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[1] Test Fishery May Net Lower Columbia Gillnetters Big Bucks
[2] Salmon's Two-Way Street: Cheap Protein And Expensive Icon
[3] Feds Accept Most De-Listing Petitions For West Coast Salmon Stocks
[4] NMFS Says It's Sorry Over Harvest Critique
[5] Shared Strategy Nearly Ready To Announce Recovery Goals

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Astoria gillnetter Don Riswick, who's been fishing on the Columbia River for 70 of his 84 years, was sort of looking forward to this spring's chinook season on the Columbia River. Last year, he went out one night, netted six large salmon and sold them for $500. This year he could make lots more by catching more hatchery fish and fewer ESA-listed wild ones, as part of an experiment in selective fishing techniques.

But Riswick and his partner are sitting out the spring, unsure whether the $1,200 to $1,500 investment they must make will pay off, even though fish buyers will probably be offering up to four dollars a pound for the early fish, which will hit West Coast markets more than two months before the over-hyped Copper River kings show up from Alaska's Prince William Sound.

The lower river gillnetters can use some of their old nets, which are designed to catch smaller coho salmon, rather than the much larger spring chinook they catch this time of year. And they must build a special box to help revive wild fish tangled in the net before they are set free. Otherwise, the fishermen are restricted to selected areas outside the main part of the river, where they can target returning fish raised especially for that purpose. Fish agencies expect nearly 200 boats to participate.

The Power Planning Council just OK'd nearly $700,000 in funding to pay for another year's worth of study to assess tangle nets. Sixteen observers will watch how fishermen work with them in the spring fishery that's slated to begin at the end of February and allow six days of fishing over a two-week period. The study includes research to help determine how many wild fish will die after they are released. According to studies begun last year, the smaller mesh nets have a catching power similar to the traditional larger ones, but much less immediate killing power.

Council chair Larry Cassidy said he has never received as much public input on any proposal as for the tangle net study. Oregon member Erich Bloch seemed pleased to note that commercial fishermen from Astoria have "bought in" to support the effort. Sports interests had mixed feelings about the plan until the provision for observers was added to the proposal.

Upriver tribal fishermen don't like it. "The tribes have concerns," said Umatilla tribal member Terry Courtney, "and don't approve of this way of fishing." The Indian fishery has no mesh size restrictions and doesn't separate wild from hatchery fish. It operates under the assumption that ESA stocks make up a fixed percentage of the overall run. They have long objected to marking hatchery fish as "mutilation." Since tribal fishermen use set nets--gillnet gear that is anchored in place rather than connected to boats while fishing--and since a single individual may tend six or eight nets at once, it is logistically nearly impossible to fish the short time intervals called for in such a study.

Tribal fishermen who tend their nets upriver of Bonneville Dam will be allowed about 12 percent of the 334,000-fish forecast, around 40,000 fish.
Strong smelt run signals continuation of good ocean conditions.

Sporties are getting about 21,000 marked chinook, which still adds up to only an estimated 2 percent of this year's spring run. Last year they accounted for more than 22,000 fish because they could release hooked wild fish.

Non-treaty commercial fishermen like Riswick caught about 2,400 spring chinook last year before their share of the catch was limited by projected impacts on wild Snake River fish. This year, state fishery agencies estimate the gillnetters will get to keep about 19,000 hatchery fish, which can be identified by a clipped fin.

The commercial fishermen involved in the test fishery must attend a six-hour class to learn the new techniques, which include putting wild fish in boxes filled with water to resuscitate them and using much shorter soak times for nets.

Because of bad weather and the short fishing times, Riswick doesn't think the gillnetters will land as many fish as managers estimate. He said 40-minute soaks don't work near the river mouth, where fishermen do most of their catching during two-and-a-half-hour sets when tides are slack.

"I went to the class," said Riswick, who edits the Columbia River Gillnetter, house organ for the Astoria-based fisherman's union that began in 1886. "I listened to five hours of propaganda on how to handle fish: how to throw them overboard when they're alive, and how to throw them overboard when they're dead."

The gillnetters will not be allowed to retain any DOA wild fish, nor even donate them to a food bank.

Other groups outside the harvest arena remain interested in the possibilities. Rob Walton, assistant manager of the Public Power Council, said he was still interested in the concept of selective fishing. "I'm still waiting for the fish managers to decide if they're going to systematically require marked fish and selective harvest," he told NW Fishletter.

Walton helped sponsor a two-day workshop on selective harvest methods in October 2000. Reluctantly attended by Columbia Basin tribes, it was an attempt to discuss policy changes that would allow harvest from large runs expected in coming years. The huge fish runs have materialized, but it's still likely that most returning hatchery fish will go to waste.

Before Council members voted for funding the net study at their Feb. 6 meeting in Portland, they heard a staff review of a scathing report on NMFS' ESA-based harvest policies by a panel of scientists that the agency itself has set up to provide oversight of its efforts at recovering Northwest salmon stocks.

In their report, which came out last November, the scientists said they were "mystified" by allowable harvest rates on ESA-listed salmon populations and noted that harvest decisions weren't connected with other factors affecting salmon survival. They even suggested discussion on the issue of whether the ESA superceded tribal treaty rights.

The report generated "concerns" from the Olympia-based Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and the WDFW. In a joint letter to NMFS last December, they said the report was "inaccurate, offensive, and indicative of serious flaws in a process that was intended to be an objective independent technical review." Both agencies had made presentations at a meeting of the recovery panel in August 2001, which didn't include reviews of Columbia River harvest issues.

"This report has damaged our ability to successfully recover salmon through constructive processes such as the Shared Strategy Forum [Puget Sound]," the letter said, "and has damaged the close working relationship between NMFS and the Co-managers [WDFW and Tribes] that we have been cultivating for many years."

It was reported that different NMFS offices in the Northwest, which had different views on the value of the report, were discussing the issue "intensely" among themselves, to come up with an appropriate response. -Bill Rudolph


Over the past five years, a not-so-funny thing happened on the road to West Coast salmon recovery and the goal of sustainable fisheries. The bottom dropped out of the salmon market. Just ask any Alaska fishermen where exclusive Bristol Bay fishing permits were selling for more than $200,000 in 1995; today those licenses are on the market at prices below $20,000.

The market value of wild salmon's high-class protein sunk to levels not seen since the 1950s when last year's 173-million-fish harvest was worth only $216 million at Alaska docks--less than half the amount federal agencies are committed to spending next year on the recovery of weak West Coast stocks.

With salmon and steelhead stocks listed under the ESA up and down the coast, federal agencies and BPA ratepayers are committed to spending over $500 million dollars this coming fiscal year on recovering weak runs in three states where commercial salmon landings (chinook and coho troll) totaled around $10 million last year.

On the Columbia River, where most of the recovery money is being spent, commercial catches were hard to value since much of the activity involved "over-the-bank" sales by tribal fishers. Total catch of spring and fall chinook was more than 200,000 fish, with a value of about $2.2 million, according to estimates by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, ranging from several dollars a pound for spring chinook to about ten cents a pound for fall run tules. Late summer prices were so low that some gillnetters stayed tied to the docks rather than accept thirty cents a pound for bright chinook headed for the Hanford Reach.

The fish had finally come back in droves, due principally to cyclic improvements in ocean conditions. Unfortunately for commercial fishermen, both non-tribal and Indian, there won't be much in the way of cyclic improvements for salmon prices, either in the near term or farther into the future.

In fact, last week, fishermen from six Northwest tribes met in Bellingham to discuss how to cope with the future. Job retraining for fishermen who could find other ways to make a living was high on the discussion list, in the hope that by reducing the number of harvesters, those still fishing could continue to make a living at it.

It's a situation that's been in the cards since the early 1980s when British Columbia embraced the salmon farming industry, following the models of Norway and Scotland and Nova Scotia. Then ten years ago, Chile got into the act with financial backing from Japanese interests.

The price decline has gathered more momentum in the past few years as farmed salmon has flooded the world. With declining markets in Japan and exchange rates compounding the problem, the salmon industry has been in a tailspin for the past few years. In some parts of Alaska, fishermen are banding together to cut expenses by fishing cooperatively, or they're talking about setting fishing seasons that maximize market opportunities by increasing the quality of the millions of wild salmon that will be frozen or canned this coming year. Some processors have already reduced their capacity, resigned to shrinking markets for wild fish.
The Port of Seattle recently voted to let yachts in at
Fishermen's Terminal where a dwindling salmon fleet
has left about 25 percent of the moorage vacant.

The farmed product now provides 60 percent of the world's supply of salmon, according to Terry Gardiner, president of Norquest Seafoods. In remarks he penned last fall and shared with the public at last November's Fish Expo in Seattle, Gardiner painted a gloomy picture of the near-term future.

"An oversupply of farmed salmon has collapsed salmon prices globally," Gardiner said, "Some believe that once this glut has worked its way through the marketing python, salmon prices will recover." But he said a recent study of prices, farmed salmon costs and future growth, shows that "any price recovery will only be slight and belated. Five years from now the current salmon prices will return, and salmon farmers will be profitable again."

Gardiner pointed out how the Chilean farmed salmon business began with fresh and frozen whole fish, then moved to both fresh and frozen fillets and now produces canned salmon sashimi loins, smoked salmon and grill-marked portions shipping direct from that South American country--all in the last 10 years.

"Technology moved to the location that could produce the product the market demanded at the lowest cost. Chilean labor costs are ten percent of US costs," he said.

Gardiner said other basic industries are facing the same global realities. "Orchards in eastern Washington are being plowed under because of foreign fruit in China and Chile. Potato farmers in Idaho are selling significantly below cost due to imported potato products. The US government is paying millions per month in storage for surplus sugar that exceeds market demand."

Gardiner's recipe for fixing the Alaska fishing industry calls for more level production of low cost species like pink salmon, buying out both fishermen and processors, co-op'ing and consolidating efforts, all ways to reduce costs to make the product sell better when facing adverse currency exchanges. He even raised the question of getting on the "federal agricultural bandwagon" to survive. He said federal subsidies have supplied fifty percent of the annual profits for US farmers.

So where do the Columbia River fisheries fit into the big picture? It's all a matter of availability, said one long-time market watcher, who declined to be named. He said there used to be a lot of interest in Columbia River fish. He cited New York restaurant and wine promotions that featured the Columbia River springers in the early 1990s. Then along came the ESA and changed all that. With the Snake River springers listed and runs down, fishing all but ceased until last year's monster run. "The spectre of an endangered species is difficult to overcome in the market," he added.

Though the salmon sold in the early spring commercial fishery on the Columbia are all hatchery fish, politically correct market watchers like the folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California don't finesse the idea. Their list of OK fish to eat includes California wild salmon, but they have put Washington and Oregon stocks on a cautionary category and suggest that one check with the fish buyer to find out if the stock in question is "overfished," a designation that NMFS has given to some species. It's doubtful that most fishmongers would have a clue. The situation gets even more confusing since NMFS has cited the Sustainable Fisheries Act as a federal mandate to restore ESA stocks to "fishable levels."

In April when the tribal fishery begins above Bonneville Dam, fishermen will be allowed to catch up to 12 percent of the Snake River spring chinook run, which is listed under the ESA. However, their fishing techniques do not allow them to release unmarked (wild) fish alive like the experimental tangle net fishery now under way in the lower river, so a certain amount of legally caught ESA-listed fish will reach the market.

Even if the stigma of the ESA can be reduced, the prognosis for higher prices is not good. Consultant Howard M. Johnson, interviewed in the December 2001 Alaska Fisherman's Journal was blunt. "Like it or not, the market wants fresh fish 365 days of the year. The market is unwilling to drop farmed for wild for a few months." Johnson said Alaska could fix its salmon industry by reducing the number of fishermen, using bigger boats in places like Bristol Bay and producing fewer hatchery fish (Alaska releases 1.5 billion hatchery fish annually). "With fewer fishermen and fewer fish, maybe the remaining fishermen can make money," he said.

As for niche markets like the Copper River fishery that would compete head to head with a potential spring Columbia River harvest, Johnson said the Copper River marketing program worked because its success had as much to do with timing and public relations as quality. If more Alaska fisheries tried to model themselves on the Copper River example, Johnson said there would be too much volume to market the product fresh "and the market isn't there for frozen."

So it seems that the future may be limited for marketing Columbia river spring salmon, beyond a tiny niche of availability for a few weeks. In fact, they are already showing in Seattle fish markets, crowding out the Alaska winter troll fish for the number one spot and commanding nearly $16 a pound. As for the Copper River kings, they won't be showing until some time in May.

Columbia springer numbers are likely to drop after this year due to smaller brood years, but fall chinook are expected to be pouring into the river this August in huge schools, especially the Spring Creek hatchery bred tules from Bonneville Pool. Last year, both tribal and non-tribal members faced prices of 10 to 15 cents a pound for the ripe ready-to-spawn fish when twice as many (125,000) came back as forecast by fish managers. Sports fishermen spurn the poor quality fish, which are usually sold for pet food or to fish smokers by commercial fishermen. This year even more tules are expected, nearly 145,000 of them, the largest run since 1976 when 182,000 fish returned to the pool above the river's first dam. Maybe Alaska's not the only place where fish agencies should be raising less hatchery fish. -B. R.


NMFS has announced it has accepted most petitions to de-list Pacific salmon and steelhead stocks. The actions were filed in the wake of the Hogan decision [Alsea Valley Alliance v. NMFS] that threw out a NMFS ESA listing for Oregon coho because it failed to offer the same protection for the hatchery component of the ESU as it did for the Oregon wild coastal coho stocks. NMFS decided not to appeal, and said it was time to upgrade status reviews of ESUs with hatchery elements. Since that announcement, environmental groups were granted intervenor status and appealed Hogan's ruling; the Niners have stayed Hogan's original decision for the time being.

"NMFS concluded that the petitions present substantial scientific and commercial information to suggest that the petitioned actions may be warranted for 14 of the 15 petitioned ESUs," the agency said in a Feb. 11 press release. They also said they were reviewing the status of 11 additional ESUs, but not endangered Snake River sockeye or Southern California steelhead.

The federal agency had originally decided that protecting hatchery components of listed ESUs was not necessary to achieve ESA goals of recovering wild populations. But Hogan said the ESU designation could not be subdivided under conditions of the ESA. NMFS has said it will review its hatchery policy before completing the status reviews next September. -B. R.


NMFS regional administrator Bob Lohn has apologized to Washington state fishery and tribal officials for "public perception problems" created by a NMFS-sponsored peer review panel of nationally respected scientists who lambasted the agency for its harvest policies of ESA stocks. WDFW director Jeff Koenings and Northwest Indian Commission chair Billy Frank, Jr. had sent a joint letter to the agency criticizing the panel's blunt review.

NMFS now says it didn't provide the panel with enough information to "leave the meeting with a clear understanding of the biological basis for setting allowable harvest levels that do not impede recovery of listed salmonids."

The Feb. 14 letter says that NMFS is preparing a technical document that "lays out the approach NMFS uses" and will clearly explain that the agency holds harvesters to the same rigorous standards as others whose actions affect salmon recovery. It also asks for help in addressing erroneous statements in the report.

Tribal officials were outraged that the panel recommended looking at whether the ESA trumped tribal treaty rights. NMFS said it would work with the science panel to "help make the science-policy boundary as clear as possible." -B. R.


Salmon recovery efforts for listed salmon stocks in Puget Sound have morphed into a huge voluntary process called the Shared Strategy, in which a 17-person steering committee is still discussing how to roll out interim recovery goals for each watershed. Originally promised by last December, the numbers are still in process. Once they're announced, regional stakeholders will find out just how much they still want to share the strategies that are so slow in coming.

"There's nothing yet in writing," said Shared Strategy project manager Jim Kramer. The goals are to be announced at meetings with each watershed planning group over the course of the spring. Each group, with help from federal and state officials, will then be responsible for developing a plan for meeting those goals. It's a process recently blessed by NMFS regional administrator Bob Lohn. The feds would develop a watershed recovery plan only as a last resort.

The numbers are still being developed for the 21 chinook populations in Puget Sound, according to NMFS' Mary Ruckelshaus, who chairs the regional technical recovery team (TRT). She said NMFS has about completed its interim goals to satisfy ESA concerns; now the co-managers--state and tribal fish managers--are working on their own analyses to come up with what Ruckelshaus called "ranges of abundance."

The TRT readily admits it's hampered by a lack of population data in its assessments. A review of TRT analyses by independent scientists echoed its concerns last summer, saying that since the data weren't "likely to be sufficient for very accurate estimation of population parameters, we expect high levels of uncertainty in PVAs [Population Viability Analyses] for most salmonid ESUs [environmentally significant units]." They recommended that the quantitative modeling be used mainly to help develop "relatively simple, objective, population-based listing and delisting criteria for salmonid ESUs."

But others object to the numbers game altogether. Paul LaCroix, who represents the Western Washington Agricultural Association and participates in the Shared Strategy, was one of them. "I have a real problem in numbers of fish," LaCroix told NW Fishletter. "The seals get them, the terns get them, the ocean conditions affect them, so counting fish doesn't make any sense."

Many of LaCroix's constituents work the land in the Skagit estuary, an area that's been identified as a limiting factor for salmon stocks in that watershed. "We farm the river bottom. That's where the fish live." Some potential strategies call for buying up farmland and tearing out flood control dikes to create more rearing habitat for salmon.

He admitted that the groups need a goal. Otherwise "you don't know how much you have to help the fish." LaCroix said his goal "is acres of restored habitat." To make the Shared Strategy viable, it will take widespread landowner support. He said the plan under development looks pretty good from a landowner's viewpoint, but restrictions placed by the state's Growth Management Act and the ESA could be too harsh.

LaCroix said that Skagit farmers now have some hopes they can survive. The difference is NMFS' new emphasis on local participation, outlined by regional administrator Bob Lohn at a recent Shared Strategy session.

Lloyd Moody, central and northern Puget Sound coordinator from Gov. Gary Locke's salmon recovery office, said the Population Viability Analysis is still under way to develop "rules of thumb" criteria for recovery standards. And though no fish recovery numbers were discussed, a meeting was held in January with Snohomish watershed participants as a tryout to gauge the effectiveness of communicating planning ranges and goals. In response to a question on whether recovery goals were going to dribble out over the next year, Moody said he hoped "salmon recovery dribbles on for a hundred years."

The technical recovery team still has plenty of work to do. They've been reviewing draft reports on all aspects of the stocks: growth rates, juvenile outmigrants, spatial structure, diversity and ESU criteria. They have also been developing a life cycle model for Skagit chinook and a way to estimate the impact of habitat improvement on salmon numbers. They are also trying to figure impacts of hatcheries on wild stocks. Incidentally, Northwest politicians and fish managers announced last week the first installment of a major effort to reform Washington state hatcheries by capping production and concentrating on the quality of adult returns to help achieve two new goals--recovering wild runs and supporting "sustainable" fisheries.

Federal scientists have admitted limitations with their own analyses of salmon stocks, which they call the Viable Salmonid Populations policy. In a long paper on the topic, they say the VSP concept "is intended to provide useful benchmarks for evaluating actions, such as harvest or artificial propagation, that directly affect natural populations and for which incremental increases in extinction risk may be difficult to accurately quantify."

But while NMFS has been trying to determine the levels of salmon necessary for long-term survival, other scientists have questioned the way conservation biologists have undertaken the task. With such paltry data, confidence levels for determining extinction risks are generally between 0 and 1, which means that determinations aren't very helpful in developing policy.

In fact, the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, regarded as a high-level peer-reviewed research publication, recently turned down a paper that reviewed the accuracy of alternative PVA methods for salmon populations. "There have been severe critiques of the whole approach examined in this paper," the journal told the author, "which show the approach to be deeply flawed from the outset, whether or not the methods are applied correctly (which is what this paper is about)."

Several critics point out the lack of data is a huge stumbling block to analyzing the future of most salmon stocks and say scientists could just as well be under-estimating extinction risks as over-estimating them. Others have written that population data is too incomplete to make predictions 100 years from now, but that near-term risks of extinction may be more appropriate than only look into the future a length of time that's 10 to 20 percent of the time frame of the population's data set. -B. R.


Clarification: NW Fishletter 137 reported that 764 redds were counted in tributaries of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the highest number since 1973. But IDFG spokesperson Sharon Kiefer said that statement didn't track with their historical counts. "The previous highest count for the MFSR [Middle Fork] index areas was in 1988 with a total count of 972," Kiefer said. "The previous highest count prior to 1988 was 1978, with a total count of 821. The previous highest count prior to 1978 was 1973, with a total count of 1454 (almost twice the count of 2001)." However, NW Fishletter counted the creeks the way NMFS did in their Status Review, which adds Loon Creek (255 redds) to the Middle Fork count, but forgot to add it to the 764 redd count number reported by IDFG in the story. Kiefer agreed that by adding the Loon Creek count to the index count would make it the largest redd count in the Middle Fork of the Snake since 1973.

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