Distributing the Pain

From The Bear Deluxe magazine

If nature is not a cathedral, then perhaps it is a town meeting, and none the worse for it—a place of intellectual inquiry, give and take, and above all, human responsibility, a place where people seek the truth, bound only by the constraints of common sense and common decency, a place where people make decisions and learn from the consequences.  — Stephen Budiansky, Nature’s Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management (The Free Press: 1995)

You think that because you understand one, that you must therefore understand two, because one and one is two. But you forget that you must also understand and.  — Sufi saying

In 1962, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deposited an island fashioned of dredge spoils roughly midstream in the Columbia River, 21 miles upstream from its confluence with the Pacific Ocean. The creation of Rice Island was a benevolent act, the logical next step after dredging a vein, a safe shipping channel, 40 feet deep and 600 feet wide in the dirty Columbia, which used to cleanse itself, but whose dammed waters are no longer arterial or self healing.

The river made way—sidestepped the mound of muck, casting off grains of sand, sediment at the tail of the island. Rice Island grew, but slowly. Barren, homely, a pile of shit in a lethargic, leaden river—from shore it looked like a sand dune moored in a mirage. But from the air, it was a magnet made of sand. And now more than 170 federal, state, tribal agencies, research centers, commercial interests and their representatives are trying to unravel the impact of the island’s magnetic snare. Public meetings are scheduled. Town halls. Congressional hearings.

Caspian tern adult with chick (courtesy Dan Roby, Oregon State University)

Both common sense and the best science are being brought to bear on the problem. Also, angry fisherman have purchased a WaveRunner—a Yamaha jet ski—and are expected to apply for a permit to crash it through the island’s exponentially expanding magnetic field.

Fish on the wing

In the spring of 1998, biologists Daniel D. Roby and Carl B. Schreck of Oregon State University were tracking hatchery-raised steelhead and salmon smolts—tagged with computer chips the size of rice grains—on their ocean-bound drift down the Lower Columbia Estuary. Schreck and Roby were somewhat surprised to find that as the fish approached Rice Island, they suddenly rose into the air.

“We stumbled onto the fact,” says Schreck, “that our radio tags were moving onto land. They appeared, on our computers, to climb ashore.”

Captures of Caspian terns, followed by examinations of their stomach contents, demonstrated that the terns’ breeding colony, established in 1987, consumed 6-25 million of the roughly 138 million salmon and steelhead smolts that out-migrate in the Columbia annually. From 3 to 12 percent of the Columbia’s entire stock of wild and hatchery-bred salmon. More fish every year than the Bonneville Power Administration and Corps were hauling in tankers around eight Columbia dams in a Herculean and costly effort to spare salmon the trauma of navigating the Bonneville Power Administration’s hydro-turbines.

Worse, the Corps estimates that as many as 647,000 of the smolts were salmon or steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. Few were paying much attention to the double-crested cormorants, then, which also arrived on Rice Island in 1987, and whose numbers were growing rapidly. Map of Rice Island and Caspian tern habitats (courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District)


1998 marks the data-driven year that the Corps discovered it had unwittingly constructed a giant birdfeeder on the Columbia. A desolate 247 acres, Rice Island had everything Hydroprogne caspia could want—long sight lines to betray the approach of potential predators, bare soil for nesting, and a breeding season that coincided with the release of millions of hatchery fish whose hand-fed rearing in concrete raceways trained the faux salmon, like the main attraction at Sea World, to swim at the surface, and effaced any natural instinct to evade predators.

By 1999, the Caspian tern colony on Rice Island had grown to 8,500 pairs, making it the largest breeding colony of Caspian terns on the planet—one whose diet was overwhelmingly (up to 90 percent) comprised of salmonids. And there were other tern colonies, also fashioned from dredge spoils, on East Sand Island, and Miller Sands Island (the latter less than a mile upstream from Rice Island). Management officials began to suspect that double-crested cormorants (given their ability to dive as deep as 75 feet through the water column) might also prey inordinately on smolts. Caspian tern with prey (Courtesy of Ken Collis, Bird Research Northwest)

Meetings were held. Numbers were crunched, and studies funded. The island’s magnetic reach flowed east, radiated up the tributaries of the Columbia, up the Snake River, into Idaho, then swept along the oblique currents of administrative power, into Washington, D.C., where it polarized the debate over salmon recovery, leading Idaho Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, in a 1998 Senate hearing, to argue vociferously against drawing down or breaching dams in order to flush more salmon out to sea.

Craig feared Idaho’s farmers would bear the brunt of such a drawdown, and considered it unfair, since the nexus of the problem—Rice Island—had been dumped south of the artificial line that bisects the Columbia, throwing 4/5th of the island into Oregon’s managerial lap.

“Somebody has got to feel a little pain too,” Craig told the Senate’s Subcommittee on Drinking Water, Fisheries, And Wildlife, “and right now I don’t think it’s widely distributed, or, at least less distributed than it might otherwise be.”

So distribute the pain, they did. Craig suggested that Rice Island be draped with a giant net, to discourage “the pelicans” from inhabiting the island, because nets are not easily torn apart by “wind and windstorms and all of that,” but instead, Ken Collis, president of Northwest Bird Research, in Bend, Ore., and other researchers littered East Sand Island with hundreds of tern decoys and employed ‘social attraction’—tape-recorded sounds from a breeding colony—to lure the terns off Rice Island and onto East Sand, five river miles inland from the mouth of the Columbia.

Common sense dictated that siting the colony in a broader estuary would disperse migrating salmon, and therefore expand the menu. Get terns off the 13 salmonids listed as threatened or endangered in the Columbia Basin, and onto anchovy, surf perch, herring. Someone suggested (in the Senate subcommittee meeting) that planting winter wheat might further deter terns from nesting on Rice Island, and Senator Craig mused that turning the bird magnet into a giant wheat field might yield enough surplus to combat the high price of the grain in the U.S. market.

The meddlesome island—Craig enthused—could even be used as a grain storage facility! Kansas beware!

The Corps planted winter wheat, but, sadly, it didn’t grow. Seeding plastic terns onto East Sand Island proved more effective. By 1999, 1400 pairs of Caspian terns had been lured to East Sand Island, and by 2001 the entire Rice Island colony had been relocated. And it was good. As believed, predation on salmonids declined. Only an estimated five million smolts were now migrating down tern gullets, rather than out to sea.

Fishermen likely wish the tern pogrom had implanted the sham birds with artificial vaginas, because the birds just kept breeding, numbering 10,700 pair in 2008. In the meantime, the double-crested cormorant colony, the one that straddled the Caspian tern colony on Rice Island and had been largely ignored, and was similarly evicted to East Sand Island, now comprised the largest double-crested breeding colony on the Pacific Coast.

The 2004 Caspian tern Environmental Impact Statement filed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and other agencies had not considered cormorant predation on salmon, therefore no comprehensive management plan existed. Double-crested cormorants in the Columbia estuary managed to evade predation studies until 2007, when Bird Research Northwest determined that cormorants on East Sand Island likely consumed more salmonids (an average of 9.2 million smolts) than Caspian terns (4.8 million). And, naturally (being a phenomenon of Nature), the breeding season for cormorants, like that of Caspian terns, coincided with the April outmigration of smolts in the Columbia.

The pain—by decree of NOAA, which oversees fish stocks, and therefore salmon—was again distributed. But, by mandate of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—which protects Caspian terns and double-crested cormorants, under the Migratory Bird Treaty—the pain had to be distributed carefully. The colony could not be dispersed until suitable habitat was located or constructed, and then provocatively advertised to the noxious birds.

The plan—which the Corps estimates will cost $14 million—is to construct more artificial islands, helpful islands, to mitigate the impact of the original, harmful, artificial islands, magnetic monsters that they were. To draw off more Caspian terns from East Sand Island. To lessen the jolt to salmon, as it were. And to feed the data stream.


When and where data is lacking, common sense will guide efforts to reduce predation and preserve salmon. The Oregon State Legislature, in its 2009 session, set aside $240,000 for a formal Avian Predation Program, the majority of which will be aimed, in one form or another, at hazing double-crested cormorants—but not killing them, which would require a federal permit from USFWS. Fireworks are authorized, as long as the would-be hazer obtains a permit from the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees things that fly and/or explode or sparkle menacingly.

The state began harassing cormorants in 1996, paying fishermen to run dories and jet skis through flotillas of cormorants in the Tillamook estuary, on the Nehalem and Nestucca rivers. Funding ran for two years, dried up, gushed again in 2006 and as of last year is at an all-time high. Rick Klumph, North Coast district manager for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, says the agency hasn’t gathered data on the effectiveness of hazing, but believes it’s a reasonable deterrent.

Klumph notes that a boat bearing ODFW researchers last spring stumbled upon a raft of cormorants in the Tillamook Bay, frightened the birds into the air, causing them to puke up the contents of their stomach, which rained down as 100 percent Coho salmon. “Common sense tells you that opportunistic birds that eat fish at low tide, when smolts are migrating,” Klumph says.

The North Coast Salmon and Steelhead Enhancement Fund, a fundraising agency staffed for the most part by Tillamook fishermen, recently purchased a Yamaha WaveRunner, and last year earned a permit from ODFW to zing it through rafts of cormorants from March through May, when the water levels in the estuary at their lowest, and the salmon are therefore most vulnerable.

Roby, whose research (along with that of Carl Schreck and Ken Collis) laid the foundation for most present-day management of avian predation on salmonids, says, “The state is throwing away money. When I first moved to Oregon, in 1995, they [the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife] asked me if I’d be interested in researching hazing, and I said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding.’ I don’t think it’s an effective way to manage predation.”

Roby argues that the math (if it can be summarized as ‘math,’ rather than as a calculus of shifting, tentative, ever-metamorphosing relationships that start as black muck in the iron jaws of a dredge and end up as paperwork and WaveRunners and so-threatened-as-to-be-dead salmon) doesn’t add up. Much of avian predation, he argues, is likely compensatory mortality—losses of hatchery fish that enter the river system weak, genetically damaged, poorly equipped to undergo the physiological changes that adapt them for life in a marine environment, and lacking effective predator-evasion instincts. Most, Roby believes, are destined to die, long before they reach the sea.

Currently, according to Robert C. Buckman, Mid-Coast district fish biologist for ODFW, only about 40 percent of all out-migrating salmon reach the Pacific.

Schreck says there’s not enough data to draw a firm conclusion about whether Caspian terns or double-crested cormorants are negatively impacting salmon, but the hatchery fish (he says) certainly are. They compete for resources, pollute the gene pool, and likely increase predation on wild salmon. “Maybe feeding birds is a good thing for hatchery fish to be doing,” he muses.

“Salmon are not endangered because of avian predation,” adds Jenny Hoskins, who oversees he U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Pacific Northwest Migratory Birds and Habitat Program. “They’re endangered because of 200 years of habitat destruction, overfishing, and poor hatchery management. You’re not going to fix that by going after birds.”

Conjunctive disorder

The Corps has been instructed to fix the problem by constructing (from recycled plastics, and gravel) two half-acre islands on Summer Lake, in southern Oregon, and plans a third island. Northwest Bird Research remarks, on its website, that one of the islands, Dutchy Lake Island, “is elliptical-shaped and secured at one end to a concrete anchor, allowing the island to rotate in the wind, much like a weather vane.”

Various agencies have been tasked with answering whether a plastic island that drifts and spins with the vagaries of the wind will significantly deter Caspian terns from landing or laying eggs. An observation blind has been built to aid in the quest for data, and care has been taken to ensure that the blind—like the island to which it is anchored—blows in the wind.

Hoskins says the Corps sent her aerial photos of one of the Summer Lake islands. “It was perfect square,” she laughs. The Corps is going to rough up the edges. Make it look natural. The agency has also engineered a floating island for terns on Fern Ridge Reservoir, but unlike the Corps’ other feats of Euclidian, buoyant geometry, terns have shown no interest in inhabiting it.

A raccoon might be responsible. All it takes is one raccoon, notes Amy Echols, a public affairs specialist for the Corps’ Portland District.

One raccoon can ruin everything.

05/22/13 | 0 Comments | Distributing the Pain

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