point rather than immediately below Bonneville Dam.47

But the fishery agencies ignore this research, and no one is modifying the current transportation program to take advantage of this knowledge. It would be inconsistent with efforts to promote the Great Salmon Hoax to make transportation more effective.

Lacking any scientific evidence against transportation, the opponents have become more and more vitriolic. Idaho salmon activist Ed Chaney calls it a “huge scientific hoax”, claims that the data are “cooked”, and says that claims of benefits from transportation are “fairy tales”.48 Environmentalists call the barges “iron coffins”.49 In a successful (albeit short-lived) attempt to shut down transportation at two dams during the spring of 1997, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Ron Boyce declared that BPA’s demands for scientific evidence amounted to “a witch hunt”, and that the further information was “irrelevant” in deciding to shut down the transportation system.50

By the fall of 1997, environmentalists even went so far as to bring television news reporters to watch smolt releases from barges. Some juvenile shad, much more fragile than the salmon, die in the barges. Seagulls gather to eat them when the barges are unloaded. The gullible reporters produced "a deluge of negative press, the gist of the news coverage being 'look at all of the gulls eating our salmon and steelhead'".51 But the fish being eaten were shad; the juvenile salmon and steelhead swim straight down upon release and avoid the birds.52 And, after all, the studies show that transported groups still have double the chance of surviving to adulthood, even if birds catch some of them coming out of the barges. This fact was not reported.

As the claims of anti-transportation zealots are echoed in the media, the federal and academic scientists who actually measure and know its benefits remain publicly silent. Over time, transportation has acquired a bad name for no legitimate reason.

Yet the data continue to mount that transportation works, although it is not publicized. In December 1996, the HARZA consulting firm reported that a preliminary study of 1994 outmigrants showed that 7.5 times more wild Snake River salmon that were transported returned to the river, compared to untransported ones.53 As of the end of May, 1997, the preliminary data including 1995 outmigrants showed that 2.7 times as many transported wild fish were returning as untransported ones.54 Donna Darm of the National Marine Fisheries Service even acknowledged publicly in June 1997 that according to this preliminary data, if full transportation had been in effect in 1995, there would have been ten to fifteen thousand more adult salmon returning in 1997. In August 1997, NMFS scientists reported that they expect that salmon juveniles transported downriver in 1995 may wind up returning at rate of “about 2.3%, which is consistent with return rates observed prior to full Snake River hydropower development”.55

Over the next couple of years, there is every reason to believe that the data will continue to show transportation works. Nevertheless, every state and tribal fishery agency in the Pacific Northwest continues to support decreasing the percentage of fish transported. In September 1997, Dr. Chapman warned that this position was "at best simply not consistent with the tenets of adaptive management"; "[t]o deliberately send smolts through the system to make a political point in support of dam breaching is, at worst, irresponsible, hypocritical, and criminal . . ."56 Stephen Mealey, Director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, responded by asserting that the pro-transportation "perspective has been relegated to the fringe of scientific thought . . ."57

Ironically, as we engineer better and better dam passage for salmon, transportation should show less effectiveness—if dam passage is at all a significant source of mortality. Killing fewer fish in the river will make transportation look worse, because more untransported fish will return. The fact that transportation benefit ratios have remained roughly the same despite big changes in river operations seems to suggest, consistent with the evidence in Chapter 4, that expensive changes in dam operations don't even make a measurable difference for salmon survival.

39 ISG, Return to the River 326.

40 Id. at 62.

41 The Oregonian, Oct. 1, 1996.

42 Letter, B. Brown (NMFS) to Lt. Col. D. Curtis (USACE), Nov. 22, 1996, at 1.

43 Letter, E. Furse & M. Crapo to R. Hardy et al., Dec. 9, 1996, at 2.

44 P. Batt, “State of the State Address”, Jan. 6, 1997.

45 Press Release, Mar. 27, 1997, and accompanying “Measures to Enhance Salmon and Steelhead Migration Success During 1997”, at 3 (Idaho Governor’s Office). Governor Batt was willing to allow half the fish to be transported, but only so long as flows in the Snake dropped below 100,000 cubic feet per second, which “Idaho does not anticipate” would happen during the spring migration period.

46 W. McNeil, R. Gowan & R. Severson, “Offshore Release of Salmon Smolts”, American Fisheries Society Symposium 10:548-553 (1991).

47 M. Solazzi, T. Nichelson & S. Johnson, “Survival, contribution and return of hatchery coho salmon (Onchorhynchus kisutch) smolts”, 37 Can. J. Fish. & Aquat. Sci. 765-69 (1991).

48 Quoted in K. Petersen, River of Life, Channel of Death 186.

49 Quoted in B. Rudolph, “Stelle Says Half the Fish Will Stay in Barges”, Clearing Up, April 14, 1997, at 5.

50 Quoted in B. Rudolph, “TMT Wrestles with Questions of Barging and Spill”, Clearing Up, May 19, 1997, at 8.

51 Draft TMT Meeting Minutes, Oct. 1, 1997, at 13 ( (downloaded 10/20/97)).

52 Id.

53 HARZA Consultants, “Salmon Decision Analysis Lower Snake River Feasibility Study Final Report”, at 11-7.

54 Testimony of Will Stelle, reported in W. Rudolph, “House Subcommittee Hears Testimony on Drawdowns”, Clearing Up, June 9, 1997, at 6

55 Memo, M. Schiewe to W. Stelle, Aug. 1, 1997, at 2.

56 Letter, D. Chapman to Interested Parties, Sept. 4, 1997.

57 Quoted in B. Rudolph, "Debate Heats Up After Consultant Calls for More Barging", Clearing Up, Nov. 14, 1997, at 9.

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