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So, They Think We're Provincial!

The Corps of Engineers' Columbia River Estuary Fiasco

Dredging, Tern, and Salmon Smolt Pose Conflicts

By Jim Starr
Contributing Writer
March 2003

In 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the first Chief Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers to construct fortifications at Bunker Hill near Boston. Since then, the Corps has distinguished itself with many impressive projects. While stationed at West Point in 1802, it established the nation's first military academy. Until 1866, the United States Military Academy was under the direction of the Corps of Engineers.

Titanic projects like the Panama Canal, enormous construction sites that emerged, such as the Grand Coulee Dam and the Hoover Dam, all cast a bright shadow. Overlay these with a shade of benevolence painted on by the Corps' media arm, showing swimmers and boaters safely celebrating summer, and the resultant image conveys the idea of a munificent family member watching over its children.

On the other hand, the Corps has dulled the public's awareness of the reality of its bureaucratic inertia and of the huge organization it has become, but, most of all, of its most recent failure - its arrogance. In a nutshell, the public at large views such accomplishments and the Corps' positive image with a warm confidence similar to the fondness it shows Smokey the Bear and his mentor, the U.S. Forest Service.

Yet, regardless of its dark side, the Corps' name still conjures up memories of the glory days. While the Corps maintains the nation's waterways, it still moves mountains — mountains of sand that is. Traffic keeps moving on the nation's rivers because the Corps sustains dredging operations. Consequently, the dumping of dredging spoil over time has created many islands.

As water levels increase and decrease, as tides rise and fall, the hydraulic action deposits silt on the river's bottom. The accumulation of silt creates shoals of sand. If the shoals begin to clog the shipping channels, dredging to remove the sand begins. Because navigable channels must be kept open, dredging is a more or less continuous process, and therefore requires long-term dumpsites for the deposal of spoil.

Rice Island is such a place. It is located in the Columbia River bordering Washington and Oregon about ten miles east of the mouth of the river at the Pacific Ocean. This is near Astoria, Oregon, the famous "Free Willy" site. Calling it, "Rise Island" would be more fitting, because it slowly ascended out of the river as millions of cubic yards of spoil were deposited there.

Created in 1986, this newly developed real estate became a haven for shore birds. Caspian terns (Sterna Caspia) soon discovered it and started a colony. Always on the lookout for property with a better view, they quickly occupied the man-made island by the thousands. Left alone, the birds multiplied almost 600% and the island soon became the world's largest tern colony.

But why a sand dune? Terns like to build their nests on smooth gravel or sandy beaches. Although willing to snuggle close if space is limited, they will not tolerate any vegetation that could block their view of the water. It is one thing to ask a tern to nest in a limited space, but to have a tern's view blocked by foliage is completely out of the question. If a small a bush, a clump of grass, or any kind of plant obscures their view of the water, the terns' nesting process will cease and the birds will move elsewhere. They simply will not nest anywhere but on a gently sloping beach void of any vegetation.

Caspian terns are gull-like birds roughly a foot-and-a-half long. In fact, they're the largest of the tern species. Rather striking, the contrast between their white underneath, black caps, pale gray backs, and distinctive coral red bills make the birds hard to miss.

About 75% of the Rice Island terns' diet is smolt (juvenile salmon), although any small fish that happens to be swimming near the water's surface is subject to their immediate attention. Seagulls, cormorants, grebes and pelicans also nest near the water because that is where they feed. Like terns, the rest are also partial to smolt.

Young salmon make their way down the Columbia, spending much of their time in the river's estuaries along the way. At about two years old, smolt take on the silvery look of mature adults and begin to move to the ocean. Making their way to the ocean by the millions, they flash and shimmer as they weave near the surface through the water. Flying just above, the birds watch for such telltale signs. When the migrating smolt are discovered, hundreds of birds gather in a feeding frenzy. They swoop down like giant hale stones hitting water, each coming away with a fish in its bill. Strung out up and down the river for miles, the mass migration becomes an annual life-and-death struggle in the river's ecosystem.

However, with the deposit of thousands of predatory birds on an artificial island that previously did not exist, the number of smolt that reaches the ocean will logically decrease. Obviously, smolt numbers will rise and fall to the degree that predation increases or decreases.

Restoration projects

The Corps of Engineers has proposed ten restoration projects along the Columbia River Estuary. These include the tern's relocation from Rice Island to Sand Island five miles further west. Corps proponents claim that they need not bother with any of these projects. Instead, they claim that they only wish to pitch in, giving the impression that they want to give us "provincials" a needed hand. This is just the kind off "big-hearted, benevolent" organizational image that they project, because they know it will enhance the general public's "Smokey the Bear" sentiment.

The relocation plan is supported by the CTWG, the Caspian Tern Working Group. A multi-agency group, CTWG group consists the Corps, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Oregon State University (OSU), Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife (IDFW), and other interested parties. One such interested party is the Defenders of Wildlife, associated with Earth Share, associated with PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society), associated with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), associated with the Fishing Hurts, all supporters of the relocation idea. However, all of these organizations base their position upon questionable science.

Because the Corps of Engineers counts the smolt and provides the data from the dams, which are operated by the BPA, some observers question how it is possible to objectively evaluate the claims of the Corps. The reputation of the relocation advocates has been tarnished because certain Fish and Wildlife biologists were discovered clubbing hatchery salmon to death, claiming they are somehow inferior to native fish. It did not help the reputation of the Fish and Wildlife Service when the killing was halted only after the public became aware of the practice. These issues raise questions about the validity of the science of the relocation proponents. In addition, the association of the mainline relocation proponents with such extreme groups as PETA and Fishing Hurts heightens the public's suspicions.

Native Silver (Coho) Chinook (King), Pink (Humpy), Steelhead, Cutthroat Trout and other varieties of salmon have bred in tributaries of the Columbia River for millennia. When one considers that the tributaries and the watershed that feed the Columbia are as large as France, one can only imagine the abundance of salmon produced from this single river.

The abundance of salmon is partially due to a hundred-plus years of diverse hatchery programs. There are at least as many hatcheries as there are rivers feeding the Pacific, perhaps more. The interest in hatchery-spawned fish has not faltered until just recently.

As time passed, hatchery stock interbred with native fish. These crossbred fish are indistinguishable from naturally spawned fish. The only way to distinguish them is by observing the absence or presence of the adipose fin. This fin is a tiny shovel-shaped appendage on the fish's back just ahead of its tail. The adipose fin has been removed from hatchery-spawned but is present on native fish. Genetically the fish are identical.

The Corps can manipulate data to conform to whatever claim it wishes because it controls and submits all data concerning smelt and adults from the dam collection sites. On the one hand, it can make the smolt count look as if it were healthy. On the other, it can make a species appear to be endangered. To do the latter, the Corps can count only the paltry number of naturally spawned fish, while thousands of thriving hatchery species are ignored in order to list the native fish as endangered.

The fallacy of "reducing predation"

According to the Corps and its supporters, moving the tern colony to Sand Island will reduce the degree of predation. Their claim is superficially supported by the belief that since the colony will be closer to the ocean, tern will have a greater variety of fish to feed upon, and therefore eat less smolt. They claim that the tern's choice between herring, smelt, anchovies, perch, and the occasionally crayfish or insect will save greater numbers of young salmon from becoming someone's dinner.

That might be true if all of these species were present at the same time. However, since these are migrating species themselves, except for the crayfish and insects, they come and go just as the smolt do. Nevertheless, the Corps and its cohorts insist that more terns are eating less salmon.

Somehow, they must have been mysteriously trained to ignore salmon. The Corps claims that in the new location terns actually eat more anchovies, more smelt, and more herring, but less salmon. But in reality, 137 different predatory species of birds, animals and marine mammals depend on salmon.

However, from an entirely different perspective, relocating the colony to Sand Island poses serious problems. "Sea Resources," the oldest salmon hatchery in the nation is located on the Chinook River, whose outlet is only a short distance from this island. The salmon hatchery is a privately funded marine science and teaching salmon spawning operation. Moving the colony there will subject hundreds of thousands of smolt to a greater degree of predation. We can ill afford to diminish the fruit of a resource whose ecological worth to the Pacific fishery is priceless.

There are five thousand pelicans, and forty-five hundred cormorants on Sand Island. Adding these to a ten thousand tern population results in a very large crowd that feeds every day. On what? And where?

Another problem concerns a variety of sea gulls. Sea gulls, like terns and other sea birds, enjoy the same benefit of being classified as a protected species. However, since they have a ravenous appetite for anything they can scavenge, a fresh tern egg is hard to pass up. This automatically places them on the list of tern predators. In short, they pose a serious threat to any tern colony trying to raise a family in a new location.

Consequently, several full-time workers have been hired to rid the colony of tern predators. Gulls, crows and ravens looking for a meal are surprised by shotguns blasts.

To discourage terns from homesteading on Rice Island, several work round the clock, seven days a week, frantically waving their arms while playing amplified tapes of distress calls, placing eagle silhouettes here and there, and doing anything else that will scare the terns away. Along with this, they make attempts to grow grass and small plants. These efforts have also failed. Foliage does not do well on spoil sand dunes.

Obviously, the hope is that the terns will be discouraged from nesting on Rice Island and move to Sand Island. To date about ten thousand pairs have left Rice Island. But for where? Many more will not leave, no matter how hard the bogeymen try.

The Corps "solutions" so far have been more politically agenda driven than environmental. Yet, greater problems could lie ahead. With the Columbia Estuary deepening project about to get started, the big question is how and where to dispose of millions of cubic yards of spoil. This project will deepen the 135 mile-long shipping channel from the ocean's entrance to Portland, Oregon.

The San Francisco Port Authority has made inquiry about spoils relocation. It was proposed that ten million cubic yards from Rice Island be disposed of in the Bay area to build new airplane runways .

The consequences of fiddling with the river on such a large scale for more than one hundred years has generated crisis management and regulations. Men, not nature, created such areas where large tern colonies never existed. If the Corps were truly concerned about regional environmental issues, including the allegation that salmon is an endangered species, the agency would consider substitute sound scientific principles for questionable science.


The threat of an ecosystem collapse is a result of those who feel they must regulate and tinker with nature to conform to their agenda. The Columbia Estuary problems result from the same agenda for which the Corps of Engineers is widely criticized, the agency's quest for "Command and control."

Spoils dumpsites are not the problem; where to dump the sand can be resolved. Terns are not the problem; they will come and go. Endangered species is not the problem, only the claims of phony science claims made by an overly intrusive government.

Moving terns from one location to another simply will not work. To a tern, a grebe, cormorant, or a pelican, flying a short distance for lunch is not a problem.

The regulators best serve themselves by spinning tales of an endangered species, an ecosystem about to collapse. Their media image is slipping; however, because the good neighborliness façade is eroding.

Even the Corps' proud heritage cannot hide the fact that it has become an arrogant mammoth with little resemblance to its past. It has become so big, so all-powerful, that it is almost completely unaccountable to anyone. Our representatives in Congress have lost meaningful oversight of how well-intentioned laws are managed and enforced.

The government's formula for solving a problem is to regulate something. The Army Corps of Engineers is about to write a new chapter in their history, by moving the world's largest tern colony, then by regulating predation, and finally by helping to diminish the output of the country's oldest salmon hatchery.

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