'Fatal Flaws' Fluster Fishermen in Federal Salmon Recovery Plan
Coastal communities get short shrift in new public hearings process
Commercial fishermen and other salmon advocates were buoyed by two monumental decisions earlier this year: an agreement, signed in April, to remove four dams from the Klamath River by 2020, and an Oregon federal judge's ruling in May that invalidated – for the fifth time since 2000 - the federal plan for salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin.
Ironically enough, the most contentious feature of the Basin plan - as it was in the decades-long Klamath clash - is whether or not to breach or remove four hydroelectric dams, this time on the lower Snake River.
Despite some rough waters left to navigate, the Klamath agreement remains on course, but elation is quickly dissolving into frustration for salmon recovery advocates in the Columbia Basin, who say the current NOAA Fisheries public input process is as "fatally flawed" as the biological opinion struck down by U.S. Judge Michael Simon. Commercial salmon fishermen and others along the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California say the hearings launched by NOAA Fisheries in late October are a system of information dams designed to hold back substantive input, especially from the fishing industry.
"I am concerned that the information gathered during the hearings will be weighted in favor of other user groups," said Amy Grondin of Port Townsend, Washington, who plies the ocean for wild salmon off the coasts of Washington and Alaska aboard F/V Duna, the vessel she owns and operates with husband Greg. "Part of my concern stems from the fact that other than one hearing in Astoria, none of the hearings have been scheduled in coastal communities, on the Olympic Peninsula, or in Alaska."
Grondin, who started working on fishing boats in Alaska in 1991, only fishes during the spring and summer salmon seasons. To supplement her "fishing habit," she also focuses on being a consultant in commercial fisheries outreach and sustainable seafood systems.
For her and other commercial fishermen, the salmon recovery plan was never sustainable, and the current court-ordered retrofit process is seemingly charting the same failed course it has followed for the past 20 years.
"The agencies tasked with producing the environmental impact statement – the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and US Bureau of Reclamation – don't seem to be making their best effort at gathering comments or presenting balanced information on why the hearings are even being held, which is to gather comments on all credible options for salmon recovery," Grondin noted.
She and others say the format for the hearings is more of an open house or a science fair. "Rather than giving people a venue in which to voice their opinions to the full room of people while the comments are recorded for the record, information stations are set up," said Grondin. "The goal seems to be avoid salmon issues, rather than collect comments and concerns of stakeholders."
Those from the commercial fishing industry who have attended the first "hearings" called the conversations with agency folks "superficial" and directed toward the same solutions that have already been rejected five times by three different federal judges. They say the format is designed to "isolate and disenfranchise" anyone supporting wild salmon recovery, especially dam breaching or removal. Rather than a hearing forum where folks speak out for all to hear, comments are made to stenographers or on computers in one designated location. Any references to salmon, commercial fishermen say, are "buried in heaps of information" about navigation, cultural resources, energy, and transportation, with the usual "agency propaganda" about the status quo, including habitat projects and fish passage at dams.
Joseph Bogaarde, executive director of Save Our Wild salmon, and Joel Kawahara, a Quilcene, Washington-based commercial fisherman for 27 years who trolls for salmon and albacore tuna aboard his boat F/V Karolee, echoed Grondin's concerns.
"We've spent more than $15 billion on recovery efforts in the last 20 years, yet not one stock has recovered or been de-listed," said Bogaarde. "The status quo approach is clearly not working. This is a critical conversation that affects many communities, including fishing communities, not just in the Pacific Northwest proper, but also California and Alaska."
"Fishermen are people who like to come and say what they think," Kawahara said. "A webinar or an opportunity to comment online is not a hearing."
He said the agencies are seemingly "stacking the deck" in favor of other vested business interests to the detriment of salmon and pro-salmon folks, and – as the court decision noted - in continued violation of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The court soundly rejected the government's blueprint for protecting threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia River system. Among other things, the judge ordered the agencies to take a new look at all approaches to managing dams, including possibly breaching the four on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington.
"Although the Court is not predetermining any specific aspect of what a compliant NEPA analysis would look like in this case, it may well require consideration of the reasonable alternative of breaching, bypassing, or removing one or more of the four Lower Snake River Dams," U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon wrote in his decision. "This is an action that NOAA Fisheries and the action agencies have done their utmost to avoid considering for decades."
The decision rejected the plan's foundational "trending towards recovery" legal framework that allowed the agencies to conclude that the plan was working "with very little actual improvement in fish abundance," as well as the plan's heavy reliance on "uncertain and speculative" habitat mitigation measures to make up for the harm caused by the dams. Judge Simon determined that the agencies failed to adequately assess the "potentially catastrophic impact" of climate change on the basin's salmon and steelhead populations, and violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider alternatives to the current narrow approaches that have "already costs billions of dollars, yet they are failing." He ordered agency officials to develop a new biological opinion and full NEPA analysis that complies with the law by no later than March 1, 2018.
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA) was among the plaintiffs in the case. Glen Spain, the PCFFA's Northwest regional director, called it "a golden opportunity" to call for a Columbia River salmon recovery plan that "finally does something real" to alleviate the devastating impacts of federal dams on fisheries.
The Columbia River Basin is North America's fourth largest, draining about 250,000 square miles and extending throughout the Pacific Northwest and into Canada. It features more than 250 reservoirs and 150 hydroelectric projects, including 18 mainstem dams on the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates nine of 10 major federal projects on the Columbia and Snake rivers, among them the four controversial dams on the lower Snake.
As a group, those projects provide a major source of electric power for the region, along with flood damage reduction, navigation, recreation, fish and wildlife, municipal and industrial water supplies, and irrigation.
The system at one time provided the world's greatest wild salmon runs, with up to 16 million fish each year. Those runs have dwindled to about 400,000 salmon per year. Of the once-abundant salmon runs in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California, marine science researchers say at least 106 self-sustaining subpopulations have gone extinct, and 13 stocks of Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead are on the Endangered Species List.
All remaining stocks that return to the Snake River – the largest and formerly most productive tributary of the Columbia – are listed for protection.
Researchers say many factors contribute to the decline, but none as devastating as the aging federal dams. Since the last four dams were completed on the lower Snake River in the 1960s and mid-1970s, salmon populations plummeted by more than 90 percent.
Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon salmon Commission, said catch is down this season. As of the end of October, commercial fishermen landed 514,000 pounds of salmon valued at $4.2 million, well below last season's tally of 1.2 million pounds valued at $7.3 million and the 2014 haul of 2.6 million pounds valued at $14.5 million. Even the 2014 numbers pale by comparison to the years when the Pacific Coast salmon fleet harvested from March through October.
Fall chinook season was not kind to Kawahara. "Fortunately, prices were up," he said. Unfortunately, he and others are keenly aware that market prices, high or low, would matter little if dwindling salmon stocks die out.
"You can only do so much," he noted. Not without some sort of viable rescue effort, that is.
Grondin, Kawahara, and other commercial fishermen say they want "fair, effective and lasting solutions," but the federal agencies have so far done everything possible to ignore the science and the law, and have refused to even consider the most effective option – dam removal. They say the timing and location of the hearings on the allegedly "revised" biological opinion prevents them from effective participation in the process, and that NOAA officials ignored requests to breach those figurative opportunity dams.
Dale Kelley, executive director of the Juneau-based Alaska Trollers Association, outlined their concerns and frustrations in letters to agency and elected officials.
"Our fleet is directly managed to conserve these salmon, and since the 1970s has endured significant cuts and management restrictions to protect Columbia and Snake River stocks," he noted. "ATA has long made clear to lawmakers the fleet and industry concern for these salmon and their habitat. As have many other fishermen, fishing organizations, and support sector industries along the coast. To open a comment period when the seafood industry is not even in position to respond is inexcusable. Not only should the comment period provide ample time, any hearing schedule should include all the states that harvest these fish."
Kelley suggested possible hearings in Ketchikan, Sitka, and Juneau.
Alaska and California got none. Oregon got one. The perceived snub has prompted some fishing industry folks to observe that the agencies involved are merely putting on a dam-and-pony show to seemingly comply with the latest court ruling.
Supporters say the dams benefit the region with irrigation, hydropower and slackwater that barges can navigate from the mouth of the Columbia all the way to the port in Lewiston, Idaho.
Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest River Partners, which represents industry groups that defend the hydroelectric dams, said the dams are vital to the Northwest economy, and the situation on the Snake River indicates that salmon and the dams "are coexisting" nicely. The dams, she said, should stay, and removing them is an unnecessary draconian measure.
When agency officials released the previous finalized 610-page recovery plan in 2014, they said it would protect and improve habitat, with specific attention paid to tributaries and estuaries of the Columbia and Snake rivers.
"The actions outlined in the biological opinion, and the operation of the hydro system, is designed to move us in the direction towards recovery and avoid jeopardy, and this program does that," Barry Thom, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, said at the time. "It actually does improve the status of the populations over time. But it is not designed to achieve ultimate recovery of the population."
That nuance – nor achieving recovery – is a hook commercial fishermen are focused on as they try to draw attention to the current revision process.
As it stands now, Grondin said the hearing set for December 1 in Seattle might be "the best chance for commercial fishermen to comment in person and increase the number of people attending to show support for salmon."
The last one is set for December 8 in Astoria, Oregon – the lone coastal fishing community to get a hearing – and the deadline for submitting comments to NOAA Fisheries is January 17, 2017.