On November 20, 1991, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed the Snake River sockeye salmon as an "endangered species" under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.  On April 22, 1992, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed two groups of Snake River chinook salmon, a combined spring and summer unit, and a fall unit, as "threatened species". The Snake River chinook were later designated "endangered" as well.

Several years later, in the fall of 1997, these Snake River salmon struggled up the Columbia River. In theory, they were fish of incalculable value, representing the few remaining members of a population that had survived enormous mortality at every stage of its life cycle and would now spawn the next generation of salmon.

Once above Bonneville Dam, the first of the eight dams in their path, the salmon entered the Zone 6 tribal fishery, and ran a gauntlet of gillnets. Hundreds were captured, and sold off the back of pickup trucks in Cascade Locks and other towns along the Columbia for two dollars a pound. The tribes even had an 800 number for potential customers to call. No other endangered species are caught, killed and sold for human consumption.

Federal, state and tribal fishery agencies did not merely fail to stop these harvests; they promoted them. Fishery management could require selective harvest methods that would spare the endangered salmon. But fishery managers refuse even to consider any reform of their own rules and practices.

Instead, their reform efforts are focused on blaming hydropower generation for the decline of salmon. Their attention centers on the Federal Columbia River Power System, a collection of dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries that the fishery interests have opposed for decades. Without a single vote of Congress, the fishery managers have created, by administrative fiat, the single most ambitious and expensive endangered species recovery program ever devised, all funded by surcharges on electric ratepayers.

So far, the program has expended more than $3 billion with no measurable benefits to salmon. At the same time, power production at the dams has been radically reduced, and navigation, recreation, and irrigation, are threatened (and in some cases already destroyed) by proposals to "draw down" the reservoirs.

Outsiders who might be expected to serve as watchdogs are instead lapdogs. Environmentalists, funded by and allied with commercial salmon harvest interests, generally support the efforts of the fishery managers—they file lawsuits against harvesting trees, but not salmon. An uncritical media regards the fishery managers, environmentalists, and fishermen as the protectors of the salmon. Indeed, as of 1997, both environmentalists and the media invoke the utter failure of the program to justify ever-more-extravagant plans.

The past public policy blunders, and the even larger ones now threatened, arise from what I call the Great Salmon Hoax: a collection of mutually-reinforcing and commonly-held beliefs about salmon recovery, all of which lack any basis in sound science. Some of these beliefs are the product of ignorance or reliance on outdated research. Others are the product of deliberate misrepresentations, apparently made in the service of a larger ideological vision: the Northwest without dams.

This book is written to begin debunking these myths and provide a comprehensive summary of the best available scientific evidence on the prospects for salmon recovery. It also tells the many stories of how these myths arose, who is promoting them, and how the promoters have overcome both science and law.

Myth #1: Columbia Basin Salmon Are in Danger of Extinction.

In truth, none of the several biological species of salmon in the Columbia River Basin are in any imminent danger of extinction. A "species" is defined by biologists in the common sense way: if you lose the last two members of it, the species will disappear from the face of the earth forever. The Endangered Species Act was intended to provide a Noah's Ark for species in such dire straits, and enjoys widespread support because that is what ordinary citizens think the Act is doing.

In fact, law and biology have diverged. The Endangered Species Act protects not merely species, but also "distinct population segments" of salmon, a concept that can mean a salmon run in a single stream or lake. So defined, there are thousands of "distinct population segments" of just one biological species: chinook salmon.

There is no scientific evidence that losing any particular distinct population segment of salmon will threaten the survival of any salmon species. To the contrary, in nature such smaller subpopulations ebb and flow, while the larger species continues. Quests for greater diversity in salmon populations are political quests, pushed by a new, politically-active group known as "conservation biologists". We can have plenty of salmon without having hundreds of viable subpopulations, just as we can have plenty of cattle without hundreds of breeds of cows. No one worries that the cow population will collapse if farmers discontinue some breeds.

Myth #2: Salmon Hatcheries Cannot Maintain Abundant Salmon Runs.

Salmon hatcheries maintained salmon populations for decades in the face of ever-increasing harvest pressures. Most people would be surprised to know that the highest total count of salmon and steelhead ever recorded at Bonneville Dam came nearly 50 years after that Dam was constructed:

Figure 1: Salmon and Steelhead Returns to the Columbia River

Only recently—many salmon generations after the last dam was completed—have there been sharp drops in salmon abundance.

Many factors have conspired to produce these drops, including poor ocean conditions, harvest pressures, reduced hatchery releases, and truly extraordinary mismanagement of hatchery operations. Hatchery operators do not even issue reports from which their success at returning adults for harvest can be assessed; it is unclear if the data is collected at all. While hatcheries are supposed to mitigate for dam-related losses, no competent estimates exist to determine whether more smolts are now delivered alive to the bottom of the river than before the dams were built.

Myth #3: Overfishing Is No Longer a Significant Factor in Columbia Basin Salmon Decline.

Since fishery agencies have not even attempted to estimate the total number of Columbia River salmon killed in salmon harvest, lacking competent estimates of how many Columbia River fish are caught in the ocean, it is hard to credit claims that harvest is not a problem. They have not even estimated the total legal harvest, much less the very substantial illegal harvest, and other harvest-related losses.

The effects of overfishing, including a net-induced downsizing of fish to half their historic size, continue today. Salmon runs are declining up and down the West Coast even in Canadian rivers with little human development—declines that everywhere else are attributed to overfishing. There is incredible waste and abuse in current salmon harvest management, with millions of pounds of dead salmon tossed overboard as "bycatch".

But people want to believe that we can "save our salmon and eat them too". Attempts to have the federal courts impose limitations on salmon harvest have repeatedly failed, as fishery agencies flout federal law without consequence. Even though the Endangered Species Act flatly forbids all trade and commerce in endangered species, the National Marine Fisheries Service routinely issues permits (called "incidental take statements") for the commercial harvest of endangered salmon. Environmentalists, hypersensitive to clear-cutting on land, ignore it in the sea.

Myth #4: The Eight Mainstem Columbia and Snake River Dams Are a Critical Obstacle to Salmon Recovery

Federal, state and tribal fish managers repeatedly claim that these dams kill 95% of juvenile salmon migrating downstream. Many of them, particularly in the state agencies, know that this is false, yet continue to repeat the lie to uncritical media representatives.

It is true that many juvenile salmon die while migrating downstream, but natural mortality in rivers is always high, whether the rivers have dams or not. That is why each female salmon has thousands of eggs, only two of which need to hatch and survive to adulthood to maintain salmon populations.

While salmon losses were larger twenty years ago while the dams were under construction, and before substantial fish passage improvements, salmon now survive at a higher rate per mile in the dammed part of the Columbia and Snake Rivers than the undammed parts. Comparisons of survival between the Columbia River and the undammed Fraser River in Canada fail to show any effect whatsoever of the dams. The most recent tests show less than 5% mortality for juvenile salmon that go through turbines, and the vast majority of the salmon are routed around the turbines.

Nevertheless, the fishery managers, backed by the Clinton/Gore Administration, have pushed the dam operators to adopt enormously-expensive efforts to reduce mortality at dams by increasing the river's flow and spilling the water over the top of dams, despite evidence that higher flow and spill levels are counterproductive. Backed by credulous politicians, they have also pushed the dam operators to decrease the percentage of salmon transported around the dams, an action that one federal official suggested probably meant ten to fifteen thousand fewer salmon returned in 1995.

The fishery agency hoaxes about the effects of transportation (Chapter 5), flow (Chapter 7) and spill (Chapter 12) have severely damaged the scientific process as applied to salmon recovery. Discredited studies and bogus computer models are repeatedly invoked to justify flow and spill increases, and to reduce the percentage of salmon transported downstream.

The best scientific evidence is ignored and even suppressed. In one particularly egregious case, when observers using ninety-power microscopes found symptoms of gas bubble trauma in tiny juvenile salmon from the agencies' spill increases, the agencies took the microscopes away and gave the scientists magnifying glasses instead.

The legal process was damaged as well, as federal courts swallowed the Great Salmon Hoax hook, line and sinker. They never even permitted opponents of the agencies to present testimony on the effects of dams, repeatedly invoking procedural barriers to reaching the true facts that one judge characterized as akin to the barriers barring the salmon’s attempt to return to the spawning grounds.

Myth #5: Dam Removal Will Cause Wild Salmon Populations To Rebound To Historic Levels

It is widely-reported that Columbia Basin salmon runs peaked in the late 1800s at 16 million fish; competent scientific analysis puts the number at half that. Unless we genetically engineer or breed superior salmon, we are unlikely to ever have that many salmon in the Columbia River Basin again, because the ecosystem of the 1800s can never be restored.

The introduction of exotic and competing species, such as shad and walleye, forever limits salmon abundance. The walleye eat salmon; skyrocketing shad populations compete with salmon for food. Soaring bird and marine mammal populations threaten the salmon as well.

More importantly, the effects of natural cycles in ocean conditions dwarf fresh water effects under human control. In the last two decades, ocean conditions have been the worst in 500 years; the fate of salmon hangs largely on changes in those conditions. Both the ocean and river are warmer now, and salmon are cold water fish.

To the conservation biologists who now have the ear of Northwest policymakers, there is but one true path to salmon recovery, as salmon recovery is subordinate to a larger political imperative: the return to a state of nature. They have coined the phrase a "normative river" to describe a river as close to natural as policymakers will go. They and other promoters of the Great Salmon Hoax would simply remove four to six dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and let Nature take its course.

Immense public resources are now devoted to considering the question of dam removal, despite the absence of the most elementary data needed to make a rational decision, or even the means to collect it. Indeed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service have formally committed themselves to making a decision in 1999 on dam removal, taking the legally-unsupportable position that such a decision is required by the Endangered Species Act.

An Alternative

The data we do have suggests that deciding to take out the dams would be a tragic mistake. It would not bring back the salmon in historic numbers, and would waste billions of dollars that could be put to better use. It would have profound and negative effects on the environment. Dam removal would require the thermal generation of unfathomable amounts of electricity, with accompanying pollution. The Northwest would lose not merely electricity, but also valuable flood control, inland navigation, irrigation, and reservoir recreation.

Everyone knows that the fishery agencies charged to recover salmon have failed utterly. Those who read this book can understand how the myths and misrepresentations in the Great Salmon Hoax fuel continuing failure. Increased salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest can only come when we look beyond harvest managers for solutions, and base recovery measures on hard scientific data, not the opinions of agency ideologues.

Most of what we need to do is known. Perhaps the most important step is to adopt selective harvest methods and management regimes that allow us to enforce specific harvest levels for every stock we decide is worth saving. Setting harvest levels based on larger, total abundance inevitably weeds out less-productive stocks, and cannot continue if we are really trying to protect those stocks. Only if and when fishermen are required to fish where they catch only the abundant stocks, or release the less-abundant ones alive, will we make any progress in protecting wild stocks.

Instituting the most elementary measures of management performance for hatcheries can improve hatchery operations immensely. A concerted effort will be required to undo decades of bad salmon breeding, and offset effects of overfishing.

Competent measurements, yet to be undertaken, can direct us to focus on structural improvements at the dams where they will be cost-effective. New surface collector technology will result in even fewer salmon passing through turbines, and new turbine techology will result in less harm to those that do.

We have the technology to run dams and hatcheries while maintaining sufficient genetic diversity for the overall health of salmon in the Columbia River Basin. All that is lacking is political leadership willing to settle the present funding battles and empower a single, accountable entity to mandate competent, science-based salmon management. Knowledgeable and concerned citizens should demand nothing less.


Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This Web page was created using a Trial Version of HTML Transit 3.0.