New York Times “advocacy journalism” ignores key facts in reporting on orcas and dam removal

  • September 18, 2019

The New York Times report on dam removal as a way of recovering chinook salmon and the Southern Residents that feed on them is another example of advocacy journalism. Activists and advocates are not expected to present all the facts and data (although it helps build their credibility) and many activists believe that the moral goodness of their cause justifies misleading or even lying. However, journalists are supposed to present the facts, at least a more balanced view of a controversy.

The “click bait” headline suggesting these salmon will be gone in 20 years is a bit of giveaway, but it is the careful selection of “experts” and their views while completely ignoring counter information that tips us off that this is not really responsible journalism.

Save Family Farming has a strong interest in this subject of chinook orca recovery because farmers are deeply invested in fish habitat and salmon recovery as you can see in this website by our organization that highlights some of these efforts: https://www.farmersforreal.org/ 

But farmers are practical and we want solutions to actually work, not just make politicians look good. And farmers know that implementing a solution that causes great harm without doing much good is not the best idea. That’s what is wrong with the dam removal idea. We’ve detailed our concerns here including the references to the science studies we provided to the reporter of that story.

In an effort to set the record straight, we sent this message to the New York Times’ reporter who wrote the story, Jim Robbins. We expect no response, but we want you to know and you can help set the record straight by sharing this.

September 18, 2019

Dear Mr. Robbins,

Farmers across Washington State read with interest your article on orca whales and salmon in the Northwest. Your article strongly advocates breaching Columbia and Snake river dams as a way of preventing the extinction of salmon suggested in your headline.

We welcome the interest of New York Times readers to this important issue, but we regret this article did not provide essential facts. Here are some key facts that would have made your reporting considerably stronger:

  1. There are now more salmon returning through the Snake river dams than before the dams were built. That rather stunning fact that undermines your basic position is reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (included in our information published here). You mention the $16 billion taxpayers and ratepayers have paid to improve fish passage but suggest since numbers continue to decline it shows this investment has failed. NOAA has shown that to be false. Now there are promising new technologies such as the “salmon cannon” that will make these dramatic improvements even stronger.
  2. The serious decline in chinook salmon (all other Pacific salmon are at record numbers) has many causes.

The federal record shows that when the chinook were listed as endangered over 80% of stock was lost to tribal and commercial fishing. But chinook production has nearly doubled in the past 40 years in both hatchery and wild stocks and non-tribal fisheries significantly curtailed. But still numbers decline. Your article appropriately points out the impact of ocean warming as Dr. Andrew Trites from UBC also notes. You fail to point out the serious issue of the explosion of the harbor seal in the Salish Sea. These voracious predators have exploded in this prime Southern Resident orca region under protection of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Chasco study (referenced above) shows that the huge numbers in this concentrated area consume about 23 million chinook smolts per year.

  1. Orcas in general are doing very well, and the Southern Residents face unique problems.

What the public understands about the Southern Residents is quite mistaken because of reports that do not represent the facts, as Dr. Andrew Trites, head of the Marine Mammal research unit at UBC and a top expert in these marine mammals has stated. The population is not at a crisis level compared to historic patterns. But, this small group of orcas is likely in serious trouble in part because of the decline of chinook but also because of genetic problems and the fact that they, unlike most other killer whales, are picky eaters. Transient orcas consume harbor seals and other chinook predators, but Southern Residents do not which of course contributes significantly to their problems. Also, as Dr. Trites points out, they are likely outcompeted by Northern Residents.

  1. We question your assertion that most scientists now support removing the dams.

We would like to see the evidence you have to support that bold statement. Without that, this merits a retraction.

  1. The impact of dam removal would be far greater than your report states. Congress is responsible for the removal of the dams and there are several federal environmental studies underway, which is why we noted that Washington state’s spending $750 million to “study” the removal is pure politics. The impact would be very great and some of these facts are included in the document and video we have prepared on this subject. 

The bottom line is this:

Your report missed critical facts that impact this important debate going on in our region and beyond. Certainly, there is an extreme environmental faction in our region that is strongly advocating for the removals as well as other measures that will do little to nothing to bring chinook salmon back. Your reporting certainly supports this advocacy position without recognition of the significant harm caused by such actions and the lack of science to back up the demands.

We strongly encourage the New York Times to take a deeper look at this issue and provide a more comprehensive look at the difficulties of returning chinook salmon.