The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Salmon Advocates Say Kill Dams, Not Sea Lions*

by Shreema Mehta

Environmentalists are reacting to a proposal to slaughter some sea lions in order to save the few salmon they in turn kill, pointing to deadly dams as the elephant in the room.

*A correction was appended to this news article after initial publication.

Apr. 17, 2007 – To reduce the decline in the salmon population in the Northwest, a US congressional representative has proposed a measure to kill sea lions who feed on the endangered fish.

But since the sea lions are responsible for only about 3 percent of salmon deaths, according to the US Army Corp of Engineers, environmental groups say the bill misses the point. They say the true solution is to eliminate the four dams in the lower Snake River, which flows through several western states, including Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The dams trap and kill thousands of salmon annually.

Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers found that sea lions killed almost 3 percent of the salmon passing Bonneville dam, a number that has steadily increased in the past 4 years.

Sponsored by Representative Bill Baird (D–Washington), the proposed legislation would allow the federal government to issue permits for the killing of some sea lions as a way to preserve the salmon population in the area. The Commission could not kill more than one percent of the sea lion population.

A spokesperson for the congressman said Baird supports the bill because he thinks it would have an immediate impact on the salmon population. "Non-lethal measures [for deterring sea lions] are preferable," Ciaran Clayton told The NewStandard, pointing out that the bill first requires the government to make sure that non-lethal measures are not effective enough.

"The solution is to restore that habitat so the salmon can come back. That’s where the focus of our elected leaders needs to be."

Salmon advocates, however, say the bill addresses a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself, which they say is loss of habitat from the construction of dams in the rivers the salmon use to migrate from spawning waters to sea.

"[The solution is to] restore that habitat so the salmon can come back," said Amy Kober, a spokesperson for the conservation group American Rivers. "That’s where the focus of our elected leaders needs to be."

Kober pointed out that salmon and sea lions have co-existed for thousands of years, but the dams have created an "artificial situation" where salmon congregate in reservoirs behind the dams and attract sea lions. She also argued the bill does not address the real culprits, since compared to the dams, sea lions are responsible for very few salmon deaths.

The amount of salmon that die trying to pass through the dams depends on the species of the fish and the season. On average, dams kill about 40 to 60 percent of baby salmon migrating to the ocean, with mortality rates on some rivers reaching 92 percent, according to the Federal Caucus, a group of federal agencies that enforce the Endangered Species Act in the area.

As groups like the Humane Society protest the bill, they and others are urging the federal government to take more-dramatic steps to better protect the fish.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court decision blasting the federal government for failing to protect the endangered salmon populations in the Northwest and violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973.

Advocates say the true solution is to eliminate the four dams in the lower Snake River, which flows through several western states. The dams trap and kill thousands of salmon annually.

"At its core," wrote Judge Sidney Thomas in his ruling, the government’s decision on the affects of proposed dam operations on salmon "amounted to little more than an analytical slight of hand, manipulating the variables to achieve a ‘no jeopardy’ finding… The ESA requires a more realistic, common-sense examination."

In a press statement, federal officials from the US Department of the Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other participating agencies responded to the ruling: "We remain hopeful that collaboration will increase the likelihood that the final [decision] will not only protect salmon but will have broad regional support as well."

American Rivers and the environmental group Save the Wild Salmon say any new conservation plan should involve removing the dams. They say the energy and transportation routes the dams create do not justify the large numbers of salmon deaths they cause each year.

The lower Snake River dams generate about 1,200 average megawatts of electricity and have the capacity to produce 9 percent of the energy in the Northwest, according to the Bonneville Power Administration, which distributes the electricity from all the dams in the Northwest. Scott Simms, a spokesperson for the Administration, added that the dams are a significant source of emissions-free energy.

But dam opponents argue that to preserve the salmon population, the millions of dollars spent to maintain the dams should be re-directed to developing other renewable energy to replace the hydropower. They also call for increased investment in rail transport to replace barges.

According to a 2002 study released by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, the lower Snake River dams could be replaced with energy-efficiency measures and wind power.

Kober said the declining salmon population has wide repercussions. She pointed out that many animals, from tiny insects to grizzly bears, depend on salmon for food. "So," she said, "when salmon are in trouble, all those animals suffer."


Clarifying Note:

The original version of this article, Scott Simms was not identified as the spokesperson for the Bonneville Power Administration.

 | Change Posted April 18, 2007 at 18:25 PM EST

Minor Change:

This article originally stated that the lower Snake River dams generate about 1,200 megawatts of energy per year. It's actually 1,200 average megawatts of electricity.

 | Change Posted April 18, 2007 at 18:42 PM EST

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

Recent contributions by Shreema Mehta: