Thursday, October 20, 2011

Congressman Hastings: Playing Fast and Loose with the Salmon Facts

Many people are familiar with PolitiFact, a project of the St. Petersburg Times that fact-checks quotes by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups to determine their overall accuracy. A recent statement from Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA) about salmon restoration efforts in the Pacific Northwest got us wondering if it’s time for the debut of a salmon-oriented offshoot, FishFact.

Now, it’s certainly not unusual for members of Congress to occasionally engage in rhetorical hopscotch or to stretch the truth here and there in order to make a punchier point. But in his October 14 Weekly Message, “Protecting Northwest Investments,” Congressman Hastings takes the time-honored practice of embellishment a step further by contradicting himself in the course of a single news release.

Here’s where Congressman Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, gets tripped up by the facts, and by his own words:
  • Congressman Hastings says, “This year, the region will again experience record or near-record salmon returns.” In actuality, many key populations of wild salmon remain perilously low, with most wild runs still at or near the levels that led to their protection under the Endangered Species Act in the first place. Still, the Columbia Basin has seen modestly higher salmon returns over the past couple of years, with hatchery fish comprising about 80% of those returns. The near-unanimous scientific explanation for these slightly-better-than-average numbers? Good ocean conditions and an in-river salmon protection measure called spill, where federal agencies send water over the tops of dams to help young salmon safely reach the ocean during their spring and summer out-migrations. Even longtime opponents of spill, such as the Bonneville Power Administration, now admit that the practice works and has contributed to the recent boost in returns.
  • But Congressman Hastings then begs to differ with just about every fish biologist in the Northwest: “Unfortunately, new salmon-related regulations based on faulty science have led to wasteful spilling of water through [sic] federal dams…” The congressman does not elaborate on which new regulations or faulty science he’s referring to, nor why the spilling of water is wasteful; but perhaps most importantly, Mr. Hastings fails to square his critique of spill with his claims of record salmon returns. Since we don’t get a bump in fish numbers without spilling water over the dams, the congressman will need to choose which myth he’d like to perpetuate: spill is bad vs. record returns. In this case, he can’t have it both ways.
  • Congressman Hastings goes on to say that the federal government has done little “to address the most pressing threats to salmon.” We couldn’t agree more, but we suspect Mr. Hastings is referring to a different set of threats; while most scientists recognize the federal dams as the most significant threat to Columbia and Snake River salmon, it appears Congressman Hastings believes that salmon have more to fear from birds and sea lions. We don’t want to discount the impact that predation has on imperiled salmon populations, but let’s keep things in perspective: sea lions consume between 2-4% of returning salmon (specifically spring chinook), while the federal hydropower system accounts for as much as 75% of human-caused mortality for some stocks. Clearly we should do all we can to reduce salmon mortality across the board, but Congressman Hastings’ focus on downplaying and even ignoring the massive harm caused by the federal hydrosystem won’t get us very far. To achieve actual salmon recovery – wild salmon recovery – we must turn our collective attention to making meaningful changes at the federal dams. Scientists tell us that this is the path to salmon abundance.
  • Speaking of the federal dams, Congressman Hastings rarely misses an opportunity to dismiss lower Snake River dam breaching as a cockamamie idea, and his October 14 release is no exception; in it, he states, “Dam removal is an extreme action that would be devastating to the Pacific Northwest economy and is not proven to increase fish populations.” However, we’re not sure what evidence Mr. Hastings has to back either of these claims. In fact, study after study has concluded that removing the four dams on the lower Snake River is the most biologically certain (and perhaps only) way to recover imperiled Snake River salmon and steelhead. Other dam removals in the region (e.g., the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River) have already resulted in improved salmon returns. Furthermore, many studies have shown that dam removal is a cost-effective solution (and certainly more so than the current path of spending $1 billion per year on a salmon plan that’s not working) that would create thousands of jobs and revitalize rural economies from the Pacific Coast to Central Idaho.
Despite our clear differences with Congressman Hastings, we wholeheartedly agree with him on one point from his Weekly Message: when it comes to salmon recovery efforts, we should ensure that we’re “using the best data and science we have available.” To that end, we respectfully challenge Mr. Hastings to a “science-off.” Our data against his: may the best facts win.

Or better yet, we invite the congressman to join us in supporting a collaborative process where affected stakeholders can sit down together and discuss all scientifically credible salmon restoration options. Mr. Hastings has rejected this idea so far, but we think there’s a lot to be said for talking through our differences. A stakeholder table focused on solutions could be the key to resolving our decades-old salmon crisis; we hope Congressman Hastings is willing to pull up a chair.

Gilly Lyons is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition.

No comments: