Further Attempts to Halt Useful PIT-tag Research

By 1997, the state and tribal harvest managers were recognizing that scientific testing using PIT-tags was not showing the enormous effects of dams that they all believed in. While continuing to fight a rear guard action against the studies, they resurrected a theory of “delayed hydrosystem mortality”. Under this theory, the fish that migrate through the hydrosystem are marked for death by processes that are hypothesized (like “stress”), but unproven.

To try and prove that such effects existed, the harvest managers are pushing studies comparing smolt-to-adult survival ratios for upriver and downriver hatchery stocks. The NMFS/University of Washington scientists have been harshly critical of this approach, and for good reason. As one report by University of Washington researchers John Skalski and Richard Townsend pointed out, it was a necessary condition for the statistical validity of such studies that the upriver and downriver stocks be equally mixed in the ocean, yet they could identify no stocks meeting such a test. The choice of comparison stocks "had dramatic effect on results and inferences"—"select a stock, select an answer".110

Recognizing a need to silence the pesky scientists in Seattle once and for all, the state and tribal harvest managers are in the process of slowly attempting to take over the most critical salmon research in the Columbia Basin: the efforts to measure survival through the river using PIT-tags. Just six months after they had completed a comprehensive prioritization of salmon research and recovery programs, which was rubber-stamped by the Northwest Power Planning Council, they emerged with an unprioritized proposal to PIT-tag hundreds of thousands of fish at Snake River hatcheries and build PIT-tag detectors at the hatcheries. (Presumably, they still continued to oppose constructing PIT-tag detectors at Bonneville Dam, so that measurements of in-river survival could be made.)

Their proposal triggered criticism from NMFS scientists and University of Washington scientists. The NMFS scientists pointed out that at least 40% of the PIT-tags would be lost before the first dam because the smolts would die upriver, and that ongoing NMFS research based on marking at the dams would probably “provide a more complete and cost-effective analysis”.111

Dr. Anderson reported to BPA, which sought his advice, that the “proposal lacks an ecological framework, ignores biological mechanisms, mathematical formalism, and hypothesis testing”. Beyond the lack of scientific merit, Dr. Anderson had the temerity to observe that the experiment was “beyond the capabilities of the Fish Passage Center”, the ostensible project manager. Indeed, he noted that the principal investigator, Michele DeHart, “has no track record in research”.112

The state and tribal response to Dr. Anderson betrayed a characteristic biological ignorance. Dr. Anderson was advised to “cut back on his bile intake” (bile is produced by an organ in the digestive system, not ingested), and was accused of making a “rabid dog attack”.113 But Dr. Anderson was not the only critic. Others observed that it would be at least “unusual” for Ms. DeHart to be the principal investigator “because she does not have an advanced degree or a history of peer-reviewed research”.114

The Council’s Independent Science Advisory Board told the Council that we might get useful information from tagging fish, but that the study design “would need substantial revision to achieve a degree of scientific rigor sufficient for the ISAB to endorse it . . .”115 Pressured by the States of Oregon and Idaho, the Power Planning Council members gave the go-ahead to start tagging the fish, letting the states and tribes make up the study as they went along.

The old saying is that the fish rots first at the head. The head of the federal environmental effort is Vice President Gore, who has written that optimistic environmental studies should be ignored because they “undermine the effort to build a solid base of support for the difficult actions we must soon take”.116 When the official policy of the federal government is to ignore and discredit scientists whose research reveals the small significance the mainstem dams have for salmon survival, there is little hope that we are going to get good decisions on what to do with those dams.

110 J. Skalski & R. Townsend, “Lessons Learned for the Upriver-Downriver Analysis of Priest Rapids Hatchery Returns”, overheads presented to the ISAB, Dec. 17, 1996.

111 Memorandum cited in B. Rudolph, “Huge PIT-Tag Study Planned by Long-Time Critics; NMFS Has Doubts”, Clearing Up, Dec. 23, 1996, at 6.

112 Memo, Dr. Anderson to BPA (attn. J. Geiselman) & NMFS (attn. J. Williams), Dec. 16, 1996.

113 Memo, O. Langeness to J. Geiselman, Dec. 25, 1996.

114 B. Rudolph, “Huge PIT-Tag Study Planned by Long-Term Critics; NMFS has Doubts”, Clearing Up, Dec. 23, 1996, at 5.

115 Letter, ISAB to J. Etchart, Jan. 14, 1997, at 1.

116 Quoted in G. Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth 561.

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