Scientific Priorities (not Marx) Should Guide Orca Recovery

Feb 4, 2019

Karl Marx will save the orca. At least, that’s according to orca researcher Deborah Giles of the University of Washington.

Last year, Giles and other scientists wrote a letter to the Governor’s Orca Task Force arguing we should destroy the Snake River dams. The letter, however, did not say where we would find the money for this, or why we should spend money on dam-destruction rather than the scientifically-established environmental priorities set by NOAA Fisheries and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

I wrote to Giles and her colleagues, asking why the state should spend money on destroying the four lower-Snake River dams rather than fund salmon recovery elsewhere. Giles evaded the question. Instead, in a letter responding to my questions, she claimed we should make the federal government pay for it. “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” she responded, quoting the Marxist maxim.

Aside from the oddity of unselfconsciously quoting Marx, her answer doesn’t reflect the real world of scarce resources and government budgeting. No matter the source of funding – federal, state, local, private – resources should be spent where they make the most difference for salmon and orca. Pretending that spending hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars to destroy the dams would not impact other priorities is fanciful in the extreme.

Unfortunately, Giles is not alone in this dubious approach to salmon recovery. Her letter, written on behalf of a group of advocates, demonstrates that ideology – not science or economics – is driving the push to destroy the dams.

Prioritizing spending is critical if we are to increase Chinook populations to the level at which orca have enough food. We have a scientifically prioritized list of projects in Puget Sound to help salmon recovery. Funding for that list, however, is scarce. The Governor’s 2019-21 Capital Budget request is actually smaller than the one he made four years ago.

When you combine an ultracrepidarian and glib attitude toward prioritization with limited funding, the results aren’t pretty.

For example, fifth on the list of large capital projects for the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) Fund is a project to protect 52 acres of shoreline on Whidbey Island. Groups like the Whidbey Camano Land Trust would chip in most of the funding, with PSAR offering $800,000. This project, however, would not be funded in the Governor’s budget.

Rather than fund this high-priority and effective project, the Governor proposes to spend $750,000 on yet another committee to study destruction of the Snake River dams. Of course, the state has no jurisdiction over the dams and all relevant science was shared with the orca panel. Ultimately, this new panel is tasked with producing a $750,000 press release.

These are the real-world choices we must make if we care about salmon and orca. Which is more important: 52-acres of protected shoreline to help salmon, or another government panel reviewing the identical scientific data they had last year. That is a choice the Governor made in his budget. Despite Giles’ claim that focusing on the Snake River dams “would not come at the expense of either the ability or need to take action in Puget Sound,” it is doing exactly that, right now.

It bears repeating that the science is pretty clear on where we should prioritize our spending for salmon recovery. Tearing down the Snake River dams does not make the priority list.

NOAA Fisheries 2017 recovery plan for Snake River Chinook and steelhead notes that destroying the Snake River dams would create significant uncertainty and their conclusion is that it would have a marginal impact on salmon population. A conclusion NOAA officials repeated in a 2018 overview of the issue.

Giles and others know this. Instead, they cite studies from 2000 and 2002, complaining that NOAA’s new research is “at odds” with older studies. When a researcher argues that we should ignore updated science and information and rely on models that are nearly two decades old, we know something other than good science is driving their thinking.

The thin reed to which Giles and others cling is NOAA’s statement that, “Snake River spring and fall Chinook…are among the top ten critical prey stocks for orcas.” This is, in fact, true and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife agrees, ranking the Snake ninth on the list. That same research, however, says that Chinook from local Puget Sound watersheds, not the distant Snake River, are the two most important watersheds, by a significant margin.

Given a choice between the ninth most important watershed and the top two, advocates of dam destruction can’t explain why we should take money from the top priorities and give it to a much lower priority, especially when the science says their proposed approach – destroying the dams – won’t do much to improve salmon runs.

PSAR is just one source of funding for salmon recovery. Of the 11 projects listed for 2019-21, only one received funding in the Governor’s proposed budget. Projects in Clallam, King, Mason, Island, Kitsap, and Snohomish counties all missed out, and would have to wait two more years for funding.

Rather than focus on those important projects, activists are demanding we spend more time and money focusing on the Snake River dams.

If Giles and others want to stand by their rhetoric that the Snake River dams are a federal issue and we shouldn’t use state money on it, they should oppose wasting money on a new state process and more jawboning about the dams (complete with more public testimony with people in costumes). That is unlikely to happen, because a real commitment to scientifically prioritizing spending on salmon is the enemy of their agenda.