Salmon (apolitical) science


Not only did Steve Hawley's article "Columbia Basin (Political) Science" include factual errors and omit balancing views, but it also missed dramatic, positive changes surrounding Northwest salmon protection in recent years (HCN, 4/13/09).

States, tribes and federal agencies that once stood on different sides now stand together behind the region's new salmon strategy. Consider the supporters: five tribes, three of the four Northwest states, and scientists from many agencies. We've never had this kind of agreement before and we wouldn't have it without a solid foundation of science we agree on.

The most basic facts in the article are wrong. Start with the most obvious: "Most listed salmon stocks have continued to decline, and none are headed toward recovery." Not true. An average of about 400 wild Snake River fall chinook returned to the river in the first half of the 1990s, when the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act. The average return over the last five years is more than 5,000 wild fish, well above minimum recovery thresholds. Snake River spring chinook, sockeye and other stocks also show positive trends.

Another example from the article is the quote: "But if you want to study what happens to salmon in the estuary after juveniles make it through the system, that's just not a study anyone's interested in funding." A simple search of funding data on BPA's Web site shows many millions of BPA and other dollars spent on estuary research in recent years, including studies of the food webs that juvenile fish depend on and tracking of juvenile fish through the estuary and into the ocean, specifically to tell what happens to them.

For example, BPA is funding the Fish Passage Center, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and one of NOAA's independent science centers to examine delayed effects of the hydroelectric system on fish. We recently committed to 10 years of funding for the Fish Passage Center, whose director complains in the article about punitive budget cuts. If we supported only scientists who support us, how is it that almost every scientist who criticized us in the article has received BPA funding?

The article also misrepresents BPA's role in selecting research proposals for funding. All proposals arrive through open solicitations. They then go through required review by independent scientists. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council then makes recommendations based on the science review. BPA's decisions must be consistent with these recommendations.

The law has structured this process with a strong set of checks and balances to prevent exactly what the author alleges in the article. The proof is in the outcome: The sheer diversity of research we fund demonstrates the openness and fairness of the selection process, and the fact that we funded over $50 million of research, monitoring and evaluation projects last year reflects a strong commitment to a salmon strategy informed by science.

Greg Delwiche, vice president       
Environment, Fish and Wildlife        
Bonneville Power Administration
Portland, Oregon

Steve Hawley responds:
Mr. Delwiche's Snake River wild fall chinook numbers don't hold water. The "minimum recovery threshold" figure he cites is simply the lowest possible number of returning salmon that avoids a trend toward extinction. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 3,000 fish annually would achieve this lowest benchmark; the 10-year average is 2,200. Mere survival is a different metric than recovery. The sentence he takes issue with on the status of listed fish is accurate. 

Mr. Delwiche points out that the BPA does fund estuary research. I might have added more context to OSU professor Carl Shreck's remarks to the contrary. In our interview, he described the need for a long-term (12-15 year) study to determine if the cumulative effect of passing through dams could be causing a delayed mortality of young salmon that survive the gantlet of dams. There isn't a study that fits this bill funded by the BPA or anyone else. Dr. Anderson's initial investigation into delayed mortality in the estuary is mentioned at the end of the article.

Finally, Mr. Delwiche cites the array of agencies, laws, and official procedures aimed at preventing "exactly what the author alleges." The article contains no such allegations from me; it instead questions whether or not these ounces of prevention are yet worth a pound of cure. That the BPA treats the scientific opinions of Dr. Anderson quite differently than those of scientists at the Fish Passage Center is a matter of fact. Readers can draw their own conclusions from these facts.