You may have read this blog back when they were performing studies on whether or not harassing the birds would lessen their impact on smolts in the estuary. Yes, they would fence off areas on the island so they could have control groups and test groups and they would harass the test groups. I would point out that it was at once amusing and pathetic. Eventually, as is typically the case, the action agencies decided that killing the birds and oiling the nests was the answer to minimizing the impact of cormorants on wild salmon and steelhead smolts in the estuary. So last year, they embarked on shooting cormorants and oiling the eggs in the nests of cormorants on East Sand Island, all in the name of wild salmon and steelhead "recovery."
No surprise that these activities soon led to a lawsuit from the Audubon Society of Portland. Well, Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon released his ruling on the matter. Before releasing his ruling he scolded the Corps of Engineers for not considering alternatives before deciding to kill the birds. Judge Simon also pointed out that we don't even know how many juvenile fish are saved each year by a reduction in cormorants. Then he issued his ruling which allows the cormorant killing program to continue because it provides some benefit (we don't know how much of a benefit) but some benefit to the listed fish.
"In considering effects on endangered and threatened species, the benefit of the doubt must go to the endangered species," he said. I can see where he is coming from, though, I do not agree.
Let's run through as many of the relevant facts as we can to come to a better place than this decision does.
Let's ask some questions along the way, as well. Because we really need to be able to zoom way out from this to look at the larger problem. We can choose to do that instead of focusing so minutely on this issue, this area, this problem, this bird, these fish.
Should we, as a society, endorse the killing of one species to save another species? Should we do this when none of our efforts to date have done anything remotely resembling recovery for the various species we are trying to recover (e.g. wild salmon and steelhead)?
OK, keep those questions in mind. A couple of years ago, we spent more than $800 million on fish and wildlife mitigation due to the hydrosystem in the Columbia/Snake rivers. Essentially, Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers pay for this mitigation fund that could be as much as $1 billion very soon. I hope not, but it was steadily rising up to the point that we spent more than $800 million on it in a year. Anyway, we've spent $14 billion on fish and wildlife mitigation due to the dams over the years. That's a lot of money. A lot of this money goes into projects you may never hear about, and that's not a problem, that's more of an acknowledgement that these projects are spread out throughout the Pacific Northwest and as interesting as watershed restoration projects are to a guy like me, TU member, TU leader, these projects don't garner a lot of media attention. But it is almost a billion dollars annually, so maybe they deserve more exposure.
Regardless of how I have characterized these projects in this blog as Band-Aid approaches to the patient having a heart attack. These projects are incredibly necessary because they are fixing dire habitat situations throughout the region. Fix the habitat, delist the species. I skipped the step where the species recovers in the middle of those two things, but if you fix the habitat, the species should recover and then they can be delisted.
On fixing the habitat on tributaries to the Columbia/Snake, I do not disagree with the action agencies. I do disagree that we can recover these fish without addressing the migratory habitat in a way that actually fixes the migratory habitat. Therein lies the rub.
The case against the Lower Snake River dams begins with the fact that Snake River salmon runs have declined 90 percent since the last dam was built in 1975, Lower Granite Dam. (See Salmon Recovery and Fisheries Management: The case for breaching on the Snake River an old article from the spring of 2000 that was already making an economic argument that dam breaching should at least remain on the table as a viable option)
Don't forget that more than 85 percent of the fisheries biologists in the west say breaching is the best and perhaps only chance salmon have at recovery. Here's the link and quote from the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife News Bulletin from 2011: "“…if society-at-large wishes to restore Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white sturgeon to sustainable, fishable levels, then a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams,” according to a resolution approved recently by 86.4 percent of the Western Division of American Fisheries Society’s members.
The Western Division represents about 3,500 fishery scientists from 13 states and three Canadian provinces and territories, encompassing the entire Columbia River basin. Voting was conducted via e-mail with a June 22 deadline."
While no recovery numbers have been delivered by NOAA for wild/natural chinook and steelhead of the Snake River Basin, annual runs of 75,000 chinook and 90,000 steelhead in the Snake River Basin over an extended period of several years would constitute recovery. Those numbers haven't been approached in several decades, steelhead of the Snake last met that criteria in the early 1960s. Chinook in the Snake River last met that criteria in the 1950s. (See What is Recovery from Snake River Salmon Solutions)
And well, Snake River sockeye, well that's a whole 'nother story. No wild/natural Snake River salmonids meet viability criteria, which consists of:
abundance (abundance: In the context of salmon recovery, abundance refers to the number of adult fish returning to spawn, measured over a time series.),
productivity (productivity: The average number of surviving offspring per parent. Productivity is used as an indicator of a population’s ability to sustain itself or its ability to rebound from low numbers. The terms “population growth rate” and “population productivity” are interchangeable when referring to measures of population production over an entire life cycle. Can be expressed as the number of recruits (adults) per spawner or the number of smolts per spawner.),
spacial structure (spatial structure: Characteristics of a fish population’s geographic distribution. Current spatial structure depends upon the presence of fish, not merely the potential for fish to occupy an area.), and
diversity (diversity: All the genetic and phenotypic (life history, behavioral, and morphological) variation within a population. Variations could include anadromy vs. lifelong residence in freshwater, fecundity, run timing, spawn timing, juvenile behavior, age at smolting, age at maturity, egg size, developmental rate, ocean distribution patterns, male and female spawning behavior, physiology, molecular genetic characteristics, etc.).
(definitions from NOAA Recovery Glossary)
Save Our Wild Salmon wrote of several reasons for breaching the lower Snake River dams in 2009. You can read them here.
As we go forward, the economic arguments will continue to slide into the favor of breaching. The article from 2000 spoke of $3 billion spent and not having bettered conditions for salmon. The 2009 Save Our Wild Salmon reported $8 billion spent and again, conditions for salmon not measurably better. Recovery was not in sight.
Today, we've spent more than $14 billion, recovery is not in sight, conditions for salmon are not better ( we lost more than 90 percent of the entire adult run of Columbia/Snake sockeye in 2015, and we lost a lot this summer, as well). It's not that we don't care about salmon. We spend quite a lot of money and with the exception of the money that goes to hatcheries, a lot of that money is going toward really good watershed improvement projects that improve in-stream habitat by fixing the entire watershed with the exception of the migratory corridor. And those tributary projects are great projects, but they cannot solve the wild salmonid problem alone.
And here is why those projects, all that money and all of our efforts to date have not even hinted at recovery. The dams fundamentally and adversely affect one very important habitat that wild salmonids must utilize in their life cycle. This migratory corridor is vastly important to wild salmonids. Before the dams, the snow would melt in the mountains, gather in the streams and rush downhill to the ocean. Juvenile wild salmon would point their faces into the rushing current and float backwards to the estuary at the mouth of the Columbia River. They would ride the freshets to the sea. This would take as little as a week's time. Today, all salmon from Idaho (where most of the great spawning and rearing habitat exists) hit still water in the Lewiston area. If they come from the Salmon and Snake rivers those juvenile salmonids lose the river's narrative between Asotin, Washington and Lewiston, Idaho. If those Idaho salmon and steelhead juveniles are coming from the Selway, Lochsa, Potlatch or Clearwater rivers, those fish lose the narrative of the current near the papermill along the Clearwater River in Lewiston, Idaho. Right here, in the Lewiston area, the unnatural deaths from the hydrosystem begin. Confused juvenile salmonids must swim in virtually still water while avoiding predators we stocked in these waters (smallmouth bass, walleye) or by our creation of these reservoirs we've augmented these predator's populations (northern pikeminnow). Here, in the Lewiston/Clarkston area these juvenile salmonids are also being unnaturally killed by cormorants and other birds preying upon these confused fish.
Eventually, some of them make it to the dam. From here, the Corps of Engineers begins to take responsibility for the dams' effects. One could look at all the Corps has done for salmon and deduce that the Corps believes the problem is simply to get more juvenile and adult salmon from one side of the concrete to the other. I won't go into all of the various multi-million dollar projects that have been put in place to simply get more salmon from one side of the concrete to the other, but that information is readily available to you regardless of your research skills. At Lower Granite, the Corps of Engineers begins collecting smolts and storing them on barges. They will transport these smolts through the hydrosystem from below Lower Granite Dam to below Bonneville Dam. It's an incredibly unnatural approach to an unnatural problem created by the dams.
Now, those disoriented, likely unable to imprint on their natal stream juvenile salmon get to swim the last 100 plus miles to the estuary where they get to dodge an unnaturally large bird population (though admittedly that bird population is getting smaller). The Corps moved the Caspian terns and are killing the cormorants and have been given judicial license to continue killing the cormorants. As an aside, we kill and harass sea lions that eat adult salmon approaching the Bonneville Dam fish ladder. We kill other animals for doing what they have always done to survive, which is eat salmon.
We continue to make bad decisions. We continue to make poor choices and all we are accomplishing in making these bad decisions, poor choices are killing more cormorants and sea lions. We're not saving wild salmon with these actions, which is the rationale used to argue for these abhorrent practices of killing other species for the stated purpose of salmon recovery that continues to elude us or we continue to evade it, whichever the case may be (*wink*). So why do them?
I once was concerned about efforts to place a value on all of those things in nature we currently do not have a dollar sign associated with them, such as the nitrogen nutrient pipeline salmon provide from the Pacific Ocean to places far inland, such as central Idaho. I was concerned because I never thought any such valuation would ever be an appropriate valuation. You see, our society has always based its decisions on less than all of the data and we've always known we are leaving out some valuable data, which we call externalities. We don't have a dollar valuation assigned to the respiration of plants, the process that sequesters carbon and produces oxygen for animals to breathe. We don't have valuations in place for most natural processes and if we have valuations for individual wildlife and fish, those are simply for fining purposes and likely do not accurately reflect the true valuation of the creature in question.
I can't let my fear that mankind will undervalue these processes rule my opinion of the matter. In not determining the value of these things and it is a vast area that we currently ignore, we are assigning the lowest possible valuation to all things nature. We can no longer internalize the costs of externalities, we must recognize what we fail to place a value on and begin the very hard work of properly valuing these processes, these species, these watersheds, these forests (beyond board feet and recreation). Once we have assigned appropriate valuations then we can compare apples to apples for each and every project that comes along. Once we can truly evaluate the costs and benefits of whatever comes up, will be the day when we begin to make better decisions. Better decisions will lead to a better world.
We have the world we have today because for far too long mankind has internalized the costs of all of things we knowingly destroyed when we decided to do this or that. Decision burn fossil fuels=climate change, global warming. Build dams=severely affect wild fish populations. If we have the proper valuation in place for all things throughout our natural world, then we can make those apples to apples comparisons that will ultimately lead to a better world. It is difficult to make the argument in today's world that this grove of trees or this small stream has inherent values that far exceed the jobs and wealth your mine or logging operation will produce. I mean, not to take anything away from the environmental/conservation community, we do alright. But imagine the world where in the one column you have this amount of dollars and then in the other column you have this far greater amount of dollars. Kind of makes arguing far easier, doesn't it?
Imagine if we embarked upon that path a long time ago, would we be living in a better world today? I bet we wouldn't begrudgingly decide that killing one species to not really affect the recovery of another more imperiled species was a good choice or even a possible choice. If we could make the apples to apples comparison in this case, such a world where we systematically limited the externalities before us, would look nothing like the world we live in today.
Oh well, don't forget to join the 2nd Annual Free the Snake Flotilla in Clarkston on Sept. 17. The Salmon Blog will be there, just like last year. Sad that we now can put the word annual in the title. Let's hope this annual gathering is short-lived for all the right reasons, that one day soon we start making better decisions and we begin the path of recovery for wild salmonids of the Snake River Basin by breaching the lower Snake River dams.