Spring Chinook Counts Start Off With Big Bang
 Snake Hatchery Return Rates Way Up, Says New Study
 Upper Columbia Stocks Could Be Down For The Count
 NMFS Modelers Go Public With 'Dire' Situation
 Fish Survival Standards Being Developed For Hydro System
 Proposed System Spill Options: High Costs, Dubious Benefits
 Judge Wants More Facts In Clean Water Act Lawsuit
 Corps' Final EIS On Snake Delayed Until After Election
 BPA Buys New Nets For Tribal Fishers
 Seattle Judge Puts Tern Relocation Plan On Hold
 Editor's Note: NW Fishletter's 100th Issue, Or, "It's The Ocean, Stupid"
 SPRING CHINOOK COUNTS START OFF WITH A BIG BANG
The spring chinook run in the Columbia River has taken off, with more than 4,500 fish passing Bonneville Dam on April 11. Huge jack counts last spring signaled the likelihood of a good spring run this year, but no one was prepared for the numbers tallied so far. By yesterday, nearly 25,000 chinook had been counted passing the dam--more than three times the 10-year average for this time of year. In contrast, only 1,280 chinook were counted by this time last year. Up to now, this year's run has shown the strongest numbers since the spring of 1986.
Biologists say it's normal to see many of the early fish heading for the Snake River. Fish managers have predicted that over 65,000 spring/summer Snake River chinook would return to the mouth of the Columbia, with about 7,800 of them ESA-listed fish bound for tributary streams in the Snake. The managers estimated that about 4,900 Snake spring/summer fish made it to the Columbia last year. They figure about half of the fish make it all the way to Idaho.
Managers have predicted that 167,000 upriver spring/summer chinook will return to the mouth of the Columbia this year, but if the numbers stay hot for a few more weeks, the run could top 200,000 fish. Last year, managers underestimated spring/summer returns by more than 30 percent.
Jack counts are humming along as well, with 218 of the precocious males counted by the end of the week--almost five times the 10-year average. The first jack was seen over Lower Granite Dam by the middle of last week, appearing a day before any adults were counted. It's something biologists have never seen before, and they consider it a sign of good things to come. -Bill Rudolph.
 SNAKE HATCHERY RETURN RATES WAY UP, SAYS NEW STUDY
Smolt-to-adult return rates for outmigrating Snake River hatchery fish are up four-fold for 1997 compared to 1996, according to preliminary findings from the Fish Passage Center's ongoing, multi-year Comparative Survival Rate Study (CSS). Some hatcheries, like the one at McCall, Idaho, are showing returns exceeding one percent, with returns of three-ocean fish from the 1997 outmigration yet to be counted (They'll be back this year).
The report also said estimated smolt survivals from hatcheries to Lower Granite Dam were highest in 1998, averaging 70 percent, followed by 61 percent in 1996 and an average 52 percent survival rate in 1997. The returns do not correlate with higher flow levels in 1996 and 1997.
Another surprise was the poor showing for lower Columbia River hatchery fish, which migrated to sea without encountering any dams. "Current survival-to-adult rates to the lower Columbia River hatcheries chosen for use in the CSS appear to be no better and may be worse than the survival-to-adult rates of the upriver hatcheries for smolts that migrated in 1996 to 1998," the draft report said.
Some regional eyebrows were raised when some elements of the study were changed after it began. Just because no adults returned to some hatcheries is no reason to adjust the study parameters, critics say. No fish counted is still a piece of data, they point out.
The draft report says that PIT-tagged adult returns at two downriver hatcheries were so low that they will not be included in the final analysis to compare upriver and downriver stocks. There was speculation that bacterial kidney disease played a role in the poor returns to the lower river hatcheries.That leaves only one downriver hatchery in the study, the USFWS facility at Carson. From the 1996 brood year, no PIT-tagged adults returned to either Round Butte or Cowlitz hatcheries. From the 1997 brood year, six two-ocean adults were counted at Round Butte and 9 two-ocean fish were tallied at Carson, but no study fish returned to the Cowlitz hatchery.
Many more hatchery fish were tagged at upriver hatcheries to account for downriver mortality--about half don't even survive to the first dam on the lower Snake. In 1997, the study tagged about 200,000 upriver fish at seven upriver hatcheries and 15,000 fish from the three downriver hatcheries. -B. R.
 UPPER COLUMBIA STOCKS COULD BE DOWN FOR THE COUNT
NMFS policymakers from regional administrator Will Stelle on down have been pointing out since last December that upper Columbia spring chinook and steelhead stocks are in far worse shape than fish in the Snake River. An ongoing analysis by the federal agency has concluded much the same thing and suggests that the Habitat Conservation Plan signed by two mid-Columbia PUDs (but not yet by NMFS) may not do nearly enough to recover the stocks in question.
NMFS scientist Tom Cooney reviewed some preliminary results of the Upper Columbia Quantitative Analytical Report (QAR) at last week's IT meeting in Portland. He was the first to admit that information on the stocks is pretty limited compared to runs in the Snake River. But that didn't stop him from developing run reconstructions back to the 1960s, when stocks were relatively healthy, making adjustments for harvest levels and hydro development along the way.
Cooney reported that the three main components of the ESU--from the Wenatchee, the Entiat and the Methow rivers--are closely correlated, with peak returns in the 1960s and early 1980s. After the 1983 brood year went to sea, the stocks declined rapidly. He said that 1990 was an especially poor survival year. However, returns in recent years have tended towards average.
Cooney said the risk of extinction is very high if future survivals remain at levels recorded since 1980, but is lower if the analysis is performed with the longer data set beginning in the 1960s. Using 1980-1994 data, Cooney said Wenatchee River spring chinook had a 98 percent chance of going extinct over the next 100 years. Using the 1960-1994 data set put the risk of extinction down to only two percent.
The same held true with the Entiat and Methow stocks. The more recent data suggests the Methow stock has a 99 percent chance of going extinct in the next 100 years, but the 1960-1994 data puts the extinction risk at only 5 percent.
"The ocean's pretty important," said Cooney, who noted that the upper Columbia stocks were more adversely affected by poor ocean conditions than the spring chinook in the Snake River.
Using the larger database still indicated the Wenatchee spring chinook would need a 40 percent survival improvement per generation to meet an interim recovery level in 48 years. The 1980-1994 data points to a much tougher standard--170 percent improvement per generation would be necessary to meet the same interim goal.
Cooney said if HCP goals for passage survival and habitat improvements (20 percent better passage improvement, 10 percent boost from habitat improvements) were met, stocks like the Wenatchee spring chinook could get a 28 percent boost over the base period, but it still "goes short of meeting recovery targets."
He said other scenarios that improved survival in the lower Columbia, like meeting HCP passage goals at other projects and drawdown of John Day Pool, might boost survival below Bonneville to 32 percent above historical rates. But that still wasn't enough. Policymakers will have to decide whether to accept the more conservative analysis, Cooney said.
He pointed out that results are hampered by assumptions about the effects of hatchery fish on the wild population. He said he believes that hatchery fish are about 25 percent to 50 percent as effective as wild fish at natural spawning. The analysis suggests that supplementing wild stocks with hatchery fish could keep the stocks from going extinct for another 100 years.
A draft EIS on the Mid-C's HCP is due out in June, according to NMFS' Brian Brown, who admitted his agency wasn't sure how to use the new analysis on the upper Columbia stocks.
Meanwhile, another draft of the QAR will be out soon, said Cooney. PUD representatives said they would have plenty to comment on, but were complimentary to Cooney and his effort, saying it was a worthwhile attempt hampered by sparse data. -B. R.
 NMFS MODELERS GO PUBLIC WITH 'DIRE' SITUATION
As spring chinook numbers began to climb at Bonneville dam fish ladders, a March 29 public workshop sponsored by NMFS and two environmental groups produced some glum news for salmon watchers. With an updated data set, listed salmon and steelhead runs are in worse shape than NMFS scientists had previously thought--especially spring chinook and steelhead in the upper Columbia River.
The scientists said Snake River runs are also in poor shape--so bad that federal scientist Michelle McClure, who works with the Cumulative Risk Initiative group of NMFS extinction modelers, advocated breaching the lower Snake dams. Dam removal may not be sufficient to recover the stocks, "but may be necessary because the situation is so dire," she said.
The new pronouncements came after the NMFS scientists added the latest fish spawner-recruit data to their matrix modeling effort. The 1990-1994 brood years have been acknowledged by one and all as the poorest spring outmigrations from Idaho since agencies have been keeping records, and adult returns that followed have been extremely low.
McClure did acknowledge the debate among scientists over how much weak runs could improve if ocean conditions change for the better--a situation that some say has occurred already, citing huge jack returns in the Snake and Columbia last year, and predictions that more than 200,000 spring and summer chinook will be returning to the mouth of the Columbia River in the next two months.
State and tribal fish managers estimate that 58,000 of the spring/summer chinook will be headed for the Snake, with about 5,800 of them in the wild category. Last year, only 6,700 hatchery and wild spring/summer chinook were estimated at the river mouth.
NMFS scientists also answered questions about their extinction analysis, posed last February in a critique sponsored by Trout Unlimited and American Rivers. Though the scientists had already responded in a written explanation, the workshop gave them a chance to explain in person how their methodology has changed since they first unveiled the matrix modeling effort last April. Changes include modifications to the mathematical model they are using to measure extinction risk.
A group of state, tribal and USFWS modelers, members of the now nearly defunct PATH process, presented a new modeling exercise characterized by Columbia Basin Inter-Tribal Fish Commission staffer Earl Weber as a "reconstituted" matrix that re-allocated mortality of salmon in the new NMFS model to reflect the group's main argument-that differences in survival between upriver and downriver stocks point to a delayed mortality factor for juvenile fish. They said it was "premature" to say that drawing down the lower Snake by itself won't recover the listed stocks in Idaho.
But their analysis, which added a much higher delayed mortality factor than NMFS had used, especially for barged fish, didn't get too far with the other federal scientists.
NMFS' Phil Levin said, genetic differences, and even more simply, the fact that the fish grew up hundreds of kilometers apart, makes it more likely that the Snake stocks had a more intense reaction to climatic variables than downriver stocks. Other participants suggested that lack of a nutrient base in the Snake tributaries in the form of returning adults could be creating weaker juveniles.
A summary of a NMFS draft report on the condition of all Columbia Basin salmon stocks provided bad news on that front as well. A more complete analysis went online later.
"...All the Columbia River Basin salmon stocks are in a state of perilous decline," said the report, "especially Upper Columbia Spring Chinook and Steelhead throughout its range. Put in starker terms: without substantial intervention, there is a greater than 50-50 chance that most of these ESUs will be extinct by the next century, some much sooner."
But the summary report also said there are no clear-cut analyses that can accurately predict numerical improvements in fish survival for actions taken in the hydro, hatchery and habitat arenas, though immediate changes in harvest would have immediate effects. The main conclusion--that uncertainty is not an argument for inaction--was tempered with the call for using management actions as experiments, "accepting that some will fail, but if they are properly designed, we can learn from our mistakes." -B. R.
 FISH SURVIVAL STANDARDS BEING DEVELOPED FOR HYDRO SYSTEM
Critical data shortages in the knowledge of survival and the historical size of many ESA-listed fish populations is keeping fish agencies from developing a "top-down" approach to building performance standards for the hydro system.
NMFS operations biologist Chris Toole reported to other regional fish policy wonks last week about progress on the standards, a concept put forth by action agencies (BPA, COE, BUREC) in this year's biological assessment of the hydro system.
Toole said a "bottoms-up" approach would be necessary for ESUs [Evolutionarily Significant Units] in the last two NMFS Biops-steelhead and lower Columbia River chinook--because a lack of data about healthy population numbers makes it especially hard to gauge future goals for recovering the populations.
"How do you know where you have to go?" Toole asked rhetorically. But he pointed out that scientists can still work upwards towards developing population level performance measures, if they begin from "discrete" starting points.
According to Toole, a critical part of the problem remains because the region hasn't addressed "tough allocation questions." For instance, regional policymakers can't even agree on survival rates of salmon and steelhead through the hydro system and what a natural survival rate might be. Another case in point: disagreement over whether standards should aim for fish survival equivalent to a four-dam or five-dam breach distributed over the eight federal projects.
Another main sticking point is the problem of allocating certain proportions of fish mortality to the other H's of harvest, habitat and hatcheries. The working document released last week brought up many related issues as well, and touched on the difficulty of analyzing current survivals through the hydro system that might represent "a significant reduction in hydro system mortality from the levels that have contributed to the current status of the listed ESUs and that further opportunities for improving survival are best pursued by modifying other human activities." Other NMFS studies have found that passage improvements in the eight-dam hydro corridor have created fish survival benefits similar to that of the four-dam mainstem of the 1960s.
The ongoing uncertainty over the possibility of delayed effects from the hydro system and the barging of fish, the so-called D factor, is another hangup in the development of standards for hydro system performance.
Participants say that the early survival estimates being developed for Snake spring chinook are bound to change over the next few weeks, but tentative estimates for current system survival that include both juvenile and adult stages have been released.
Survival estimates for spring chinook range from about 41 percent to 49 percent when medium and high D's from the NMFS analysis are used. The highest NMFS D value is based on a 1994-1996 average and pencils out to about .83, which is the estimated ratio of survival of barged juveniles versus fish that migrated inriver. Other hypotheses regarding delayed mortality developed by the PATH process were also used in the analyses.
On the other hand, USFWS biologists use the much lower D value of .49, one which the document says NMFS considers an invalid estimate "based on the limited supporting information presented." But it is included in the analysis "for purposes of review and discussion." Using lower USFWS D values, total system survival estimates for juveniles and adults range from 27 percent to 31 percent.
Tentative estimates for hydro system survival with a lower Snake 4-dam breaching scenario are estimated at 49 percent to 54 percent, while a summary of estimates for a "natural survival" performance standard, i.e., fish migrating without any dams on the mainstem Snake and Columbia, ranges between 61 percent and 80 percent.
Numbers being developed for steelhead and fall chinook are even more iffy, but all participants are hoping to have something ready for the May BiOp, even if the performance standards aren't fleshed out and remain only a concept, to be developed later as more information about fish survivals is collected. -B. R.
 PROPOSED SYSTEM SPILL OPTIONS: HIGH COSTS, DUBIOUS BENEFITS
Regional policymakers at the April 5 Implementation Team meeting heard NMFS proposals for increasing spill at most federal projects in the Columbia and Snake Rivers this year--one of several potential options designed to improve juvenile fish survival past the eight federal projects.
With a new BiOp draft scheduled for a May 22 release, the spill scenario chosen for this spring will likely show up in future operations as well, according to NMFS policymaker Brian Brown. The agency asked for input from those attending the IT meeting.
One of the most controversial of NMFS' nine potential options calls for lengthening spill times at all dams except The Dalles to 24 hours a day. Spill would actually be reduced at The Dalles, from 64 percent to 40 percent, because recent studies have indicated higher fish survivals there at lower levels of spill. NMFS estimated the average 8-dam survival rate at 97 percent, with an average per-project and reach survival of 93.1 percent. Current operations are estimated at a 96 percent average 8-dam survival rate, with average per-project and reach survival of 92.1 percent.
The NMFS model also estimates that spring chinook survival, under current operating conditions, has met the last BiOp's interim performance objective of 95 percent survival at all dams except for The Dalles.
Sources close to the modeling effort pointed out that most survival benefits throughout the system come from factoring in spill reduction at The Dalles and averaging over the eight dams. NMFS estimates that reducing spill at The Dalles would increase survival there from 90.8 percent to 96.8 percent. They say the exercise points to similar conclusions from the NMFS Cumulative Risk Initiative modeling efforts--namely, that further improvements to the hydro system will produce relatively small benefits in survival, especially when costs are included in the analysis.
BPA spokesman Dan Daley said the projected cost of such an alternative could add another $15 million to $20 million to the agency's foregone revenue, but the true costs wouldn't be known until after the fact. After the meeting, Columbia River Alliance director Bruce Lovelin questioned the survival benefit of such an alternative, since spilling more at lower Snake dams would mean that fewer juvenile fish would be available for barging downstream. Daley said BPA also had questions about fish benefits versus spilling to the gas saturation cap.
Other options outlined by NMFS included: 12-hour nighttime spills to new gas caps (estimated per-dam survival, 96.3 percent); 24-hour spill to new gas caps (estimated 96.7 percent per-dam survival); a raised crest surface bypass at three lower Snake and John Day dams with 24-hour spill (estimated per-dam survival, 97.2 percent); to an "aggressive mix" that includes powerhouse surface bypass at three lower Snake dams and John Day, along with improvements at Bonneville Dam (97.4 percent estimated per-dam survival).
NMFS hydro analyst Jim Ruff said some studies have suggested that "undetected" PIT-tagged fish--those that pass dams via either spill or turbines--survive in-river passage better than fish that are routed through bypass systems, but he noted that better studies are needed.
Daley said any spill increases should be tied to some kind of feedback "telling if you are getting a benefit," and that includes potential effects on adult passage. He said it is up to NMFS to demonstrate a survival benefit from the potential option.
Potential transmission impacts were included in a memo released at the IT meeting. Spilling water at Lower Granite during daytime hours could reduce COI/PDCI [ California-Oregon Intertie/ Pacific Direct Current Intertie] capacity by 50 MW [Megawatts], and capacity west of Hatwai by 130 MW in the spring. Daytime spill at the other two dams on the lower Snake could reduce COI/PDCI capacity by another 74 MW and west of Hatwai by another 189 MW.
Another daytime spill test planned at John Day Dam (30 percent) would decrease COI/PDCI capability by 691 MW in the spring and 398 MW in summer. If spill at The Dalles this spring is reduced from 60 percent to between 30 and 40 percent to improve fish survival, COI/PDCI capacity could increase between 640 MW and 453 MW--with lesser increases during the summer when river flows decline.
If daytime spill at Bonneville is increased another 60 kcfs, COI/PDCI capacity could decline by another 264 MW. -B R.
 JUDGE WANTS MORE FACTS IN CLEAN WATER ACT LAWSUIT
A federal judge in Portland has denied both environmental groups' and the Corps of Engineers' motions for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed over alleged Clean Water Act violations by the agency's operation of lower Snake River dams.
The suit was filed in March 1999 by the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental and fish groups claiming the Corps' operations routinely violate temperature and water standards, pushing "imperiled" salmon and steelhead runs "to the brink of extinction."
On Mar. 21, Judge Helen Frye of the Oregon District Court also denied summary judgment motions for defendant intervenors the Potlatch Corporation, the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, the Columbia River Alliance and the Inland Ports and Navigation Group.
The judge ruled the environmental groups have standing to sue and that "there is evidence in this case to adequately demonstrate that the injury to these recreational, aesthetic, spiritual and commercial interests are fairly traceable to the alleged actions of the Corps in operating the four lower Snake River dams in violation of water quality standards."
But she added that before she could determine whether the agency's actions were "arbitrary and capricious," the court must examine the administrative record that led up to the 1995 and 1998 BiOp records of decision. Judge Frye gave both sides 90 days to review the administrative record "and submit all relevant references to the court" and then allow them to file motions for summary judgment.
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund lawyer Kristen Boyles called the opinion "a very significant decision--the fact that she sided with us." Boyles pointed to Frye's opinion that "judicial review of the plaintiffs' claim that the Corps is violating the Clean Water Act by not complying with the water quality standards of the State of Washington is proper under the Administrative Procedures Act."
Boyles said that if the Corps is found in violation, there are a number of things the agency could do to improve conditions--increase water withdrawals from Idaho, modify dams to reduce gas or build a step-by-step road to future compliance. But, she added, it is not up to the environmental groups to decide those kinds of things.
She noted that her side will continue to cite results from a controversial EPA temperature model that show lower Snake dams have increased water temperatures in the river. Corps documents, however, maintain that the river was actually warmer before the four dams were built.
Corps spokesman Doug Arndt said his agency will be ready within 90 days, since much of the administrative record has already been collected to document its decision-making process.
Columbia River Alliance attorney James Buchal said there was no evidence that dam operations were causing water quality problems that are killing salmon. -B. R.
 CORPS FINAL EIS ON SNAKE DELAYED UNTIL AFTER ELECTION
The Corps of Engineers' final EIS on the future of the lower Snake River dams will now appear sometime in November, agency spokesman Doug Arndt told NW Fishletter on Mar. 30. Arndt said the agency has changed course and will not produce another draft EIS with a "preferred alternative" this spring. The delay became official later that day when Brig. Gen. Carl Strock issued a statement that the Corps would identify a preferred alternative later this year, "following with a record of decision in 2001."
In testimony delivered Mar. 21 to the Senate Energy Subcommittee on Water and Power, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Dr. Joseph Westphal told legislators that he is hopeful that a final EIS would be completed by October. But Arndt said extending the public comment period for the draft EIS another 30 days, which the Corps announced Mar. 30, effectively moves the timeline for approval of the final EIS into late November or December.
Arndt said the Corps expects to have a "Reasonable Prudent Alternative" spelled out in the upcoming NMFS BiOp on hydro operation to help guide future operations on the lower Snake. -B. R.
 BPA BUYS NEW NETS FOR TRIBAL FISHERS
A $308,000 deal to purchase larger-mesh fishing nets for tribal fishers has finally been consummated, according to the Bonneville Power Administration. The new nets should allow more ESA-listed wild steelhead to pass through tribal fishing waters while the Indians' commercial fall chinook season is in progress. Currently, nets used in the fishery have 8-inch mesh or less.
The federal agency said 600 nets will be purchased with the money, with most going to Yakama tribal fishers, who contribute about 70 percent of the tribal fishing effort in Zone 6 between Bonneville and McNary dams on the Columbia River. The other 30 percent is made up equally of Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribal fishermen.
Money for the net program has been allocated since 1998, but the agreement with the tribes wasn't completed in time for last year's fishery. It spells out a commitment to increasing fish numbers, saying that additional hatchery steelhead that reach Lower Granite will be made available for supplementation in the Snake River Basin, "subject to any logistical constraints." The goal, according to the agreement, is to outplant Group B steelhead in a way to minimize sport harvest.
Fish managers will develop a monitoring and evaluation effort to gauge the effectiveness of the nine-inch mesh gear, but the agreement doesn't preclude tribal fishermen from using other smaller-mesh gear as well. About 400 tribal nets were fished in Zone 6 last year, down from around 1,200 nets fished by tribal members in 1989. -B. R.
 SEATTLE JUDGE PUTS TERN RELOCATION PLAN ON HOLD
A federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order April 10 that keeps the Corps of Engineers from implementing their plan to move the salmon-eating Caspian tern colony from Rice Island in the Columbia River estuary to another island farther down the river. At the same time, Judge Barbara Rothstein scheduled a Thursday hearing on the matter.
An attorney for environmental groups that asked for the restraining order, Richard Smith, told The Seattle Times, "The whole basis for this [relocation effort] is pretty dubious." The action was filed by the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Seattle Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy.
But Idaho Power Planning Council member Mike Field was not buying their argument. "I think that's irresponsible on the part of the environmentalists," he told NW Fishletter. Field said the relocation effort is important to migrating fish, and it's necessary to move the birds to East Sand Island as soon as possible, so their diet would depend less on salmon and steelhead smolts, many of which come from his home state.
An effort to move the terns, which had been scheduled to begin April 11, included 24-hour harassment of the birds to keep them from nesting on the island. Up to 10,000 nesting pairs are expected to show up this spring. The birds feed mostly on the 60-100 million migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead that pass the island on their way to the sea. Biologists have estimated the birds may eat up to 25 percent of the young fish, including fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Seattle Times article said the dispute pitted endangered salmon against endangered and threatened birds, but Caspian tern populations are not in danger. Roseate and least terns in other parts of the country have been listed for protection, however. -B. R.
 EDITOR'S NOTE: NW FISHLETTER'S 100TH ISSUE, OR, "IT'S THE OCEAN, STUPID"
Now that the salmon recovery circus of public comment is nearly over, and activists have hung up their salmon costumes in the closet, somebody new has crashed the party--the fish themselves.
The delightful numbers of spring chinook now passing over Bonneville will mostly be wasted, as hatchery fish usually are in times of plenty. The thousands that will swim into Idaho will create big headaches for hatchery managers; some will no doubt be trucked beyond the sacred Hells Canyon Dams to provide a salmon catching experience for Boise residents. Others (fish, not Idahoans) should probably be collected and tossed into those streams above 6,000 feet for fertilizer where spawning redds can be counted on one hand. Of course, the run could fizzle out tomorrow, but it probably won't.
Maybe a ton of wild fish will show this year, too, and confound the mathematical modeling wizards at NMFS who are telling us that the situation is even worse than we thought. Who thought? The poor academics are trapped in a time warp that stopped a couple of years ago. But they keep promising they can play catch up as soon as the new numbers come in. Extinction, quasi-extinction, it's all a numbers game built on old fish counts that were made up out of thin air. They're already nervous and warning the region that these improved runs may be a "blip." That may be, but if we really are getting into a wetter, colder climate regime, then what's wrong with a 20-year blip? Maybe we're a blip.
The tribes know better, they are preparing for a huge spring catch and want to sell the extras directly over the bank. Who's going to keep track? And what does it matter anyway, when NMFS OKs millions of hatchery chinook to be released unmarked. How will we know if any of these wild runs ever recover? Like always, we'll guess-timate, with various fudge factors inserted by the managers with the most political clout.
Meanwhile, The Power Planning Council is off in Salmon Wonderland, betting on huge benefits from re-tooled hatcheries, caring less than a fig for what they might do to the few wild fish that give NMFS a mandate to turn the region upside down.
And the wild fish fanatics fight back, pointing to a 100-year effort that smothered the region with salmon to come up with next to nothing. But running the projector backwards to a reclaimed natural state won't get us a new world. Not with the population going the other direction. In another 100 years, who knows what the Northwest will be like? Running the movie back 60 years doesn't get you anywhere warm and fuzzy. Remember, in 1941, only eight fish were counted in Marsh Creek, one of Idaho's index streams for spring chinook. After that, things got better, then numbers nose-dived again, and no fish showed up last year.
The question remains, "How soon can we recover these stocks so we can catch them and eat them or sell them?" No wonder it seems that NMFS has a bi-polar disorder. The entire region suffers from the same malady of conflicting mandates. For the present, every segment in the 4-H equation will claim credit for improved fish numbers, pointing out that hatcheries are already being managed better, harvest managers are getting better at managing harvests, habitat managers are better at restoring habitat and hydro operators are better at getting fish to the ocean.
But frankly, the 4-H mindset leaves out the biggest H of all. Hubris--the proud notion that we can manage our way out of this situation at all, or think we can predict what salmon runs will be like a hundred years from now.
I spent 15 years fishing on the ocean between Alaska and the Columbia River and I've learned more about salmon since I traded my gaff hook for a typewriter than I ever picked up wandering around the 100-fathom curve. The ocean, with its natural ups and downs, remains the major driver for salmon populations throughout the Pacific Rim. It's time that commercial fishermen quit blaming the dams for lousy business decisions. Most folks knew back in the 1970s that if you wanted to make any money salmon fishing, you headed north.
But the ocean factor is gradually starting to sink in these parts, too, just about everywhere but at Idaho Fish & Game. You may get 20 percent more fish back to Idaho if you breach the dams--so how come the return rates are going up 400 percent with the four federal dams on the lower Snake firmly in place? It's not that we haven't tried to get the word out. A quick search exercise shows that "ocean" showed up in 70 of the last 90 issues of NW Fishletter.
However, suggesting that the ocean is both culprit and savior doesn't do much at budget time for preserving a network of hatcheries and harvest managers who are ultimately at the mercy of Mother Nature. It's not fish that folks are trying to preserve here, it's turf.
And now with most every species supported by its own gaggle of lawyers (witness this week's tern of events), the salmon conundrum gets ever more mired in the courts. In the long run, salmon recovery dollars will probably pay off more Northwest mortgages than money ever earned in honest fisheries ever did. Economists call it a transfer of wealth. - Bill Rudolph
LINKS/DOCUMENTS FROM NW FISHLETTER 100:: Below are listed links and documents referred to in the text of NW Fishletter issue 100.
- DART Adult Passage, Columbia Basin Research, University of Washington
- Draft Comparative Survival Rate Study, Fish Passage Center, March 17, 2000
- Extinction Risk Analysis of the Columbia Basin ESUs, National Marine Fisheries Service, April 10, 2000
- Multi-Species Biological Assessment of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS), Dec. 23, 1999
THE ARCHIVE :: Previous NW Fishletter issues and supporting documents.
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