False Symbolism Won’t Save Salmon – or Orcas

Science, Not Emotions, Must Guide Next Steps

The image of an orca mother carrying her dead calf in Puget Sound was a visceral and heartbreaking reminder of the plight of these iconic animals.  It’s also a reminder that if we hope to save the orcas, we need to focus on science-based actions that we can take now. Emotion and passion are understandable but unhelpful – unless they translate into clear-eyed thinking and measures that will benefit the orcas as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, some groups are taking advantage of the passion swirling around the whales’ plight to push their own spill and Snake River dam removal agendas, which won’t help the animals now or later:

  • Spilled water at the federal dams has reached levels that put young salmon in jeopardy, yet these groups seek higher spill levels that would violate water quality standards explicitly established to protect salmon and other aquatic species. Why? Because spill increases the dams’ operating costs – and increasing costs boosts prospects for dam removal.
  • Everyone familiar with these issues knows that dam removal would require an Act of Congress and millions of dollars of federal funding, which would take years.  Deconstruction of the dams, even proposals to “dig a ditch” around them, would take even longer.

Most importantly, Snake dam removal doesn’t equal a safe future for the orcas. There simply is no scientific basis for such claims. In fact, NOAA Fisheries scientists have been clear as recently as this month (see Clearing Up, Aug. 24 issue) that three factors are equally responsible for the orcas’ decline – prey availability, toxic contaminants, and noise and vessel traffic. Moreover, Snake River Chinook are not the only or most important part of the whales’ diet, according to NOAA.

Yet anti-dam groups continue to present Snake dam removal as a silver bullet that will save the salmon and the orcas. It is both a false promise and a powerful fundraising tool.

Don’t take my word for it; I head up an advocacy group that supports the Snake dams. Listen instead to Dr. Peter Kareiva, who last fall co-authored an article with UCLA graduate student Valerie Carranza entitled: “Fealty to Symbolism No Way to Save Salmon” (and I submit, by extension, orcas). It should be required reading for anyone involved in salmon or orca restoration in the Northwest.

Kareiva has an impeccable science vita: Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and National Academy of Sciences, former Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, current Director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.  He knows the Northwest’s endangered salmon issues intimately. As Director of Conservation Biology at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center from 1999 to 2002, he was charged with examining management options for Snake River salmon.

Here are key points from the paper:

·     “There is no doubt that dams have caused salmon declines, but the operators of the dams have spent billions of dollars to improve the safety of their dams for salmon, and it is not certain that dams now cause higher mortality than would arise in a free-flowing river.”

·     “The problem is that a complex species and river management issue had been reduced to a simple symbolic battle—a battle invoking a choice between evil dams and the certain loss of an iconic species.”

·     “…it has become clear that salmon conservation is being used as a “means to an end” (dam removal) as opposed to an “end” of its own accord.”

The paper also describes how, in 1999, environmental groups supporting Snake dam removal ran a full-page ad in The New York Times, stating that if the dams were not promptly removed “wild Snake River spring chinook salmon, once the largest run of its kind in the world, will be extinct by 2017.”  Kareiva and Carranza point out: “As we write this, it is 2017, the dams remain, and spring/summer chinook numbers are much higher than they were when that confident prophesy of extinction was printed.”

The authors continue:  “Symbolism is visceral and compelling.  Another advertisement used in 1999 to advocate dam breaching depicted a young girl looking at a salmon mounted on the wall with the epithet ‘extinct 2017’ and was captioned, ‘if we do not remove the dams our children will never be able to see a wild salmon spawning.’  But symbolism makes everything a black-or-white choice.  It also makes it harder to negotiate and sustain solutions that must satisfy diverse stakeholders with diverse values…It need not simply be a choice between fish and hydropower.”

Salmon face myriad obstacles to survival in the rivers and ocean, throughout their complex lifecycle. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for restoring them or the orcas – not dam removal, not added spill. Anti-dam groups that continue to oversimplify one of the Northwest’s toughest challenges do a huge disservice to the public, the science and the species.

nwrpFalse Symbolism Won’t Save Salmon – or Orcas