Cheat-Seeking Missles

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The High Price Of Salmon: $8 Billion

If a measure moving through Congress passes, Bonneville Power Authority customers in the Northwest will soon see a line on their electric bills denoting the price of protecting salmon on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Expect a big regional gasp; the amount will be about 30% of their bill.

A fascinating WSJ piece by John J. Fialka looks at what can happen when a really, really wealthy country is moved by a really, really inflexible law (the Endangered Species Act) to do everything it can to save a species. For example:

For many salmon, the first major obstacle on their swim to the Pacific starts at Lower Granite, a 3,200-foot dam jutting across the Snake River about 70 miles south of Spokane. Until the mid-1980s, the baby salmon, four to six inches long, had to survive a churning, pressurized plunge through whirling turbines. An early attempt to provide an alternative sent the fish zooming through fast-moving spillways where they bounced off the cement walls. As many as 10% of the fish were killed at each dam.

Today, fish that arrive at the top of this dam are sucked into a "juvenile bypass system," a series of pipes and chutes where the water moves more slowly to minimize bruising. Many are steered into a special fish-handling room, knocked out by a bath of mild anesthetic and injected with tiny transponders about the size of a grain of rice. Bonneville buys two million a year at $2 a piece, enabling scientists to track the salmon's journey.

After the transponders are inserted, some fish are gently returned to the river to navigate the other seven dams, which are equipped with similar bypasses. The majority are pumped into the tanks of one of eight specially designed barges that deposit them in the Columbia River estuary beyond the last dam. In the tranquil, 36-hour cruise, 98% of the salmon survive, according to Bonneville. ...

Some think the barges lead to unusally high death rates because salmon leave them disoriented and unable to defend themselves against aggressors the ESA itself ensures will be there to hunt them: Caspian terns and sea lions, both of which are protected by ESA, feed on salmon in the Columbia's estuaries. Are the barges really the problem?

To settle the controversy, [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] persuaded Bonneville to buy "acoustic tags." The devices, which are inserted into the salmon as they leave the last dam, are larger than the transponders, which can be detected only when the fish swim through narrow tunnels in the dams. The bigger devices give off a distinctive ping that can be picked up by underwater microphones, enabling scientists, for the first time, to track the fish in the estuary via computers. So far, Bonneville has implanted 14,000 tags at a cost of $270 each.

Native Americans also take their share of salmon, as do Canadian fishermen, as do diners. Strange as it seems, fire-breathing environmentalists routinely relish chomping down on endangered Chinook salmon.

For all this, $8 billion in total, only 1% to 3.5% of the 13 protected salmon and steelhead species complete their round-trip trek.

How many used to make it before the dams? Well, before the dams, there were more predators and less controls, and more river variation from floods and drought, so on one knows. Some scientists think the survival rate should be double the current rate.

Is that worth another $8 billion? Is it worth another 30% on people's power bills?

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