Salmon Hoax / James Buchal

    An Eyewitness Account of the Collapse of Science and Law and the Triumph of Politics is Salmon Recovery.
    By James L. Buchal.

      'The Great Salmon Hoax'

    (Reprinted from: Wheat Life Magazine – December 1998)

    An eyewitness account of the collapse of science and law and the triumph of politics in salmon recovery.

    Ed. note. This is an overview of a book written by James L. Buchal, a Portland area attorney who has been involved in the Pacific Northwest salmon recovery efforts for the past seven years. He has represented the Columbia River Alliance in court battles, and regularly speaks to audi­ences to present a side of the Columbia-Snake River salmon controversy that gets very little media attention. This article provides a snapshot of the thought-provoking ideas Buchal's book offers about what has gone wrong in the bureaucratic efforts in salmon recovery, and about how to plot a logical, scientific-based plan to help improve the salmon runs. While the book expresses the author's opinions about the salmon controversy, his statements, assertions and conclusions are backed up by numerous citings of scientific studies and papers, books, magazine and newspaper articles, and various other sources of information. Charles F. Luce, former administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration said of the book, "Must reading for anyone who wants to hear both sides of the Columbia River salmon controversy." (Quotation marks in this article denote actual passages from the book. Other portions of the book have been paraphrased to conserve space.)

    0ver $3 billion ( $ 5 billion now) have been spent on salmon recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest, with no measurable benefits to salmon, states Buchal.

    "Without a single vote of Congress, the fishery managers have created, by administrative fiat, the single most am­bitious and expensive endangered species recovery program ever devised, all funded by surcharges on electric rate pay­ers."

    Buchal points out that even though Snake River sockeye and chinook salmon are listed as "endan­gered species" under the Endangered Spe­cies Act of 1973 (ESA), when they entered the Zone 6 Tribal fishery area above Bonneville Dam on the Colum­bia River in the fall of 1997, they had to run a gauntlet of tribal gill nets. Hundreds were captured, and sold for two dollars per pound. No other endangered species are caught, killed and sold for human con­sumption.

    "Federal, state and tribal fishery agencies did not merely fail to stop these harvests; they promoted them. Fishery management could require selective harvest meth­ods that would spare the endangered salmon. But fishery managers refuse even to consider any reform of their own rules and practices.

    "Instead, their reform efforts are focused on blaming hydropower gen­eration for the decline of salmon.... (as a result) power production at the dams has been radically reduced, and navigation, recreation, and irrigation, are threatened by proposals to 'draw down' the reservoirs.

    "Outsiders who might be expected to serve as watchdogs are instead lap dogs. Environmentalists, funded by and allied with commercial salmon harvest interests, generally support the efforts of the fishery managers-they file law­suits against harvesting trees, but not salmon. An uncritical media regard the fishery managers, environmentalists, and fishermen as the protectors of the salmon. Indeed, as of 1997, both envi­ronmentalists and the media invoke the utter failure of the program to justify ever-more-extravagant plans."

    Buchal attributes past policy blun­ders and what he considers to be even larger ones now under consideration to be a result of what he calls the great salmon hoax: "a collection of mutually-­reinforcing and commonly-held beliefs about salmon recovery, all of which lack any basis in sound science. Others are the products of deliberate misrep­resentations, apparently made in the service of a larger ideological vision: the Pacific Northwest without dams."

    Buchal's salmon hoax theory is a collection of five basic myths. 

    Myth #1:      Columbia River salmon are in danger of extinction. Buchal maintains that none of the several biological species of salmon in the Columbia River Basin are in any imminent danger of extinction. He notes that the ESA has been used to protect 'distinct population segments' of salmon, a con­cept so broad that it can be defined as the salmon from a single stream or lake.  So defined, there are thousands of 'dis­tinct population seg­ments' of just one biological species: chinook salmon.

    Quests for greater diversity in salmon populations are politi­cal quests, pushed by a new politically-active group known as "con­servation biologists."

    Buchal further states that we can have plenty of salmon with­out hundreds of viable subpopulations, just as we can have plenty of cattle without hundreds of breeds of cows. No one worries that the cow population will collapse if ranchers choose to discontinue some breeds of cattle.

    Myth #2:      Salmon hatcheries cannot maintain abundant salmon runs. "Salmon hatcheries maintained salmon populations for decades in the face of ever-increasing harvest pressures. Most people would be surprised to know that the highest total count of salmon and steelhead ever recorded at Bonneville Dam came nearly fifty years after that dam was constructed.

    "Only recently-many salmon gen­erations after the last dam was com­pleted-have there been sharp drops in salmon abundance.

    "Many factors have conspired to produce these drops, including poor ocean conditions, harvest pressures, reduced hatchery releases, and truly extraordinary mismanagement of hatch­ery operations. Hatchery operators do not even issue reports from which their success at returning adults for harvest can be assessed; it is unclear if the data is collected at all. While hatcheries are supposed to mitigate for dam-related losses, no competent estimates exist to determine whether more smolts are now delivered alive to the bottom of the river than before the dams were built."

    Myth #3:      Overfishing is no longer a significant factor in Columbia Basin salmon decline. Buchal states that fishery agencies have not even attempted to estimate the total number of Columbia River salmon killed in salmon harvest. "Without competent estimates of how many Columbia River fish are caught in the ocean, it is hard to credit claims that harvest is not a problem."

    Buchal points out that salmon runs up and down the entire West Coast, even in Canadian rivers with little human development, are declining. These declines are attributed to overfishing everywhere else, except in the Columbia River Basin.

    "The effects of overfishing, including a net-induced downsizing of fish to half their historic size, continue today. There is incredible waste and abuse in current salmon harvest management, with millions of pounds of dead salmon tossed overboard as 'bycatch."'

    Myth #4:      The eight mainstem Columbia and Snake River dams are a critical obstacle to salmon recovery. "Federal, state and tribal fish managers repeatedly claim that these dams kill ninety-five percent of juvenile salmon migrating downstream. Many of them, particularly in the state agencies, know that this is false, yet continue to repeat the lie to uncritical media representatives.... The most recent tests show less than five percent mortality for juvenile salmon that go through (dam) turbines, and the vast majority of the salmon are routed around the turbines."

    Buchal maintains that the fishery agencies have hidden the truth concerning transportation (barging) of fish, flow augmentation and spills.

    "The best scientific evidence is ig­nored and even suppressed. in one par­ticularly egregious case, when observers using ninety-power microscopes found symptoms of gas bubble trauma in tiny juvenile salmon resulting from the agen­cies spill increases, the agencies took the microscopes away and gave the scientists magnifying glasses, instead."

    Buchal describes how the legal pro­cess has been damaged as well, as federal courts have swallowed the great salmon hoax hook, line and sinker. They refused to allow opponents of the agencies to present testimony on the effects of dams, repeatedly invoking procedural barriers to reaching the true facts.

    Myth #5:     Dam removal will cause the wild salmon population to rebound to historic levels. it is widely reported that the Columbia River salmon runs peaked in the late 1800s at 16 million fish; compe­tent scientific analysis puts the number at about half of that, states Buchal. Even under ideal conditions, it is unlikely to ever have that number of salmon again, as the ecosystem of the 1800s can never be restored.

    "The introduction of exotic and com­peting species, such as shad and walleye, forever limits salmon abundance. The walleye eat salmon; skyrocketing shad populations compete with salmon for food. Soaring bird and marine mammal populations threaten the salmon as well.

    "More importantly, the effects of natu­ral cycles in ocean conditions dwarf fresh water effects under human control. In the last two decades, ocean conditions have been the worst in 500 years; the fate of the salmon hangs largely on changes in those conditions. Both the ocean and river are warmer now, and salmon are cold water fish.

    “Immense public resources are now devoted to considering the question of dam removal, despite the absence of the most elementary data needed to make a rational decision, or even the means to collect it. Indeed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fish­eries Service have formally committed themselves to making a decision in 1999 on dam removal, taking the legally-un­supportable position that such a decision is required by the ESA."

    Buchal devotes several chapters of the book to detailing how the salmon hoax is perpetuated. He then offers what he feels are the best solutions to these complex problems. Buchal offers a seven­-point plan to reform salmon recovery efforts.

    1.          Reintroducing economic consider­ations to maximize the benefits of salmon recovery resources. Salmon recovery re­sources are not unlimited. Setting priori­ties and measuring which procedures provide the biggest benefit for the least cost has not been part of the system. The main problem is that no one with any fiscal accountability is involved in the process at all. (Congress needs to provide some structure, require a formal cost-­benefit analysis of each salmon measure. They must also make sure that interested parties can challenge it in court for accu­racy.)

    2.          Decentralizing management of salmon habitat. Centralized decision-mak­ing is incapable of making rational habi­tat management decisions. This is some­thing that belongs with, and should be paid for by, the state and tribal govern­ments with sovereignty over the land at issue. Local watershed management will always be more effective than centralized efforts. (For this to work, the same busi­ness-as-usual ocean harvests can not be allowed to continue. Why would locals be interested in putting up money to help on watershed management and habitat improvement if most of the fish continue to be harvested before they ever have an opportunity to return?)

    3.          Moving toward river-based harvest management and sustainable salmon harvests. There is one obvious way to get more salmon in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest: ban all salmon fishing on the ocean, so that the entire population re­turns to the rivers. By catching salmon in the rivers, harvest levels can be crafted to protect each and every river in the Pacific Northwest.

    "Every scientific panel to examine salmon in the Pacific Northwest has rec­ognized that reduced ocean fishing effort is 'necessary for increasing production.’ ...Banning ocean harvest would resolve long-standing disputes between the United States and Canada over the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty. Each nation would catch 'its own' salmon. Indeed, for the first time, each major river system would receive the economic returns from good water­shed management. It is only by reestab­lishing such common-sense incentives for salmon protection that any long-term progress can be made."

    Buchal also recommends more effi­cient harvesting of the salmon in the river, possibly using traps and fish wheels. Additionally, marking or tagging of hatch­ery fish so they could be selectively harvested would help the wild stocks recover much more quickly.

    4.        Redefining a role for hatcheries. Among politically correct conservation biologists, there is an almost fanatical emphasis on preserving the genetic pu­rity of individual salmon stocks. Among animal breeders, plant pathologists and evolutionary biologists, however, the power of crossing different stocks is rec­ognized as an effective tool in creating new breeds with desired characteristics. As long as careful records are kept, and the process is sound, there is no reason to believe that salmon cannot be bred as well. (Communities could elect to pursue an all-wild, all-hatchery, or mixed approach to their particular tributary, as long as harvest regulation below the tributaries assured each community would reap the fruits of its own salmon experi­ments. Some rivers might even need to establish non-hatchery and/or non-har­vest regulations to build numbers back up.)

    5.        What improvements remain for mainstem (dam) passage? "Before turn­ing to structural improvements at the dams, there is one improvement needed of overriding importance. We need to be able to measure what we are doing, and the best way to do that is to complete the installation of PIT tag studies detectors so that we can measure what is going on in the lower half of the river. Such measure­ments represent the first step toward making any improvements in dam pas­sage, yet fishery agencies advocate dam removal even before accurate measure­ment of the effects of dams."

    A promising concept for improving fish survival going over the dams is sur­face bypass/collection. This dam design feature helps the fish pass over the spill­way instead of going through the tur­bines. At Wells Dam on the Columbia River, an average of eighty-nine percent of smolts that arrive at the dam pass via the vertical slot bypass, according to observers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers believes that surface bypass is at least as effective as turbine screens, if not more so, and may actually speed up juvenile salmon passage as well, provid­ing a less stressful method of collection.

    6.        Reforming the Endangered Species Act. Tracy Warner, writing in the "Wenatchee World" (12.8.96), summa­rized the accomplishments of the ESA: "Since the law was enacted, 1037 plants and animals have been listed for protec­tion. Of those the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed only twenty-seven from the list. Seven of the species re­moved are extinct. Nine were removed because corrected 'data errors' showed that they were so numerous they were not threatened and should not have been listed in the first place.... Eleven species are healthy enough for the 'recovered category', but at least four came about with the discovery of significant popula­tions unknown at the time of the listing. Another, the American alligator, is a hardy species that many scientists agree was never endangered.... Three other 're­covered' species are kangaroos, which are numerous and have no habitat in U.S. jurisdiction. Two others, the brown peli­can and the peregrine falcon, were en­dangered primarily because of the effects of the pesticide DDT, which was banned the year before the ESA was passed. The last 'recovered' species, the California gray whale, was saved by international bans on hunting and the protection of breeding waters by the Mexican govern­ment."

    In short, there is not one single spe­cies that has been brought back from the brink of extinction by the ESA in nearly twenty-five years. Even for government agencies, this is an impressive record of failure, noted Buchal. "Despite lofty in­tentions, in practice the ESA has been merely a tool for stopping actions that may affect the species, without regard for the magnitude of any benefits obtained."

    Buchal favors eliminating the under­lying goal of the ESA-save every spe­cies, no matter the cost. The way the act has been used, trying to stop every single 'distinct population segment' of salmon from extinction, has prevented the general promotion of healthy salmon runs. The definition of 'distinct population segment' is unclear enough that it has been used arbitrarily to create hundreds of subspecies that can be listed as endangered, to increase alarm and therefore, program funding. He believes we need to separate decisions about listing species from decisions about what to do once the species are listed.

    Lastly, Buchal believes Congress ought to recognize that we should not list 'endangered species' that we are going to directly harvest. This makes no sense, and is bad government. Any changes on this issue will have to come directly from the people, notes Buchal, since none of the institutions have any incentive to fix the problem. The fishery agencies are growing in power and influence and they are gaining precious media exposure.

    7.        Putting someone in charge. Buchal favors the creation of a Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Administration with a presidentially-appointed administrator. This administrator would have the power to regulate harvests and hatcheries. The administrator would also have the authority to purchase improvements in dam passage with a budget inherited from the ruins of the current Memorandum of Agreement, and revenues from selling salmon licenses. The new body would replace the Columbia River Compact, the Northwest Power Planning Council and would accompany an outright elimination of federal grants to the menagerie of fish and wildlife authorities, foundations, commissions and centers. This would finally open the door for sound scientific measurements of the problem and for common sense solutions, eliminating the tangle of bureaucratic agencies fighting each other at the expense of the Pacific Northwest electricity consumers.

    Buchal maintains that the data we already have suggests that to take out the dams would be a tragic mistake. It would not bring back the salmon in historic numbers, and would waste billions of dollars that could be put to better use. "It would have profound and negative effects on the environment. Dam removal would require the thermal generation of unfathomable amounts of electricity, with accompanying pollution. The Northwest would lose not merely electricity, but also valuable flood control, inland navigation, irrigation and reservoir recreation. "

    James L. Buchal graduated from Harvard College in 1981, then attended Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management, graduating in 1985. He practiced law in New York state until moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1991. He has practiced law in this area since then, and lives on a farm between Portland and Salem.