“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.” Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

History is riddled with examples of political misadventures with science. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred during the 1930s in Soviet Russia. Stalin’s personal friend Lysenko had his own theories about evolution and genetics, and attempted to implement those theories all over the land. Starvation resulted as agricultural cooperatives were forced to plant to his specifications. Lysenko was executed, but today’s fish managers are promoted.

The annals of federal government misadventures in applied science should make anyone a skeptic about the likely success of big government programs. Recent decades have seen government efforts to distill oil from rock (“shale oil”), a promotion of unneeded nuclear reactors (like WPPSS), and a program to clean up toxic wastes by paying lawyers to fight about them (CERCLA) that rivals salmon recovery as the most expensive environmental boondoggle in history.

This history of failure may be what gives the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers smolt transportation program a bad name. But there have been government successes in science, like the space program. And smolt transportation is another.

Measuring the Effects of Transporting Juvenile Fish

The idea is simple. By barging the salmon around the dams, they can avoid turbine mortality, which cumulated over many dams may be significant. Even more importantly, they can also avoid predators in hundreds of miles of river.

The transportation program started as an emergency measure in response to drought conditions in the 1970s, when most of the salmon were dying before they got downriver. Later, after research confirmed the benefits of transportation, the program was expanded. There is some possibility that many salmon runs would be extinct today if they hadn’t been saved by the transportation program.

The research itself was simple and convincing. The National Marine Fisheries Service tagged two groups of fish, left one in the river, and put one in a barge. The barge took the transported group downriver and released it below the dams. Then, two, three, four or more years later when the fish returned as adults, NMFS compared the ratio of barged to in-river returns. For years this ratio was generally called the TBR, or Transportation Benefit Ratio. When the TBR is greater than one, transports outnumbered controls. Starting around 1996, the conservation biologists deemed it improper to speak of the Transportation Benefit Ratio, and the politically-correct term is now the Transportation In-river Ratio or TIR.

Positive transportation ratios have been observed for all the major races of salmon. So far, roughly 32 experiments have been conducted with spring and summer chinook salmon transported from Snake River Dams to below Bonneville Dam. In 13 of the experiments, enough adults came back to make the resulting TBR statistically significant. Every one of those TBRs was greater than one; their average is 4.89, a figure that is inflated by very high TBRs in 1973 (averaging 16.1).1

Sockeye experiments have been conducted with transportation from Priest Rapids Dam in the Mid-Columbia River. In three out of five years, the TBR exceeded one. The data for fall chinook are primarily based on tests at McNary Dam, just downstream of the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and again the TBRs have been consistently high. They are even higher for steelhead.

The positive results of transportation are not unique to the Columbia River Basin. As Dr. William McNeil, Professor Emeritus at Oregon State University has pointed out, “European workers have been evaluating transport of Atlantic salmon smolts for nearly two decades”.2 High positive TBR values have been found in Swedish rivers, Norwegian rivers, and also in Japan.3

Snake River salmon have continued to decline despite an extensive transportation program, but the best science suggests that the decline would have been a lot worse without transportation. Drs. Chapman and Giorgi compared the number of smolts getting downriver from the Upper Columbia (transported from only one dam, McNary) with smolts getting downriver from the Snake (transported from McNary and two other dams). They found that from 1979 to 1988, the Snake River escapements (returning adults) increased at a greater rate than the Columbia River escapements.4 This provides evidence of the efficacy of transportation notwithstanding the general downward trends in population abundance.

The success of transportation should not surprise anyone, since it was invented precisely to overcome the objections of fishery advocates. They have a litany of complaints about the condition of the river. It is too hot. There are too many predators. There is not enough water. The dams kill the salmon. By putting salmon in a barge, and having a tugboat push them down the river, all these problems are avoided.


Data from Table 7.2, ISG, Return to the River 330-31.

2 W. McNeil, “Transport of Juvenile Salmonids to Increase Survival” (unpublished July 2, 1991 paper prepared for the Public Utility District of Grant County, Washington).

3 Id.

4 D. Chapman & A. Giorgi, “Comments on Work of Biological and FCRPS Alternative Work Groups”, at 13 (1994).

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