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©2007 Cascadia Times

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Gagging the salmon-counters

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists who reported bad news about salmon survival in the Columbia are ordered not to talk

Let's say you have 2,000 salmon, and you divide them evenly into two groups.

You stand at the far end of Lower Granite Reservoir and release the first 1,000 down the river. The dams and reservoirs along the way kill between 500 and 700 of them. After three or four years in the ocean, just 10 return make it all the way back to Lower Granite.

You load the other 1,000 fish into Army Corps of Engineers' barges at Lower Granite Dam. The Army Corps, which has been barging fish through the dams since 1969, claims that barging as many salmon is best for the fish. Bonneville, which could receive substantial increases in revenue if barging helps restore the salmon, supports the program.

After passing the last dam, 980 of the fish are still alive in the barge. But after three or four years, only five of the barged salmon return to Lower Granite.

In other words, the barging method returns only half as many salmon as allowing fish to swim all the way to the ocean.

These results come from research sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the states of Oregon and Idaho, and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The combined trauma of dams, barges and poor ocean conditions are pushing the salmon toward extinction, the Comparative Survival Studies show. The survival rates are too low to sustain the runs.

The $1 million-a-year studies, begun 10 years ago, could be critical to court-ordered recovery planning for the salmon - possibly showing for example what is working for the fish and what is not. For example the studies indicate that barged fish die twice as often as fish that swim in the river, making a case for halting the barging program, with some exceptions.

The studies also seem to indicate that salmon which have to pass eight dams do less well than fish that pass just one or three dams. This could bolster the argument in favor of dam breaching.

These results threaten Bonneville ‘s hydro operations because they indicate that its current measures are not working, despite their annual $691 million price tag. They may mean that other measures must be considered, such as increased flows, more spill or dam removal, if the salmon are to spared.

Consequently, NOAA and Bonneville are doing what they can to silence the studies' authors and keep the Fish and Wildlife Service scientists and their data away far from salmon recovery plans.

The rift has torn apart the nation's two leading fishery agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and NOAA Fisheries, and once again exposes the Bush administration muzzling of scientists. According to one insider, Bonneville and NOAA are trying to toss the Fish and Wildlife Service “completely out of the mainstem Columbia and are putting pressure at the Washington, D.C. level.”

NOAA Fisheries is not in agreement with the premise of the studies, says John Ferguson, director of the agency's Fish Ecology Division in Seattle.

“We don't believe the experimental design is working,” Ferguson says. NOAA believes the study has an “apples and oranges” type problem. It is comparing different fish, of different sizes, that went out to sea at different times, under different conditions.

NOAA's approach is to count fish as they pass each dam — what fishery geeks refer to as “concrete to concrete.” They look at how successfully salmon cross each dam under various conditions, something that at least in theory should be easier to measure. But these data do not address fatal traumas that occur as they are loaded onto the barges, traumas caused while in the barges but do not cause death until much later.

NOAA work on evaluating so-called “delayed mortality” lags far behind the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Fish and Wildlife Service scientist Howard Schaller, a leader of the Comparative Survival Studies, declined to respond to questions about why he and others were kicked out of NOAA's biological opinion deliberations. “This is a closed court-ordered process and I am not at liberty to discuss the specifics,” he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is not commenting, or even confirming, the rift between the two agencies. It also is not cooperating with other agencies that participated in the Comparative Survival Studies. It is withholding its analysis of NOAA's model of salmon survival, known as COMPASS.

Even though the Fish and Wildlife Service and CRITFC have teamed up on the studies, the federal agency has decided to not share the analysis with the tribes.

In a letter to CRITFC chair Olney Patt Jr., the Fish and Wildlife Service's region 1 director, Ren Lohoefener, declined to share the analysis. The service also rejected Cascadia Times request for the material under the Freedom of Information Act. The newspaper intends to continue pursuing the withheld documents.

But a source close to the situation remarked, “Schaller's folks have been gagged.”

The official reason for dismissing the Fish and Wildlife Service's key experts is that they missed a deadline for submitting comments to NOAA, said David Patte, a spokesman for the service. But for NOAA to exclude Schaller’s team from its deliberations is seen as unwise by some. “This is the World Series — you don't take the A team out,” says Nicole Cordan of Save Our Wild Salmon. “It’s clear the administration is afraid of the science.”

Schaller's team has developed an alternative approach for use in NOAA's biological opinion and submitted it for review. Schaller's approach, one source said, “is transparent and is populated with actual data, whereas (the NOAA model) is highly complex, not transparent and uses synthetic (assumed) flow and survival data.”

But while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not releasing their report, other documents detail their concerns about NOAA and are freely available on the web.

One such document from February 2006 indicates that the Fish and Wildlife Service had concerns about “made up” data, among other things:

  • NOAA should exercise caution “in the planning phase to prevent the development of a model that implies precision the underlying data can't support;”
  • lModel results for the McNary to Bonneville reach differed from actual estimates;
  • lIt is questionable whether there is adequate data for COMPASS to make in-season decisions for fish passage;
  • lNOAA makes assumptions about dam survival in years and at projects where no studies have been conducted.
  • lNOAA's model appears to be creating data that do not exist and treating those data the same as data which have more of an empirical basis.
  • Bonneville's approach has been based on conditions the fish do not experience presently.

“Because most of these reservoir survival estimates are largely 'made up' based on non-tenable estimates of dam survival in non-studied years and within-season periods, the true sample size for investigating these relationships is greatly over inflated,” the Comparative Survival Studies report stated.

The studies' leaders are seeking to expand the studies, by extending them to the Upper Columbia River and to steelhead. But Bonneville has refused to allow these additional experiments to go forward even though “these deficiencies have been caused largely by BPA policy decisions,” according to the Independent Science Advisory Board, a panel that reports to NOAA Fisheries and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Next Article: Restoring the Snake River salmon