As a journalist, it's very disheartening to see how science gets misreported or misrepresented—or just plain missed—when national media jumps in to cover a complicated issue, like the reasons for low salmon and steelhead returns to the Snake River. Disheartening because these are the folks at the top of my field—among the best paid, with access to the best resources. I presume The New York Times, CNN and Harper's Magazine all have fact checkers. But I've been left to wonder if they were all on vacation in September and October.
The three media giants are among a larger group of major media recently enticed by what appears to be a growing momentum to take out four major dams on the Snake River. The New York Times and CNN link that momentum to the lack of prey that endangered orcas are facing. Harper's focuses on issues with hatcheries.
The three stories displayed different kinds of errors that somehow got past the fact checkers. It's a complex story, to be sure; but as a reporter, I submit that their No. 1 job is to get the facts straight.
This CNN report by Bill Weir and Rachel Clarke, titled "How a dead whale gave new life to the debate over dams in the Pacific Northwest," was generally balanced—but the broadcast version starts out with a basic error. "Fewer salmon are surviving the heroic swim from open ocean to spawning streams hundreds of miles inland," Weir states.
As NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein told me, "We have graphs in the [biological opinion] that show upstream migration has increased over the last decade. That is fundamental." Indeed, the biological opinion shows adult migration survival rates for Snake River spring-summer Chinook traveling from Bonneville to Lower Granite Dam over the last decade have ranged from 82 to 94 percent, and from 78 to 94 percent for Snake River steelhead. The problem is that not enough of them are coming back from the ocean, leaving scientists to look more closely at juvenile survival and ocean conditions.
But aside from basic errors, there are examples of general statements made as if they are well-known facts, with no attribution. Some of the most egregious come from New York Times reporter Jim Robbins, in his story, "How long before these salmon are gone? Maybe 20 years."
Writing about Columbia Basin salmon and Snake River dams, he states, "The massive efforts have not stemmed the decline, despite the fact that more than $16 billion has been spent on recovery over the last several decades. Now most scientists come down on the side of removing the dams."
What? Where did that come from? I've been covering this issue for almost two years now, and I have no idea how to even get a tally of scientific opinion on dam removal. To be sure, there have been letters signed by dozens of scientists calling for removing the dams. But that doesn't even begin to account for the hundreds of scientists involved in salmon recovery, not to mention climate change or other academic fields.
I asked John Harrison—a former reporter who has worked for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council for decades—about the statement. He's not aware of any surveys. He also pointed to the prior sentence, the oft-repeated figure of $16 billion spent over the last 40 years, and still no fish have been delisted. But how do we know that these efforts have not helped? It's quite possible that without the attempt, Snake River sockeye or another Columbia Basin run would be extinct by now. As Harrison notes, "The sentence seems based on the old and tired assumption that if you spend a lot of money on a problem it will go away." It tells nothing of the major changes over the last 40 years. Harrison notes that "runs are cyclical and will vary based on a huge number of impacts." The figure is also misleading as it includes the Bonneville Power Administration's forgone revenue of $3.42 billion, and power purchases of $4.36 billion.
I wrote to both CNN and the New York Times to point out these statements and asked to speak with the reporters. So far, I've gotten an automatic reply from the Times stating that they will correct any errors, but they may not notify me when that happens.
Here's another blanket statement I pointed out in my email to the Times:
"The four Snake River dams are used primarily to create reservoirs for the barging of Idaho's wheat to ports. But the dams raise water temperatures and block travel migration routes, increasing fish mortality."
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the four dams are multiple-use facilities that provide navigation, hydropower, recreation, and fish and wildlife benefits. I would venture that for most of us in the Pacific Northwest, the capacity to generate over 3,000 megawatts, or the 1,000 average megawatts that the dams provide in clean, renewable energy, is at least a primary function. And according to the Corps, because of their location, size and ability to help meet peak power loads, the four dams are also key to keeping the system reliable and help support the fluctuating energy generated by wind.
The dams do raise water temperatures at critical migration times, according to EPA studies; but they can also hold back colder water for later use. The issue of how much dams increase water temperatures compared with climate change is its own debate, and one that will likely be analyzed in an upcoming environmental impact statement on Columbia River System Operations in the alternative that looks at removing the dams.
But do the dams block migration routes? Webster's Dictionary defines the verb, to block, as "To obstruct so as to prevent passage or progress," or "To cause (any activity) to halt by creating an obstruction." The dams simply do not block passage or fish migration, either upstream or downstream. This is a basic fact about these dams. They all have fish ladders and juvenile migration routes, and the Corps has done a lot of work to improve passage rates—another subject that merits its own story.
These blanket statements made me question other elements of the story. It says that wild fish are much bigger and more lipid-rich, and therefore much more important to orcas. This idea has since been repeated in other media, so I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I already knew from covering this issue that, according to NOAA Fisheries, as far as researchers can determine, orcas do not distinguish between hatchery and wild fish. The orca task force, which thoroughly examined the issue, recommended vastly increasing the production of hatchery Chinook.
So I talked to Laurie Weitkamp, a research fisheries biologist at NOAA's Northwest Science Center. She said compared with wild fish, hatchery fish are actually more lipid-rich when they are released into the stream as juveniles because their diets have a much higher fat content. "Then they go to the ocean, eat the exact same thing, and increase their weight by 99 percent and then they're more or less identical" in terms of lipid content, she said. There's no indication that orcas prefer wild fish, or that they benefit more by eating wild fish, she said.
A much larger factor for orcas is the size of the fish that they're eating, as it takes energy to catch either one. And while hatchery fish tend to be "a little smaller" than wild fish, the bigger factor is that, over time, all salmon have gotten smaller—wild and hatchery, Chinook, chum, coho and sockeye. The reasons for their declining size are not clear, she said, but there are theories that fishing pressure, and possibly net size, removes the larger salmon and leaves the smaller ones to reproduce.
Now, let's look at Harper's story, "The $68,000 Fish: The future of salmon in the Pacific Northwest," written by Patrick Symmes. Here's a story that reads more like an opinion piece, although it's not labeled as one. It's written in first person, by an author who clearly wants to blame hatcheries, along with dams, for the current troubles that Snake River salmon and steelhead are experiencing.
Still, an opinion piece must be grounded in fact; otherwise, how can you make a sound argument? This article includes some outright errors in fact. After seeing a female sockeye in the Salmon River, he states, "If a male had made the same journey, and could find her, they would send hundreds of thousands of tiny smolts downstream in the spring." Wow. Let's find that magic male! Since a female sockeye lays between 2,000 and 5,000 eggs, that would be quite a feat.
It also includes some misleading errors—enough to prompt Harrison to write to Harper's.
As Harrison notes, there are many geographical impossibilities in Symmes' journey. But to me, the bigger issue is the $68,000 figure—a fact prominently displayed in the headline, and later attributed to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. But the figure didn't come from the Council. Harrison tracked its likely source back to a 2002 report to the Council from an independent panel of economists. Quoting the report, he emailed, "The costs per harvested hatchery fish ranged from $23 for Priest Rapids fall chinook to $55 per Spring Creek fall chinook, to $453 for Irrigon hatchery summer steelhead to $1,051 for McCall summer chinook, to $4,800-$68,031 at the Leavenworth hatchery complex." As Harrison pointed out, Symmes' $68,000 figure appears to come from an estimate made 17 years ago at a hatchery more than 300 miles away from the fish that the author jumped over a fence in Idaho to see. The McCall hatchery is actually much closer, but who wants to read about a $1,051 fish?
Harrison noted that the author "clearly had an agenda about hatcheries and dams." And even if a call from a fact checker would not have changed the tone of the article or its conclusions, it could have at least helped to get some of the facts right.
Harrison said he hasn't heard back from Symmes, but an editor did tell him that the fact checker assigned to this story was new on the job. He encouraged Harrison to write a letter to the editor—with a strict word limit—to correct the errors. Oh, where does one begin?