A study published in the online scientific journal PLoS Biology on October 27 with the provocative headline “Dams make no damn difference to salmon survival”[1] is now being questioned by a number of scientists, including several co-authors of the study.

According to the study, young fish running the gantlet of dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers did just as well as youngsters in an undammed river. Dams are widely regarded as one of the main reasons behind the sharp decline of salmon in North America’s western rivers and a study claiming that dams make no damn difference for salmon survival is therefore destined to receive a lot of attention from dam proponents and dam critics alike.

While a number of scientists, including several co-authors, are questioning the results and cautioning about what conclusions can really be drawn from them, lead-author David Welch stands by his report. “We’re not saying that the dams have never had an effect,” says Welch. “What we all have to ask ourselves is, if survival is up to the level of a river that doesn’t have dams, then what’s causing survival problems?

Welch has already warned against overstating what the study proves, and continues to do so. According to Welch, the results of the study do however suggest that dams might not play such a big role in the fate of endangered Columbia River salmon today, and that the situation in the ocean – where the salmon live until it migrates upstream to spawn – is of higher importance than river conditions.

salmon Dams make no damn difference to salmon survival – or do they?

Michele DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center[2], strongly disagree with the conclusions drawn from the study. “There’s a huge mass of scientific literature that documents the impacts of dams. It’s just huge,” says DeHart. “It’s like saying, ‘Gosh, I just did this comparison and smoking does not cause cancer.’ Would you change your mind?”

In the study, the survival rate of young salmon and steelhead heading for the ocean (so called smolts) was measured in the rivers Columbia and Snake, which are heavily dammed, and in Fraser River, which has no dams at all. To the researchers’ surprise, the recorded survival rate was around 25 percent for all smolts, regardless of whether they travelled in dammed or undammed waters. If you take into account that smolt in the Columbia River actually have to travel a longer distance, it even looks as if smolt traversing dammed waters are doing better than their counterparts in the undammed Fraser.

Environmental groups are now claiming that comparing the different rivers with each other is like comparing apples and oranges, and co-author Carl Schreck, head of the Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Oregon State University, warns that the study could have failed to account for fish that die in the ocean due to the stress they have been subjected to while traversing dams in Columbia and Snake.

Ed Bowles, biologist and head of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that it would be better to compare how similar fish, e.g. spring Chinook, do when they spawn in the same river – some above dams and some below.

[1] The authors of the study weren’t the ones who came up with the provocative “no damn difference”-heading. After lead author Welch found out about the headline, PLoS Biology withdrew its news release and issued a new one where the provocative headline had been removed.

[2] The Fish Passage Center is a government-funded agency that tracks and studies Columbia River fish.