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Save Our Wild Salmon

hastings.defazioOn March 11, 2011, Congressmen Doc Hastings (R-WA) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) co-authored an op-ed in The Oregonian about the 2010 FCRPS Biological Opinion.  In their op-ed, the congressmen express support for the 2010 BiOp and urge its approval by a federal district court judge.  They also make several statements that are unsupported by the facts.  Below are some responses to those inaccurate assertions. For more information, please contact Gilly Lyons, or 503.230.0421 x17
Assertion #1: The 2010 BiOp was the subject of “rigorous review by some of the most respected scientists in the nation, who all agreed it was a sound plan well grounded in the best science.”
Response #1: The 2010 BiOp was indeed reviewed by some scientists.  In the spring of 2009, NOAA Fisheries hand-selected a group of eight scientists to review the 2008 BiOp that the Obama administration had just inherited from the Bush administration.  However, this review was neither transparent nor independent, nor did it meet the basic requirements of peer-review:
  • Two of the eight scientists are current or former NOAA biologists, one of whom was a chief author of the illegal 2000 BiOp (Peter Karieva).
  • The reviewers met twice in closed-door meetings; very few notes, transcripts, or other direct reports from the review were made available to the public, and of these, many are heavily redacted.
  • All eight reviewers had to sign confidentiality agreements stating that they would not disclose their views about the 2008 BiOp to anyone outside the federal agencies involved in the review.
  • NOAA Fisheries, which led the two meetings where the reviewers discussed the 2008 BiOp, provided its reviewers with a 2+ hour presentation of the agency’s views on the ’08 BiOp (of which NOAA is the lead author); the presentation was given by the same scientists and attorneys who have been defending the BiOp in federal court for the past several years.  Alternate views -- such as those held by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the American Fisheries Society, and some state and Tribal fish and wildlife agencies – were apparently not included or reflected in presentations at either of the two meetings.
When the head of an agency who’s in charge of a sprawling plan to manage dams and protect species then helps choose the scientists she most trusts to weigh in on the scientific merit of that plan, while simultaneously shielding the resulting scientific review from any kind of public scrutiny, all independence goes straight out of the window. If the chemical industry followed the same protocol in reviewing its internal scientific findings, no one would even think of describing that process as independent or peer-reviewed.
As to the claim that all of the scientists agree that the 2008 BiOp is grounded in the best science, the truth is not quite as rosy. In a quick summary to others at the Department of Commerce, for instance, Jennifer Costanza, from the Department of Commerce’s Legislative Affairs office, writes that the reviewers noted “their lack of confidence that the RPAs [Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives] could accomplish what was hoped. . . . They think the single species analysis in the BiOp was great, but that the analysis of the interactions between different salmon species and the role of invasive riparian species could be better.  They noted that the assumptions regarding hatchery and habitat effects in the RPAs may not be justified . . . They noted that the BiOp did not fully consider climate, land and water use stress on the system because they were considered as a static baseline rather than as a part of the projections . . . " (see NOAA Doc. C 006).  These concerns go to the heart of issues identified by the conservation and fishing group plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the BiOp.
Moreover, the few documents that were released indicate that NOAA’s attempt to “fix” these issues in its addendum to the BiOp, the Adaptive Management Implementation Plan (AMIP), were not successful.  In one document, reviewers call NOAA’s work in the AMIP “not reasonable” and the analysis “seat-of-the-pants.”  These scientists, even with the flawed review process and very limited time in which to make comments on the AMIP in particular (only a couple of hours in one case and less than two days in all cases), found problems with both the 2008 BiOp and the AMIP. NOAA knew this and also understood that it had failed to address this advice when it released the AMIP on September 15, 2009.
Assertion #2: Plaintiffs in the FCRPS BiOp litigation are “prolonging a court case that has ground on for more than a decade.”
Response #2: While the court case has indeed been ongoing since 2001, plaintiffs are in no way “prolonging” it.  The only reason the judge overseeing the litigation, Judge James Redden, didn’t rule on the merits of the case in 2009 was that the Obama administration requested and received a six-month review period.  That extension gave way to yet another round of briefings and oral arguments, as is the case with any complex litigation.  If Congressmen Hastings and DeFazio have a problem with how long the lawsuit is taking to reach resolution, perhaps they should take up their concerns with the past three administrations – the first two of which issued illegal BiOps, and the third of which requested the current delay.  Alternately, if the congressmen are suggesting that plaintiffs should have dropped their claims upon the release of the Obama administration’s 2010 supplemental BiOp, that would require that the Obama administration had done something to actually improve the BiOp’s compliance with both law and science – which they most certainly did not.
Assertion #3: The 2010 BiOp is “peer-reviewed.”
Response #3: In no way is the 2010 BiOp, or its next of kin, the 2008 BiOp, peer-reviewed. The reviewers were hand-picked by the very agency in charge of the document being reviewed, and they were presented with background information provided exclusively by that agency. The review did not comport with the basic tenets of peer-review as defined by any scientific or academic journal.
Assertion #4: “Salmon returns to the Columbia Basin have been trending upward for the last 20 years. Today we’re witnessing record-breaking runs.”
Response #4: Contrary to repeated statements from federal agencies, most wild Snake River salmon and steelhead returns remain at about the same levels as when they were first listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the early 1990’s. The past several years have indeed witnessed slightly increased runs, which have provided a boost to Northwest fishing communities and a little breathing room for our region’s imperiled stocks. But increased spill and good ocean conditions are the major forces behind those increased returns. Since 2006, court-ordered spill has helped more young fish safely reach the ocean, allowing for greater adult returns. Combined with recent favorable ocean conditions, the “Redden effect” – named for the judge overseeing the BiOp litigation – has resulted in an increase in fish survival.
In addition, it must be noted that fully 80% of the returning fish are hatchery fish. While they may play a limited role in recovery in the near-term, hatcheries are not a long-term recovery solution for wild populations. But the federal agencies regularly mask how poorly wild fish are doing by adding more and more hatchery fish to our rivers. While hatchery production is essential to fishing communities right now, rebuilding wild, self-sustaining stocks is the key to the long-term future of Northwest salmon and the people that depend on them.  Further, the ESA seeks to protect and recover wild stocks only – and it is only wild stocks whose numbers matter when determining progress toward recovery targets.
And indeed, wild returns are still generally nowhere close to ESA recovery targets, which must be met for eight consecutive years. None of the Snake River stocks have had wild returns anywhere close to the arguably too-low recovery targets set by federal agencies.  Congressmen Hastings and DeFazio tout the return of 10,000 Snake River fall chinook spawners last year.  While this is definitely good news and something to be celebrated, it is merely one-quarter of the 40,000 wild Snake River chinook that must return for eight years in a row in order for this stock to achieve recovery under the ESA. It is clear that most of the Columbia and Snake River fish are hardly any closer to recovery today than they were when the first Snake River stocks were listed for protection under the ESA almost 20 years ago.
Assertion #5: “…full implementation of the [federal salmon] plan will further improve salmon runs.”
Response #5: In February 2010, the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society – the premier professional association of fisheries biologists in the nation – issued a review of the Obama administration’s addendum to the Bush administration’s 2008 BiOp.  It is this document, which was then called the Adaptive Management Implementation Plan (AMIP), that the Obama administration describes as their insurance policy to help bolster the clearly flawed and inadequate Bush-era plan (which has since been adopted as the Obama plan, with the formal addition of the AMIP).  With so much faith being placed in the AMIP as the savior of the 2008 BiOp, the Western Division of AFS took a hard look at the AMIP’s science and found it sorely lacking.  Of its ability to help “further improve salmon runs,” as stated by Congressmen Hastings and DeFazio, the WDAFS review concludes: “It appears that there is undue emphasis on more monitoring and modeling than on implementing beneficial actions.  A logical assumption therefore is that the primary output will be merely that declines are more accurately documented…Focus of the AMIP has been on ensuring implementation. However, the bigger concern is that the assumed survival improvements appear unrealistically high.”
Assertion #6: “Huge volumes of water are spilled at the dams…This spill comes at great cost – both in terms of dollars lost and lost renewable energy. And bear in mind that the clean energy lost due to salmon spill is largely replaced by fossil-fueled generation, a major source of greenhouse gases.”
Response #6: The above statement includes at least three glaring inaccuracies; let’s take them one at a time.
1. “This spill comes at great terms of dollars.” Actually, spill doesn’t cost a dime – unless you subscribe to the theory that Bonneville owns every drop of water in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and therefore any water that isn’t sent through a turbine is water wasted and power not generated. When the congressmen talk about the massive amounts of money we’re losing on spill, they are referring to a concept called “foregone revenue” – the money that BPA doesn’t earn by not generating power because of water it’s spilling to help fish.  What foregone revenue fails to take into consideration is that the water being spilled is a part of BPA’s obligations under federal laws and treaties to not kill endangered fish; BPA does not own any energy that could be potentially generated if certain laws and/or obligations were not complied with. Claiming the “loss” of this ungenerated energy is like a construction company claiming lost income because it had to adhere to safety codes.
2. “This spill comes at great cost…in terms of lost renewable energy.” Most spill takes place in the spring, when the Columbia and Snake Rivers are at their highest flow levels. Combined with wind and other sources of power in the region, BPA’s grid often experiences a problem that is rare in other parts of the country: overgeneration of electricity.  That’s right – there’s too much power being generated, which usually prompts BPA to shut down wind turbines in order to make more room on the grid for both hydro and fossil-fuel sources of electricity.  If we’re shutting off wind at certain times of the year – times that often coincide with spill – then clearly we don’t have a renewable energy deficit. While it’s true that BPA is unable to generate some extra hydropower during times of spill, we may not be in as dire need of this power as the congressmen would have us believe.
3. “…the clean energy lost to salmon spill is largely replaced by fossil-fueled generation…” This is patently untrue given the above-described overgeneration situation. There’s clearly more than enough renewable energy to replace the small amount of power that is “lost” to spill. And the Northwest Power and Conservation Council has even shown in its 6th Power Plan that we can meet all new electricity needs over the next 20 years and remove the four lower Snake River dams with very little impact on Northwest ratepayers.  Other studies show that the region can meet its energy needs with no net increase in greenhouse gas emission and no new fossil-burning power plants, but instead can meet these needs with energy efficiency and renewables.
Finally, if Congressmen Hastings and DeFazio are going to lay claim in one paragraph to record-breaking salmon returns, and then condemn spill in the next paragraph as a huge sacrifice that’s forcing the Northwest to fire up every last coal plant, then they’re going to have to make a choice as to which myth they’d like to perpetuate. Because without spring and summer spill, we don’t get the halfway decent returns we’ve seen for the past two to three migration seasons.
Assertion #7: “…dam improvements made over the last decade mean that young salmon migrating to the ocean through the Columbia power system survive at a rate equal to the rate seen in rivers with no dams.”
Response #7: The undammed river to which the congressmen refer is most likely Canada’s Fraser River, which, while free-flowing, is a bit of a mess otherwise.  Massive pine-bark beetle infestations have killed off huge swaths of the river corridor’s trees, rendering the river overheated and heavily sedimented in places.  The Fraser’s fish may not have to contend with blocks of concrete, but their river can still be a tough place to make a go of it.  Also, while it’s partly true that survival rates of fishing migrating through the FCRPS may be comparable to those from the Fraser system, adult return rates to the Columbia-Snake tend to be much lower.  This is largely attributable to something called delayed or latent mortality.  Columbia-Snake salmon often make it through the hydrosystem okay – either via spill or barging – but fare poorly once they reach the estuary or ocean due to the stress of their downstream migration.  Spilled fish tend to survive far better than transported fish, but in both cases, their journey to the ocean is characterized by trauma and stress, leaving them less robust to face the challenges of life in the open ocean.  Therefore, per-dam survival rates fail to take into consideration what happens once fish leave the river and enter the Pacific.
As a NOAA biologist once said, smolt to adult ratios (ie, the percentage of adult fish who actually make it home) is the only metric that really matters when it comes to rebuilding healthy fish runs.  Finally, with regard to a study comparing juvenile salmon survival rates between the Fraser and Columbia river systems, two of the study’s co-authors stated that their main take-home message from the study is not that the Columbia-Snake dams are less harmful to salmon than previously thought, but that the Fraser River may be in worse shape than anyone realized.
Assertion #8: “The independent scientists consulted by the Obama administration confirmed that the federal salmon plan relies on the best available science and will likely lead to improved salmon abundance.”
Response #8: While NOAA’s reviewers were generally supportive, they also expressed several reservations about both the 2008 BiOp and the associated AMIP. The limited information we do have from the meetings held with the reviewers shows that they were “less optimistic than the authors of the Biop [sic] that the RPA [i.e., actions in the plan] will achieve the gains estimated by the Biop [sic].”  The reviewers highlighted a “lack of supporting data” for the heavy emphasis on habitat actions alone and found that the plan had a “great deal of uncertainty” surrounding the survival expectations.  Further, the reviewers “noted that the BiOp did not fully consider climate, land and water use stress on the system because they were considered as a static baseline rather than as a part of the projections…”  Of the rapid-response triggers that comprise the core of NOAA’s AMIP, several of the reviewers called the triggers “not reasonable” and stated that the triggers as written “mask a lot.”
In an actually-independent review of the AMIP (as opposed to one conducted by eight scientists chosen by the authors of the plan being reviewed), the Western Division of AFS stated that it “has a number of concerns, and finds the AMIP to be inadequate for ensuring the protection of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin. Rather than use a precautionary principle to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, the AMIP seems to use a precautionary principle to support the 2008 Biological Opinion and defend the status quo…The WDAFS is of the opinion that the AMIP does not always use the ‘best scientific information.’”


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