Mad scientists

IN RECENT YEARS, the American judicial system has begun to require that the word "science" means something like "the best currently available information, as established by a consensus of reputable specialists in the field." Now, if we could just figure out how to get government agencies to adopt the same rule.

Last week, a local environmental group called Washington Trout brought suit in federal court to get the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to do just that; or rather, to live up to the scientific principles it is, theoretically, already bound by.

At issue is a plan to manage fishing for Puget Sound chinook salmon, which are classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). One of the many provisions of the act requires the NMFS to convene a panel of qualified scientists to review any recovery plan for species and runs threatened with extinction.

Washington Trout, as its name suggests, numbers among its members sport fisherfolk as well as mainstream enviro-preservationists. It has no quarrel with "harvesting" wild fish, as long as the harvest doesn't deplete the resource below sustainable breeding levels. Nor is the group hostile to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1979 support for indigenous Native Americans' treaty right to half the harvest.

Under the notorious 4d clause of the ESA, agencies like the NMFS can hand off responsibility for setting conditions and quotas for harvest of threatened and endangered species to local agencies. For Puget Sound salmonids, those agencies are the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Northwest Treaty Tribes.

The plan submitted by Fish and Wildlife and the Treaty Tribes was accepted by the NMFS last April. No wonder: Letting local stakeholders set their own rules takes the political heat off the agency, and saves money and precious staff time as well.

Unfortunately, according to Washington Trout, the plan allows fishing for Puget Sound salmonid species at a level guaranteed to make their numbers plummet even farther. Even more unfortunately, from the NMFS point of view: Its own scientific review panel agrees.

That panel, six national fisheries science experts chaired by University of Washington zoologist Robert Paine, last met in late August. It's taken more than two months for its report to be published, and now that it's available at last, the reason for that is clear. Scientists tend to favor facts, not political comfort, and they particularly resent having their work used to mask administrative funny business.

When Washington Trout finally got its hands on the review panel document in early November, they had no difficulty finding evidence that, despite their cautious bureaucratese, the panelists were steamed by the way they and their contribution to the debate had been handled.

NMFS staff testimony to the panel had been "unnecessarily defensive, and at times even obfuscatory;

"Despite hours of presentations . . . [the panel] remain somewhat mystified concerning their scientific justification for current allowable harvests;

"We were frustrated . . . to hear discussion of optimal harvesting strategies, as if no other factors [such as survival of the runs in question] were involved;

"It appears that harvest decisions are never connected with other factors in an overall restoration and recovery plan";

Finally, most devastatingly: "NMFS should develop a rational [harvest] policy that does not demean scientific common sense."

Ouch? Well, yes—but legally, the panel's opinion, however buttressed by citations from unquestionably sound independent scientific sources, is just that: opinion. NMFS is obligated to pay for its scientific consultants' time, and even, grudgingly and belatedly, to publish their views; it is not obligated to pay any attention them.

Call the local offices of the NMFS for information on the report or the plan it eviscerates, and you're likely to spend a merry hour or two playing voice-mail tag, only to learn, should anyone call you back and admit any knowledge of the documents you're talking about, that someone else (usually on vacation) is the right person to talk to about that.

A generation ago, environmental impact statements were created to force public and private agencies to describe and confront the consequences of development. While sometimes serving environmental causes well, the environmental impact statement is today, often as not, little more than a mountainous data barrier designed to impede, not facilitate, understanding.

But environmental impact statements can still be potent weapons against irresponsible resource exploitation; hence the creation of clause 4d. You might call it the fox-and-henhouse doctrine of resource management. Those most interested in exploiting a resource—be it air, water, animal, vegetable, or mineral—are put in charge of designing a plan to protect it. The sooner the courts begin instructing agencies of the state that the science they buy is for use, not window dressing, the better off all of us paying for it will be.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

The full text of the report of the Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel on recovery plans for Puget Sound salmonids is now available at http://research.nwfsc.noaa.gov/cbd/trt/rsrp.htm

 
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