If Hydropower Wins Then Salmon And Orcas Lose

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By Howard Garrett (Howard Garrett began field studies of Southern Resident orcas in 1981 with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. With his wife, Susan Berta, he is co-founder of Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island WA. Garrett is author of Orcas In Our Midst and a frequent speaker and writer about orca natural history and habitat protection.)

As mentioned in an earlier post, on Nov. 23 Judge James A. Redden held a hearing in Portland that could lead to implementation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) Biological Opinion (BiOp) within a few months. The BiOp, written by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle for the Bush administration, would allow dam operation until 2018 despite the dams’ devastating effects on endangered salmon and consequent increased mortalities of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on some of these same salmon for their survival.

NOAA listed Southern Resident Orcas as endangered in 2006. Therefore, unlike the previous Columbia-Snake BiOps rejected by the court in 2001 and 2005, NOAA’s 2008 BiOp had to determine whether dam operations would adversely affect, or even jeopardize, these whales. NOAA’s Columbia River BiOp dismissed their obligation to protect endangered orcas, saying that “the decrease in the prey base for killer whales resulting from hydrosystem operations is less than the increase in the prey base resulting from the hatchery programs funded by the action agencies.” This conclusion stands in dramatic contrast to the BiOp written by NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., which says: “there is also no evidence that a population that is predominantly produced in hatcheries can persist over the long term.” And it observes that making even one Southern Resident Orca less likely to reproduce threatens the population because there are so few reproducing members. That BiOp concluded that current water pumping operations in California should be reduced to ensure survival of winter and spring-run Chinook salmon and Southern Resident killer whales, which rely on Chinook salmon runs for food.

The Columbia BiOp does not reflect the current state of fisheries science, for several more reasons.

* The analysis failed to consider differences in spatial distributions of hatchery fish vs. wild fish; that is, hatchery runs do not occupy the same places, at the same times, as wild fish. For millennia Southern Resident orcas have depended on multiple, diverse wild salmon runs throughout every year. Without strong wild Chinook populations, short bursts of monocultured hatchery fish leave weeks or months with few to be found.
* The Calif. BiOp says: “Moreover, some of the current hatchery practices are likely to diminish the productivity, distribution and diversity of CV fall-run over the long term.” Hatchery fish harm and reduce wild salmon, by direct predation, by dilution of genetic adaptations, and by raising fishing quotas that inadvertently take wild fish.
* Reduced genetic diversity makes hatchery populations more prone than wild fish to catastrophic failure; given the depressed size of the Southern Resident population and the documented impacts of inadequate prey on mortality rates, one or two catastrophic fish runs could be catastrophic to orcas.
* Even if hatchery replacement were fine, the BiOp did not assess whether there are currently enough salmon coming out of the Columbia/Snake to support Southern Resident Orcas; if there are not, then even maintaining the status quo is jeopardizing orcas.

Researchers and experts on Southern Resident Orcas alerted NOAA to their concerns over the BiOp both before and after its 2008 release and received no answer.

The state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, and a number of fishing and conservation groups challenged the BiOp in federal court. In April 2009, the new Obama administration asked for time to review the BiOp it had inherited. The judge granted the request.

Obama’s team announced its plan on September 15, and said that it stood behind the BiOp “100 percent,” but it nevertheless offered an “insurance plan for salmon” in case the BiOp was less successful than promised. This Adaptive Management Impementation Plan (AMIP) primarily consists of increased monitoring and evaluation of this already heavily studied river system. It also identifies some significant actions to protect the salmon, but those actions are not triggered until the already endangered populations drop to just 20% of their currently weak levels – for four years in a row. The AMIP does mention dam removal, but a salmon population that crashes by 90 percent triggers not dam removal, but only a process to consider and potentially plan dam removal. Any move to actually breach the four lower Snake River dams would require another eight to twelve years of studies, meetings, and hearings before the first chunk of dirt is removed. By then . . . salmon will have all but vanished, and Southern Resident orcas will be dwindling toward extinction.

Despite its flaws, the Bush/Obama hybrid BiOp received praise from Judge Redden. He indicated that the AMIP may help bolster the shaky Bush BiOp and suggested it just needs “a little bit of work” for him to approve it. He also repeated his feeling that dam removal should not be the cornerstone of salmon recovery. Governor Gregoire and Senators Murray and Cantwell also argue strenuously for keeping the dams, as does Rep. Norm Dicks, with most legislators averse to any mention of dam removal. Among our state’s elected leaders, only Rep. McDermott has offered an alternative view, introducing legislation to study the costs and benefits of dam removal.

The power of inertia, the interest and advocacy of those who benefit from the status quo, and resistance to change are strong forces against dam removal. Still, Judge Redden could correct the process and allow a reassessment of removing the four dams that are by far the leading cause of salmon extinction in the Snake watershed. One obvious reason for remanding the BiOp to the agencies for more work is the flawed and inadequate AMIP.

The first legal problem with the AMIP is that it hasn’t been legally added to the BiOp. Federal laws direct how agency documents must be prepared, and they specifically forbid “post hoc rationalization” of agency decisions. The AMIP is precisely that: An after-the-fact justification and attempt to prop up a previously finalized document. As Judge Redden recognized, this is no mere technicality, but a violation of federal law.

Because the AMIP was developed behind closed doors rather than as part of a public process, the science behind it wasn’t made public or vetted by independent scientists. Only in early December, at the court’s direction, did the government grudgingly reveal about a third of the documents backing up the government’s “scientific review” of the BiOp, which took place last July. The government simply claims, revealing few details, that its panel of eight “independent” scientists thought the measures in the BiOp, backed up by the AMIP, will prevent the endangered salmon runs from disappearing. The government even made the scientists sign confidentiality agreements.

The few documents released last week undermine the government’s assertion that the BiOp incorporates the best available science. Consider these excerpts from a government staffer’s memo reporting on the scientific reviewers’ concerns: she refers to the scientists’ “lack of confidence that the [BiOp’s specified recovery measures] could accomplish what was hoped . . . The [scientists] noted that the assumptions regarding hatchery and habitat effects in the [BiOp’s recovery measures] 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 . . .” Or this email from a NOAA scientist: “One specific topic that comes to mind and I haven’t really heard a good answer for, is what are we going to do if [Snake River spring/summer] chinook trend downward, or a ‘trigger’ is met? I don’t think we have a plan at all in place for these stocks that are largely in wilderness.”

One reviewer says the analysis behind the triggers is “seat-of-the-pants.” Another says the triggers “mask a lot,” that is, “they don’t really tell you what you would want to know.”

As far as one can tell from the documents thus far released, Obama’s scientific reviewers were never even asked to look at impacts to southern resident killer whales.

This is the “best available science”? Dr. Lubchenco, a MacArthur fellow and former head of the National Academy of Science, stands behind this “100 percent”?

Short story: This is not good science. Its purpose was to save the dams, not to save the endangered orcas and the endangered salmon on which they feed. If Judge Redden approves the Bush/Obama BiOp/AMIP hybrid, then dams and hydropower win, and salmon and orcas lose. Big time.

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