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Critic Sees Something Fishy In Salmon Ads Turbines Don’t Dice Smolts, Just Kill Them

Thu., Jan. 12, 1995

It slices, it dices. It rearranges the truth?

A TV advertisement showing baby salmon in a blender is upsetting some supporters of the hydropower system. The ad - staunchly defended by the environmentalists who paid for it - suggests that fish are pulverized by turbines as they migrate through dams.

“The Smolt-o-Matic fake-up ranks with the Alar apple disgrace and NBC’s incendiary test of the rear-end GM pickup collision,” Cyrus Noe writes in this week’s edition of a utility industry newsletter.

“The turbine is not a blender. It is a water wheel … A blender’s sharp blades turn at perhaps 3,000 RPM with an electric motor; a turbine’s smooth blades turn at about 85 to 90 RPM with the flowing water.”

Turbines do kill salmon. That’s one reason Snake River sockeye and chinook are on the endangered species list. But most young fish aren’t mangled. Instead, they suffer internal injuries caused by dramatic changes in water pressure caused by the huge rotating blades.

If you scooped up the injured fish, said Idaho state biologist Steve Pettit, “a lot of them would look perfect. Except they’d be dead.”

Sometimes the eyes of the tiny fish pop out of their sockets, he said. Sometimes the fish are just stunned, making them easy prey for sea gulls.

The 15-second TV ad, nearing the end of a two-week run, has been aired throughout Idaho and on stations KREM and KHQ in Spokane. It shows tiny salmon in a blender, which is likened to a turbine. A finger approaches the switch. The screen goes blood red, a voice says ominously: “Imagine the rest.” Viewers are invited to call a toll-free number for information about how they can protect salmon.

The $15,000 campaign was paid for by Idaho Rivers United, a member group of the environmental coalition Save Our (Wild) Salmon. About 200 people have responded to the ad, said coalition director Mike Rossuto. “We’ve had a couple of suggestions that the ad is not accurate,” Rossuto said Wednesday. “It never says the salmon are diced or sliced. It says ‘Use your imagination.’

“And it is true that those turbines kill millions of salmon every year. Sliced, diced, pulverized, exploded by the pressure of being shot under water 60 feet … To me it’s important that the turbines kill fish. It’s not so important how it happens.”

Utilities and companies that buy power produced at the federal dams want to focus attention on other causes of salmon decline: harvest, hatchery operations and degraded spawning habitat.

Environmentalists insist that dams are the biggest problem. Their ad campaign is timed to generate interest before the end of January, when the National Marine Fisheries Service will release a salmon recovery plan for public comment.

Noe, who publishes the newsletter Clearing Up, thinks the ads are harmfully misleading.

“A certain amount of the fish make it through OK,” he said Wednesday. “They certainly don’t get turned to fish glop.”

Although most biologists see the turbines as a big problem, they agree that some young fish make it unscathed through the powerhouses at the eight Lower Snake and Columbia River dams.

And not all salmon are subjected to the turbines. About half are detoured and piped into barges for the rest of the downstream journey.

The salmon that really get chopped up, Pettit said, are the adults that make their way upstream through fish ladders and then, out of exhaustion or disorientation, slide back through the powerhouses.


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