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[1] NMFS Releases Interim Recovery Goals For Columbia Basin Stocks
[2] DC Judge Says No To Enviro Intervention In Critical Habitat Lawsuit
[3] Chelan Proceeds With Construction Of $80 Million Fish Bypass System
[4] Power Council OK's More Fish And Wildlife Spending
[5] Hatchery Releases Sick Fish; Bonneville Dam Disinfected
[6] Spill Program Starts With Few Fish Yet To Save

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The National Marine Fisheries Service has announced some interim targets for fish recovery in the Columbia Basin. The goals were outlined last week in a letter to the Power Planning Council to help that body in its subbasin planning process. But with some watersheds flooded with huge hatchery returns, it may be hard to keep track of the wild fish scorecard. In places like the Methow and lower Snake rivers, many hatchery fish were allowed to spawn with wild stocks, creating a counting nightmare for fish managers.

"These interim targets are only a starting point," said NMFS regional administrator Bob Lohn in the April 4 letter to Council chair Larry Cassidy. Lohn said the targets would be replaced "with scientifically more rigorous and comprehensive recovery goals using viability criteria developed through the Interior Columbia Technical Recovery Team (TRT) process that commenced in October 2001."

He was careful to spell out that the goals "make no particular assumptions regarding harvest or any other take of listed ESUs." Once the goals are established by the TRT, the next step, which NMFS calls "Phase Two," will be to work with the Council, states, tribes and other stakeholders to implement the recovery effort and coordinate it with efforts already underway.

The interim targets are a collection of numbers developed as far back as 1994, with the Bevan Team's first crack at creating a NMFS recovery plan for listed salmon in the Snake, additions from two other proposed Snake River recovery plans and a mid-Columbia analysis called QAR. NMFS said the targets weren't developed by the Interior Columbia TRT or the agency's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, "although they are based on scientific documents to which our Science Center and co-managers contributed. These are simply NMFS' best early guidance based on existing information."

So how do these goals stack up against the improving salmon numbers throughout the Northwest, a fact largely attributable to improved ocean conditions?

In traditional index areas like Idaho's Marsh Creek, a stream that flows into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the interim goal is 426 spring chinook. According to preliminary information from last year's redd counts from IDFG, about 195 redds were counted there. Since spawner counts are approximately double the redd counts, that means about 390 spring chinook were estimated to have made it back--close to the tentative goal for "recovery."

Tough Rule of Thumb

But recovery means much more than one year of good returns. The federal agency has cited a rule of thumb in its 1995 proposed recovery plan that says "for de-listing to be considered, the eight-year (approximately two-generation) geometric mean cohort replacement rate of a listed species must exceed 1.0 [any rate above 1.0 means the population in question is going up] during the eight years immediately prior to de-listing. For spring/summer chinook salmon, this goal must be met for 80 percent of the index areas available for natural cohort replacement rate estimation."

Critics say the NMFS rules neglect the natural ups and downs of salmon populations resulting from factors over which managers have no control, like weather, ocean conditions and climate regimes. "It's a product of linear thinking," said one regional biologist. "Salmon aren't linear."

Portland attorney James Buchal, who has filed petitions to de-list most Northwest stocks on the heels of an Oregon court decision last September that said NMFS erred by not protecting hatchery fish that were part of the listed coastal coho ESU, says the NMFS notion of recovery is wrong. And he is unhappy that new regional NMFS administrator Bob Lohn hasn't gotten the agency to shift its emphasis.

"It is a dark day indeed when even a new Administration appointee cannot penetrate the cloak of junk science that has descended over NMFS, and then dons it as his own," said Buchal, author of a book on Northwest recovery efforts, The Great Salmon Hoax. "The proper question to ask in determining whether a species is on the endangered list is the risk that the species will disappear. NMFS studiously avoids answering this question, since there is no significant risk that any of these 'species' will go extinct--other than from the overfishing NMFS also studiously avoids."

It is a confusing situation, since the hydro BiOp has spelled out general recovery targets for ESUs based on incremental improvements in population numbers that could result from restoring habitat as well as improving hydro conditions. Critics say that doesn't reflect the essential biology of the animals--namely, that salmon and steelhead populations don't operate like compound interest.

In other venues, the agency has even cited federal laws besides the ESA, like the Sustainable Fisheries Act, to give it the mandate to recover weak stocks to fishable levels. But if an ocean regime shift has occurred that is bringing the Northwest years more of wetter, colder weather, many watersheds may be closer to recovery than most managers would have dreamed of a few short years ago, as smolt-to-adult return rates have increased in many places by a factor of 10. Some NMFS officials say that stocks must be built up high enough to survive the next cyclic downtown in 20 years or so.

As for El Niños, climate researchers speculate that they may have less importance during these colder, wetter regimes. Most say they don't expect the El Niño brewing now to have much effect at all on next year's salmon migration.

Mid-Columbia Numbers Fishy, Too

In the mid-Columbia, things are a lot fishier as well. Though the feds have pegged the Wenatchee Basin with an interim goal of 3,750 spring/summer chinook,. Chelan PUD reported in February that more than 2,100 redds were counted there, and their analysis showed fish counts that averaged nearly three fish per redd in the upper Wenatchee.

For the Methow Basin, NMFS had previously estimated that only about 330 of the 10,000 spring chinook that flooded the region last year were of true wild origin, the rest coming from hatchery smolts transplanted to area streams and other hatchery fish allowed to spawn in the system. NMFS' interim goal for the Methow watershed is 2,000 spring/summer chinook. It will be four years before managers will be able to see if the hatchery spawners make a significant contribution to the recovery of the population, but it will be tough to quantify, because the fish won't have any markings to tell them apart from truly wild fish.

Fish managers have estimated up to 13,000 steelhead, again many of hatchery parentage, have entered the Methow this spring after hanging out all winter in the mainstem Columbia. The hatchery fish are part of the endangered listing. NMFS' interim goal for Methow Basin steelhead is 2,500 wild fish.

But some streams are still a long way from recovery. Take Idaho's Lemhi River, which flows in the shadow of the Continental Divide. It's in a very dry part of the state, where millions of dollars are being spent to modify irrigation systems to free up more water for fish. With last year's redd count of about 316 salmon nests (10 times the previous year) the Lemhi is improving quickly. But the interim goal of 2,200 spring/summer chinook is still a long way off.

In many of these cases, future productivity will depend of the effectiveness of hatchery fish spawning in the wild. NMFS has completed speculative analyses that estimate fish improvements from interaction of wild and hatchery fish. Depending on the watershed, the productivity of returning hatchery fish ranges from 20 percent to 80 percent, conditions which, in some cases, can even reduce productivity of wild populations.

In the case of Snake River fall chinook, the issue is complicated by difficulties in simply keeping track of wild populations, where recovery goals, at first glance, may have already been surpassed. NMFS has estimated that about 2,700 wild fish returned to the Snake last year, about 200 more than the agency's interim recovery goal. However, WDFW official Glen Mendel told NW Fishletter that the feds had failed to account for the large numbers of unmarked fall chinook that were released by the Nez Perce tribe in 1999. About 600,000 subyearling chinook were released from sites above Lower Granite Dam without having their adipose fins clipped, though about one-third of them had been coded-wire-tagged.

Mendel said NMFS still hasn't signed off on the Snake fall chinook numbers for the year 2000. Last August, this newsletter reported that NMFS technical folks were still trying to determine whether 560 or 900 wild fish actually returned, a problem that came about over sorting out jack and adult size differences.

NMFS does recognize it may have some problems with counting fish. "A challenge for co-managers in the context of these interim abundance targets is how to measure their progress towards recovery," says the agency document sent to the NWPPC along with the targets. "Uncertainties associated with estimates of abundance and population trends must be considered when determining whether a population's recovery abundance goal has been met. These issues will need to be addressed in formal recovery planning."

The agency says the interim targets are "just a start, and do not provide a comprehensive index of healthy populations. Typically, a recovered ESU would have healthy populations representative of all the major life history types, and of all the major ecological and geographic areas within an ESU. In the absence of specific diversity about populations, conservation of habitat diversity might be used as a reasonable interim proxy."

But NMFS' ideas about recovered populations does not set well with attorney Buchal. "The document's focus upon habitat as a proxy for extinction risk confirms what the victims of The Great Salmon Hoax have known all along," he said. "It's not about the fish, it's about control over resources." Bill Rudolph


A federal judge in Washington, DC has refused to let environmental and fishing groups intervene in a lawsuit filed by the National Association of Home Builders against NMFS. The suit concerns the wholesale designation of "critical habitat" for 19 listed environmentally significant units of salmon and steelhead on the West Coast. By filing a consent decree last month, NMFS had offered to rescind its designations and do its evaluations all over again, including analyzing the economic effects of listings that the agency had previously decided were negligible. The court did grant the environmental groups amicus status in the case.

Earthjustice attorney Todd True, arguing for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, had said that any change to the NMFS habitat designations must go through the rulemaking process, including a public comment period. He had also said that a recent Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision cited by NMFS, involving a lawsuit the home builders filed against the USFWS over critical habitat designation, "is wrong," and argued a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision involving the Gulf sturgeon is more applicable to the case. In the Tenth Circuit case, the court ruled that the federal agency must complete an economic analysis of the designation that involved a listed bird in New Mexico.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly denied amicus status to the Pacific Legal Foundation in the case. The PLF actively supports private property rights in many lawsuits throughout the West. The judge said if there is no consent decree, foundation lawyers will then be allowed in for further briefing, said Perkins Coie attorney Galen Schuler.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly told the US and Home Builders to file a joint reply in support of the consent decree. It should be completed in the next week or so.
Potential fish habitat behind Northwest dikes has farmers nervous.

Attorney Schuler said the judge is expected to rule in a few weeks on whether to allow NMFS to proceed, a decision that could put the agency in a policy bind over the question of expanding the habitat of listed species to help recover their numbers. Environmentalists had said NMFS' reliance on the Tenth Circuit case was wrong because it relied on a definition that "fails to recognize the distinct statutory benefits that can be provided by a listing and the designation of critical habitat, especially where the designation encompasses habitat beyond the species' present range," according to court documents filed by Earthjustice. -B. R.


With the announcement last week that Chelan PUD commissioners had signed a habitat conservation plan that outlines operations to improve fish survival over the next 50 years, construction will proceed on an $80 million project designed to get juvenile salmon and steelhead around Rocky Reach Dam.

The HCP also means the utility is committed to spending another $36 million to improve habitat in nearby tributaries and pump another $60 million into hatcheries. It's all part of an overall 50-year investment that the PUD estimates could reach $260 million by the time costs of spill, turbine screens and testing are added. Chelan said it's already spent over $200 million for fish protection measures over the past 20 years.

The HCP is designed to have "no net impact on fish," according to a Chelan PUD press release. "That will be reached by assuring 91 percent of the adult and juvenile fish will survive passage of the dams and reservoirs. Hatcheries will provide 7 percent, and 2 percent will come from habitat improvements in tributaries, which adds up to no net impact on migrating salmon and steelhead."

Chelan's fish and wildlife Supervisor Chuck Peven said one difference with the orginal HCP proposal cames with the recognition by all parties on the difficuklty in estimating the hydro-realted mortality of adults. Peven said a goal of 93 percent survival of juvenile fish from tailrace-to-tailrace is now part of the deal.

Douglas County officals were expected to sign their HCP soon, with NMFS and other agencies and tribes to follow. Peven said the Yakamas still had some questions about the fish screens for the Rocky Reach project, but he expected them to sign as well. A final EIS must be completed before the documents are forwarded to FERC as amendments to existing hydro licenses. NMFS has assured both utilities that that HCPs will allow them to obtain Section 10 permits under the ESA to continue hydro operations in the future. Other parties to the HCP include USFWS, Washington state, the Colville and Umatilla Tribes, and American Rivers. -B. R.


The Power Planning Council OK'd more than $36 million worth of fish and wildlife proposals last week at its monthly meeting, held in Boise this time around. The funding, part of BPA's $186 million direct commitment to the Columbia Basin's fish and wildlife program, will support a combination of ongoing and new efforts in the Mountain Snake and Blue Mountain provinces. Members also heard a report on how various mainstem amendments proposed by regional stakeholders would impact power costs. And they got an update on the effort to change the oversight board of the Fish Passage Center.

The Council approved almost $24 million to fund 38 ongoing and 21 new projects in the Mountain Snake Province [Clearwater and Salmon drainages], after a lengthy process during which fish and wildlife managers had originally proposed $61 million worth of projects, including 45 new ones, that were assessed by the Council's independent science panel, NMFS and BPA.

After extensive review, the Blue Mountain Province [Grande Ronde, Imnaha and Asotin drainages] was allocated $12.4 million for 20 ongoing and eight new projects. Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority managers had originally approved $27 million in funding for the region, including 22 new proposals.

Council staff took issue with some recommendations from the Independent Scientific Review Panel, which generally took a dim view of fish supplementation efforts (using hatchery fish to supplement natural runs). Viewing the strategy as "experimental," the scientists expressed concerns that supplementation efforts weren't being monitored closely enough to evaluate their impacts. But the Council staff had pointed out in earlier comments that the NWPPC's 2000 F&W program "indicates that supplementation is more than purely an experiment. Rather, it views it as a companion strategy with habitat restoration."

In comments made last January, the staff said even though the panel of scientific reviewers and the Council program "may be in a bit of a different position" on the issue, "because the Council puts the decision on the appropriateness of supplementation as an implementation strategy to local planners, this difference may be academic pending the adoption of subbasin plans. The more interesting and real issue about the use of supplementation will come when a subbasin plan proposes it in a manner consistent with the 2000 program, and the ISRP evaluates that plan."

Council members also heard from staffer John Fazio, who reported on an analysis of hydro operations from proposed mainstem amendments to the Council program. The report said recommendations by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission would cost the hydro system nearly 600 average Megawatts if implemented (an average water year produces about 16,000 aMW), while a plan put forth by irrigators would free up about 300 aMW. Other recommendations had very small effects on the system.

CRITFC recommendations include storing more water for flow augmentation, boosting spring and summer flows for fish, and eventually breaching the dams. The Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association wants to end spring flow augmentation and limit spill.

Other recommendations by BPA, IDFG, ODFW, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Colville and Spokane Tribes had little overall effects on current operations. But BPA did say that compared to pre-Council operations, energy production would have been 1,200 aMW higher and costs $260 million less than under the current BiOp.

Members also heard an update on a plan to create more oversight of the Fish Passage Center, the Portland-based entity that monitors weekly fish and flow information in the Basin. Some regional players feel the FPC has taken too much of an advocacy role in policy debates, mainly over flow augmentation and spill issues. The Center has already received some flack over an ongoing PIT-tag study that was originally funded to compare survivals of hatchery fish from both upriver and downriver hatcheries, a task still uncompleted in the latest iteration of its study.

The Council had already voted to expand the FPC's oversight board to seven members, taking role away from a CBFWA-appointed group. The new board is slated to include a NMFS representative, someone from the general public, an individual from the scientific community and representatives from both upriver and downriver tribes, along with a representative of state fish and wildlife agencies and the NWPPC.

NMFS has nominated John Ferguson, salmon passage program manager for the agency's Seattle-based Fish Ecology Division, to the board. CBFWA members have not yet nominated tribal reps and another agency person, saying they need more time.

Several individuals have expressed interest in the at-large position, including sports fishing industry representative Liz Hamilton, Trout Unlimited's Jeff Curtis, eastern Washington resident Eric Meyers and Rob Walton, assistant manager of the Public Power Council. Dr. Greg Schildwachter of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation has penned a letter of interest for the science spot. -B. R


Nearly five million juvenile fall chinook were released about two weeks early from the USFWS' Spring Creek Hatchery into the Columbia River, after the facility's crew failed to control an outbreak of a potentially deadly though common protozoa called ICK. The fish, about one-third of the total number of fall chinook raised this year at the hatchery, were released to avoid a huge die-off in the holding ponds.

More than half of the fish were estimated to have symptoms of the disease, said USFWS spokesperson Joan Jewett. But once the fish reached the cold moving water in the river, they were expected to shed the protozoa and recover. "The situation is not expected to create problems for other fish in the river," Jewett added.

The hatchery is located on the Washington shore upstream of Bonneville Dam. Corps of Engineers spokesperson Matt Rabe said dam operators weren't taking any chances. They shut down the juvenile sampling facility and disinfected the dam's bypass system with a 50-50 mixture of bleach and water on April 1. By Thursday, Rabe said most of the questionable fish had passed the dam, operations were back to normal, and the sampling facility was open once again. Millions of young salmon will pass the dam over the next few months on their way to the sea.

According to Jewett, ICK is the most common parasite found in wild fish in the Columbia River and lives in the flora in the riverbed. She said hatchery managers told her that the protozoa could have been introduced by returning adult fish last year or by "problematic" river otters in the vicinity. The protozoa is also a well-known problem in home aquariums called "white spot."

The hatchery's water system had been treated with formalin to curb the outbreak, Jewett said, but hatchery personnel couldn't use as much as they needed because they were worried they would ruin the biological filters that cleaned the facility's water system. -B. R.


The hydro system's annual BiOp-mandated spill program has begun on schedule, but somebody forgot to tell the fish. Starting April 10, lower Columbia dams like John Day were spilling merrily away 12 hours a day ( 180 Kcfs flow, 100 Kcfs spill) for less than 1,000 juvenile salmon, according to data from the Fish Passage Center. The spill cost BPA about $180,000 for the day at the dam, or about $1.2 million throughout the system.

According to the NMFS SIMPAS survival model, overall survival at John Day improved from the spill by 2 percent, from 94 percent to 96 percent. That's a less than whopping 17 additional smolts from the spill, or the adult equivalent of 1/3 of one adult spring chinook at a two percent return rate. Survival rates through the dam's bypass system is estimated at 98 percent (same as spillway survival) and 90 percent through the turbines. It adds up to more than $500,000 for one more adult chinook.

Few fish have yet shown in the lower river, but are appearing in greater numbers in the Lower Snake, where about 3,500 smolts were counted at Lower Granite on the Snake on April 10; flows were around 70 kcfs and spill reached as high as 48 kcfs. Dam operators have been spilling at Granite since April 3.

But more fish will soon be on the way. The Fish Passage Center reported that 22 million chinook and coho have been released from Basin hatcheries over the past two weeks, and another 27 million fish will be released in the next two weeks.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported April 11 that fish managers were scratching their heads at the slow show of returning adults at Bonneville Dam. The pre-season estimate of nearly 334,000 spring chinook may have been too optimistic. So far, only about 12,000 springers have been counted at the dam. Factoring in about 8,000 fish caught in the lower river experimental fishery that were estimated to be heading past Bonneville, keeps managers hopeful. Over 100,000 chinook had been counted at Bonneville Dam by this time last year, as the spring run headed for the record books with more than 390,000 fish. -B. R.

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