News from the Front #77:  

Junk Science & Dams:  Lies About Smolt Transportation 

Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Orwell

Juvenile salmon migrating down the Columbia river are eaten by birds, fish and electric turbines.  So it has always been obvious that collecting them, putting them in a barge, and barging them around all these predators improves their survival substantially.  Environmentalists hate this process, because it is "unnatural", and because, more than anything else, it permits the dams to generate power while fully mitigating (if not over-mitigating) their adverse effects.  

Scientific testing of the transportation program has been underway for decades.  The tests were simple and elegant:  one group of tagged fish was released into the river, the other group put on barges, and the number of returning adults from each group were counted.  The ratio of percentage returns was known as the "transportation benefit ratio" or TBR.

These days, roughly half the Snake river spring/summer chinook survive migration through eight dams and reservoirs.  Nearly all the fish survive in the barges, so one would expect a  TBR of two:  100% survival divided by 50% survival.  Sometimes, when warmer river temperatures produce lower survival in the river, TBRs are substantially higher.

The first response of the anti-dam ideologues was to abolish use of the term TBR.  In order to dispel any preconception of benefits from smolt transportation, the ratio henceforth had to be identified as the "T:I" ratio, for "transported vs. in-river".  Their next response was to focus on the fact that in recent years, the TBRs have only been about 1.5, not 2.0.  Since nearly 100% of the fish survive in the barges, they argued that this must mean that the barged fish die at a higher rate after barging than the in-river fish, to bring the TBR down from 2.0 to 1.5.  (It could also mean that measurements of in-river survival are too low, for it is axiomatic that the fewer fish die in-river, the less benefit there is from transporting them.)

The anti-dam ideologues slowly succeeded in refocusing the Region's scientific apparatus on immensely complicated theories about this "extra" mortality, which they called "delayed mortality", or the "D factor".  Their general idea was that at some point after release from the barges, some sinister delayed impact of barge life caused the fish to die, though no one could really explain why.  

For example, radiotagging studies that have followed transported smolts in the lower Columbia River show they survive at the same rate as the in-river fish all the way to the saltwater, where the radios stop working.  So if "delayed mortality" is real, it doesn't seem to be showing up until weeks, months or years later in the ocean.  That seems far-fetched.  It is also possible that the transportation program has been sabotaged by having the barges release the smolts in the same place for barge after barge, clouds of predators learn where to pick off the juvenile fish as they are released, causing "extra" mortality.  The important point is that even with the "extra" or "delayed" mortality, transportation still helps the fish.

The anti-dam ideologues also noticed that some of the fish migrating downstream were never detected at any dam, and that these fish tended to have higher in-river survival.  It slowly became official policy that the only "real" TBR was based on comparing transported fish to never-detected fish.  This, of course, lowered the TBRs.  

Since the non-detected fish are a minority of the population in the river, it is obviously fraudulent to base policy on transportation's benefits as compared to these fish alone.  If we are trying to figure out whether to put fish in a barge, we want to figure out if they are better off as a group, not just whether they are better off than some arbitrary subset of the fish in the river.  Nevertheless, as a result of all the intellectual thuggery in the fish agencies, it is now virtually impossible for anyone to review scientific papers on transportation and figure out the facts that really matter for policy decisions; what is reported is the new, bogus "T:I" ratio.

The core of the Bush Administration's new biological opinion on dam operations is the claim that there is a significant "gap" between juvenile salmon survival and what the fish "need" to avoid extinction.  This "gap", in turn, must be offset by huge expenditures for "mitigation" (mostly payments to biologists to produce paper).  The new biological opinion reports that the smolt transportation program increases the net survival of Snake River spring/summer chinook salmon from 50.2% to only 51.5% (Table 6.5).  This is tantamount to a declaration that the smolt transportation program provides essentially no benefits at all, and is perhaps the biggest lie in the new biological opinion.

But for this lie, it would be apparent that system survival is actually much higher.  In a typical recent year, 30% of the fish in the river survive at 50%, and 70% of the fish in barges survive at 75% (including the "extra" mortality), for a net system survival of 68%.   Roughly speaking, then, the Bush Administration has succeeded by the anti-transportation lies alone in overstating dam harm by roughly a third.   And there are many, many other lies.

The new biological opinion represents the triumph of termites within our fishery agencies and their strategy:  they take a simple truth and wrap it in such a horrifying-complex cocoon of lies that most people can't tell which end is up, not even the Bush Administration managers ostensibly supervising the termites.  As things now stand, judicial review of the new biological opinion will now proceed without a single party before the Court pointing out these problems, because the prevailing wisdom is that it is hopeless even to attempt to explain the problem.  Our leaders (and the citizens who select them) have become so intellectually lazy that their eyes glaze over when confronted with these problems, and they can only mumble reassuringly that we should "trust the experts".    

James Buchal, January 10, 2005

You have permission to reprint this article, and are encouraged to do so. The sooner people figure out what's going on, the quicker we'll have more fish in the rivers.

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