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 March 2000 

Gone Fishing

Eileen McLellan

Broiled, with a touch of herb butter. If I thought about salmon before becoming a Congressional Science Fellow, it was in terms of food. I had distant memories from my Scottish childhood of fishermen hip-deep in swirling mountain streams and of salmon leaping waterfalls. Although my personal and professional journeys had taken me far from these scenes, I will draw on every experience of my life during my fellowship year working as a scientist on Capitol Hill. Perhaps subliminal memories drew me to serve my fellowship in the office of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. After all, Oregon and Scotland are both known for their rainy climates! In fact, I selected Sen. Wyden's office partly because I knew that the Pacific Northwest in general, and Oregon in particular, was a stage on which controversies over resource protection and endangered species were being played out.

A geologist plays an important role in protecting aquatic ecosystems, as I learned on my odyssey into the world of salmon policy.

But what is a geologist doing working on fish? One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of working as a Congressional Science Fellow is that a fellow is not just the “office geologist,” but is the “office scientist,” expected to address any and all scientific issues. A geologist plays an important role in protecting aquatic ecosystems, as I learned on my odyssey into the world of salmon policy.
It is impossible to underestimate the historical and cultural significance of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Salmon are a food source, a recreational asset and, perhaps most importantly, a cultural symbol. Yet this cultural symbol is in deep trouble. During the 1850s, 8 to 10 million salmon returned to the Columbia River. During the 1990s, fewer then 1 million returned. More than 100 stocks have gone extinct and some 214 additional stocks are listed under the Endangered Species Act (a stock is a genetically distinct population). The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that several stocks have a 90 percent probability of going extinct in the next 10 years. The extent to which human activities have contributed to the “salmon problem,” what efforts might reverse them and the economic and social costs of such efforts are important scientific and political questions.
I discovered this issue during a meeting, when a group of lobbyists requested that the senator support their proposal to remove the four dams on the Lower Snake River. They presented a graph showing that the steep decline of salmon populations began with dam construction. Shifting into scientist mode, I began to question them about correlation vs. causality. Did the dams cause the decline, or were there other changes in the region occurring at the same time that could have an impact on the salmon? We did not resolve anything in that meeting, but the discussion left me wondering to what extent the “salmon problem” could be attributed to any one human activity.
“Dam breaching,” the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams, has been a controversial proposal in the region for several years. It was initially proposed by environmental groups, but various federal agencies have become involved in scientific studies about the impacts of dams and possible ways of mitigating those impacts. As a science fellow, I felt I could give the senator an overview of the science used in making policy about the dams. So began my journey into the realm of fish biology, in which I learned that scientists of all types suffer similar frustrations: the lack of data to calibrate models, tension over the level of detail to include in the models and the often nonscientific selection of some research results over others for justifying political solutions.
As a geologist, I grew concerned that the debates on fish population models were obscuring some important issues. Geologists are familiar with the idea that dams store sediment and cause changes in river channels. But government studies of the dams contained little discussion of what would happen to the stored sediment or the river channel if the dams were breached. Nor did they recognize that, ironically, breaching the dams could initially have an adverse effect on the salmon as the river system adjusted to a new equilibrium. Thus the issue that would probably be the first to catch a geologist's attention is nowhere on the radar screen in the policy debate.
I kept returning to the lobbyists' graph. The decline in salmon populations correlates in time not only to dam construction, but also to other major changes in the Pacific Northwest. Human population growth has reshaped the land through farming, forestry and urban development. I began to wonder whether at least part of the “salmon problem” could be related to habitat loss. Now here was an issue where a geologist could make a contribution! Salmon require not only cool, clear water but also a complex stream channel: pools in which to hide and rest, riffles to provide oxygen and supply prey, debris to provide nutrients to support the food chain and a suitable gravel substrate for breeding. Many of these features relate, directly or indirectly, to the underlying geology. Indeed, some of the work on salmon habitat focuses on identifying different lithotopic units. Different rock types erode differently, resulting in diverse channel morphology and varied rates of sediment input.
From fish biologists, I learned that salmon had evolved in streams subject to natural disturbances, such as the input and movement of sediment from natural processes of erosion and mass wasting. The steep slopes and prevalence of unconsolidated glacial material in the region, coupled with the high rainfall, are conducive to landslides, which have had a major role in delivering sediment and shaping stream morphology. However, the rates and extent of these natural processes have been accelerated by human activity, especially by land-use practices throughout the region.
Most of the states, seeking to minimize human impact on streams, have laws governing activities such as road construction, grazing and timber harvesting.  The best of these laws are not “one size fits all,” but prescribe different solutions for different lithotopic units.

For example, many streams in the region experience high temperatures, which stress salmon and other fish. These high temperatures usually result from the loss of riparian (streamside) buffers. The loss removes the cooling shade of vegetation. A stream without buffers is also vulnerable to outside sediment, which enters the stream, making the channels wider and shallower and causing the channels to heat faster. Many states regulate the protection of riparian buffers, but it is important to note that the width of a buffer required to protect the stream will vary depending on local slopes, and in some cases stream channels may be too wide for buffers to provide much protection.
On the other hand, some important aspects of salmon habitat are not governed by regulations. Salmon prefer to lay their eggs in areas where groundwater upwells into the streambed, which probably creates the constant flows and temperatures the eggs require as they develop. Unlike the detailed requirements for riparian buffers, regulations on activities that may alter the groundwater regime are absent.
A key research question is how much human land use contributes to habitat degradation, and how well existing laws prevent future degradation.
This question is one that geologists, as members of the scientific community, are uniquely qualified to address because they can identify watershed processes and evaluate impacts over short and long time scales. Current stream conditions reflect not just today's management practices but the legacy of past land use. The scientist's role is to partition out past impacts from present; the policy-maker's role is to determine whether and where to assign responsibility for those impacts.
Geologists have a major role to play in understanding how aquatic ecosystems function. Perhaps no other group of scientists has an equally intuitive understanding of the watershed concept, the idea that activities on land directly influence the health of water bodies.
The increasing recognition that managing endangered species means managing habitats, coupled with a new understanding that a habitat includes physical components of the landscape, requires that geologists be actively involved in what we have often considered “biological” issues.
The challenges for the geological community are to provide the scientific basis for ecosystem management, and to ensure that our voices are heard in the policy-making process.

Eileen McLellan is the American Geological Institute's 1999–2000 Congressional Science Fellow. She joins about 30 other scientists this year who are working as staff members for committees, senators and representatives on Capitol Hill. McLellan is a professor of geology at the University of Maryland, where she has created and taught courses on environmental science and policy.  E-mail: To comment on this column, send e-mail to