Floaters & Sinkers
Aquatic ecosystems are incredibly complex systems with many interacting components and related functions.  The primary factors affecting them are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to predict.  Nevertheless, I have enjoyed a career developed around fish and the aquatic ecosystems they inhabit.  I am reminded of a question from a young engineering student, accustomed to using predictable equations and formulas. “Why do you environmental scientists want to work with things that are so complex and unpredictable?” he asked.  By way of comparison, rocket science is relatively simple and predictable for him and his colleagues. Environmental science is not rocket science; it’s much more complicated.

The introduction of H.R. 3144 in the US House of Representatives and the subsequent debates in Congress and in an array of public forums brings the complexities of aquatic ecosystems back to mind.  H.R. 3144 is a bill introduced to deal with the operations of the Federal Columbia River Power System, but it is also known informally as the “Salmon Extinction Act,” a name bestowed by opponents of the bill.  Resource managers, scientists, and environmental activists contend that the operational procedures and priorities mandated by H.R. 3144 place endangered salmon and steelhead at additional risk of extinction, and, therefore undermine the standards of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Proponents of the legislation, including its primary sponsor, US Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) contend it would clarify operational priorities without causing any harm to salmon and other fishes.  “Dams and fish can co-exist,” according to McMorris Rodgers.  
The action by the congresswoman and four co-sponsors (all from Washington or Oregon) was precipitated by a decision by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals which recently upheld a lower court’s decision requiring the US Army Corps of Engineers to allow more water through the dams’ spillways instead of through electricity-generating turbines because additional water is needed to support the migration of endangered salmon and steelhead populations from the areas above the dams to the sea.  Proponents of H.R. 3144 argue that hydropower and fish must coexist because 70 percent of the electrical energy for Washington State comes from hydropower, much of it from dams in the Columbia River Power System.  These proponents argue further that the recent increases in the survival rates of migrating salmon are due to transporting the salmon around dams in barges, not to higher spill rates over the dams.
Although an agreement reached during the Obama Administration requires the US Army Corp of Engineers to operate the Columbia River dams in a manner consistent with the Endangered Species Act’s Supplemental Biological Opinion of 2014 until September 30, 2022, H.R. 3144 requires different operational priorities.  Under H.R. 3144, “no structural modification, action, study, or engineering plan that restricts electrical generation at any Columbia River Power System hydroelectric dam, or that limits navigation on the Snake River in Washington, Oregon, or Idaho shall proceed unless such proposal is specifically and expressly authorized by an Act of Congress.”  H.R. 3144 gives clear priority to power generation over any environmental consideration.
Attempts to dictate operational guidelines for complex ecosystems through Congressional action leads to an additional conclusion:  aquatic ecosystems are far too complex to be understood by typical Members of Congress.  I suggest, however, that most Members of Congress make no effort to understand these systems and to base their actions on maintaining functional ecosystems.  In the case of H.R. 3144, the Congressional sponsors clearly based their actions on political considerations driven by concern for maximizing profits from power generation.  “Lip service” has been given to ecosystem issues by claiming, “We can have both, salmon and power.”

In fact, that may be true, but not by the methods proposed through H.R. 3144 where priority is always given to power generation.  Migrating salmon must have additional water flows; however, the “lost” hydropower could be replaced through efficient usage and additional power generation from wind and solar.  We must avoid misguided choices (by policy makers) that force dam operators to choose between power generation and fish welfare.  Alternatives that support wild fish, aquaculture, and power generation are available if decision-makers are not locked in to supporting the demands of traditional profit driven corporate interests.     
Corporate capitalism that is focused only on maximizing the bottom line relies strongly on manipulating our government officials.  It is time, actually past time, to acknowledge the fact that corporate capitalism is closer to totalitarian systems than to main street capitalism where competition and informed consumers regulate the economic system.  Our current system in which the influence of huge corporations dictates Congressional decisions is not representative democracy in action; it’s a form of cronyism, guided by corrupt influences that do not consider the long-term interests of the public and the complex ecosystems that support the existence of not only salmon, but all forms of life, including humans.
H.R 3144 is, in fact, bad legislation driven by the arrogance of political power (we have the power to do as we d**n-well want to) and disregard for compromises and science-based conclusions.  Citizens must demand real representation of their interests, not the short-term profit-driven misguided choices provided by corporate lobbyists.
Opportunities for telling the aquaculture story often start when someone asks a question that skews toward less-than-favorable terms, says columnist
I am a skeptic; however, I try to avoid insulting others by challenging their intelligence and/or credibility. Nevertheless, I often feel compelled to ask people: “How do you know that?” or “How did you come to believe that?” or “I want to understand the facts that support your conclusion.” All too often the answer is that their position or conclusion is based on belief and is not evidence-based.

Recent news about aquaculture have included an array of statements that I have classified as “based on alternative facts.” They were statements that the writer apparently thought to be completely accurate and true, but, to me, appeared to be based on her/his perspectives and beliefs.   “Truth” is a slippery concept that almost always is based on belief. “Scientific truth” is different; it’s the most probable interpretation of systematically collected evidence and usually applies to a specific set of conditions. Let’s explore some of the written and/or spoken words that may be “alternative facts.”

Alternative fact # 1: “Net pens must be banned from Puget Sound” because they are used to rear non-native Atlantic salmon, a fish that will seriously damage natural ecosystems. People opposed to net pens claim that fish farming operations will introduce disease agents and pollute the water. The argument that non-native species are automatically disruptive to natural ecosystems typically is based on a belief that natural processes created a perfect balance of nature thus any change from that structure is deemed wrong. Bur in fact, natural ecosystems are dynamic; they always change over time, but they continue to function as productive systems.   In some cases, non-native species have disrupted the functions of natural ecosystems, but it must not be assumed that improbable effects will actually occur. Regulations for the construction and operations of net pens can minimize possibilities for ecosystem disruption caused by pollution or disease agents.

Alternative fact # 2: “Average regulatory costs were found to be $148,554/farm, or $2,998/acre.” This statement appeared in a recent report and has been quoted widely in aquaculture publications. It is an accurate summary statement of results from a survey; however, the subjective data on which it is based have not been verified by independent studies. The study relied on information provided by trout farmers, which should be accurate for costs due to permit and license fees — costs that are relatively minor. However, the farmers’ estimates of the costs caused by “lost or foregone sales” cannot be verified independently and must be considered as highly subjective, and probably inflated. Likewise, regulatory costs due to changes in management, manpower, and infrastructure were not verified independently. Survey results based on subjective responses from responders can be used as the starting point for additional, independent studies, but when used to make absolute conclusions about regulatory costs, they become “alternative facts.”

Alternative fact #3: “Consumers should avoid farmed fish, especially tilapia and catfish.” Popular literature produced by consumer food activists and some chefs are filled with inaccurate information about the presumed dangers of eating farmed fish. Go “au naturel” has become a rallying cry; individuals adhering to their beliefs about “natural” products have even gone so far as to demand “raw water” (water that has not been filtered or treated), even though raw water is the root cause of enormous public health problems. The argument against farmed fish typically rests on the belief that it is contaminated with antibiotics, is less nutritious, and is not as “fine-tasting” as wild fish. Such claims are based on personal taste preferences and outdated information about fish feeds and the use of antibiotics in aquaculture. I often ask aggressive proponents of “wild and natural,” “Do you know where your wild fish has been?” and “How clean was the water in which that fish had been swimming?” But, they usually persist in their beliefs in spite of real facts to the contrary.

“Alternative facts” and trust in them are belief-driven. Belief comes first, followed by agreement that the speaker/author is really “telling it like it is.” The processes by which information is produced, verified, and validated based on systematic observations and/or experimentation should be and can be used to produce real aquaculture facts. “Alternative facts” and their use to manipulate public opinion will be part of public discourse for the foreseeable future. Aquaculturists must, however, understand that there is such a thing as information that is so highly accurate and highly probable that we can use it as “real facts” to challenge belief-driven “alternative facts.”


NOAA Sea Grant recently announced awards of $9.3 million in research grants for 32 projects to advance the development of a sustainable marine and coastal aquaculture industry in the United States.
Based on the nearly hysterical, national angst generated by fish escaping from broken cages on an Atlantic salmon farm in the San Juan Islands, an impartial observer might have concluded that there had been a jailbreak and dangerous criminals were “on the loose.” In the minds of some environmental activists, Atlantic salmon escaping into the natural habitat of Pacific salmon is the ecological-environmental equivalent of a jailbreak by hardened criminals. Many of these activists believe that any species that did not evolve naturally in a given ecosystem simply does not belong there. Further, they believe that any fish escaping from a hatchery or farm are certainly invasive, will reproduce in vast numbers, and establish new colonies of the invaders that will destroy the “balance of nature.” Really? Is an escape of farm-reared fish always a catastrophe; important enough to draw media attention coast-to-coast?

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