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[1] Council Members Get Good News From Ocean Research Update
[2] Researchers Say Fish Size May Explain Differences In Dam Survival
[3] Judge Yule Rules Again For Irrigators: Ecology May Yet Appeal
[4] Lower Granite Spring Run Tops Out At 75,000 Chinook, One Shad
[5] Critics Of Condit Dam Removal Cry Foul
[6] Hatcheries Face Federal Budget Cuts
[7] ESA Reform Bill Goes To House Committee For Mark Up

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At their June 15 meeting in Eugene, OR, Power Planning Council members got a respite from discussions on the future of the mainstem amendment process to hear what's going on in the part of the world that's just beyond the mouth of the Columbia River. NMFS scientists, participating in a joint effort with several universities, shared their findings on the effects of the estuary and near-ocean environment on fish survival.

The researchers are also concentrating on the Columbia River plume, an area off the coast where the river mixes with the ocean, creating a special environment that scientists think is beneficial for salmon. The plume, which extends seaward for many miles, is the subject of much speculation over its potential benefits for fish.

The latest hydro BiOp mentions the plume as a potential beneficiary of the hydro system's flow augmentation, since more flow makes for a larger plume. A larger plume, in turn, may create a larger space for juvenile salmon to feed, scientists have hypothesized.

Since the plume is generally more turbid than the surrounding ocean, it could also serve as a refuge from predators. And since it's less salty than surrounding waters, back eddies and boundaries are created, which tend to concentrate the plankton and crab larvae that young salmon feed on before they get serious about migrating to sea.

First the good news. NMFS scientist Bill Peterson gave the Council a primer on ocean conditions, which have vastly improved off the Northwest coast over the past few years. Conditions there are still great for salmon, said Peterson, despite the low river flows and small plume from last year's drought.

He said the improvement is part of a 50- to 60-year overall cycle of the North Pacific weather circulation pattern. Every 20 years or so, the climate regime shifts gears, putting Alaska and the West Coast in a seesaw of salmon productivity. When fishing is great in Alaska, it's lousy down south. Now, the opposite seems to be true. Scientists have dubbed this pattern the Pacific Decadal Oscillation [PDO].

Peterson said an Aleutian low-pressure area that's normally far north in the Bering Sea has moved south since July 1998, causing the ocean current that flows east from Japan to move farther south as well. When the current is in this position, scientists think more of the highly productive northern water gets shunted south and improves conditions for plankton growth off the West Coast and British Columbia. Evidence for this cycle has been gleaned from fish scales found in sediment cores going back to the fifth century AD, Peterson said.

Scientists have suspected that conditions in the estuary and plume may have reduced salmon survival since the hydro system has been in place, largely because of less sediment transport and lower spring flows. Now they are trying to quantify those effects.

NMFS scientist Ed Casillas showed the council satellite images that how the Columbia River plume contributes to productivity by boosting chlorophyll levels in the nearby ocean. This is the first step to increasing the types of zooplankton commonly found in the stomachs of juvenile salmon. Casillas said trawl surveys have found that salmon were concentrated near the frontal edges of the plume. By developing models that represent the linkages in the near-ocean habitat, Casillas said scientists will be able to evaluate how both natural effects--like climate and oceanography--and human factors--like river flows and channel deepening--impact the availability of salmon habitat.

The plume seems especially important for coastal coho populations because those fish tend to spend more time in the area than spring chinook before migrating north and out to sea. Peterson's research off Newport, OR, has found that zooplankton growth has improved over the past few years, which has helped boost coho stocks from miserably low numbers a few years ago, when only about 2 percent survived to return. He predicted 10 percent returns of coho salmon this fall, based on plankton.

Other models are also optimistic, Peterson said. One that's based on bait fish numbers also predicts a 10 percent return for coho. Yet another model developed by scientists at NMFS in Seattle and the University of Washington predicts an 8 percent return based on a correlation of water temperature, the date when spring winds shift from south to north, and plankton growth.

But there's a rub. "With a negative PDO [that's good for fish], we've got lots of prey, lots of things to eat, lots of bait fish; we've got an early spring transition," Peterson said. "Everything's perfect for the fish. But we caught very few fish last June, the jack counts were very, very low, and the fish we caught were small. So something happened last June..." Based on the fish caught in June, Peterson said only 2.5 percent are expected to return, about the same prediction from the jack return.

Part of the puzzle is the fact that last year was one of the driest winters on record, he said. "The fish got out into the plume and they found the plume to be very, very small--you're packing millions of fish into a really small area--and I'm suggesting that they probably never got to the ocean, so to speak," Peterson said. "They got into the plume, and they're there for weeks to months, getting used to the ocean and feeding and things. I think what happened was the plume wasn't big enough for the coho for this past year." But with flows in the Columbia River at less than half of normal last year, Peterson noted that these years have been uncommon.

"We're all hopeful that when the fish come back this fall," said Peterson, "it will either be a really high number, or really low, so we can kind of know that one of these actions is the correct one. It'll be 5 percent, you can bet on it, then we won't have any idea."

What did Council members think about the NMFS research? "It's a first step," said Montana's new face on the council, John Hines. Hines said he hoped that NMFS could eventually incorporate their results into real-time operations for the hydro system. "In any case," he said, "some council members [read: Idaho and Montana] feel we must be sure we have flexibility in shaping the mainstem amendment process to incorporate changes in mainstem operations."

Hines said the council's program could be written with the BiOp as baseline for operations, as long as there were language included to allow for changes with new science. The council was scheduled to have a mainstem plan ready for public review by the end of the June meeting, but council members' continued wordsmithing of staff drafts over the flow augmentation issue will keep the document from being finished until next month.

"The BiOp is not written in stone," Hines said. Other council members, like Oregon's Eric Bloch, feel the group's mainstem process should stay out of any conflict over BiOp operational issues and current operations that augment flows in spring and summer to aid fish passage, a strategy with little scientific support.

With the four council members from Idaho and Montana expected to vote together, a single vote from one of Washington's members could carry a proposal that might clash with the BiOp. Washington council member Tom Karier has already expressed interest in further evaluation of the current flow augmentation strategy. -Bill Rudolph


A fresh look at juvenile salmonid survival data has raised new questions about which route around dams is best for migrating fish. The issues were raised in a final report posted on BPA's website this week, a study of 2001 fish survival by NMFS scientists and John Skalski of the University of Washington's Center for Quantitative Science. The basic survival results are unchanged from the December 2001 draft, but several appendices have been added to address comments raised by the original study, called Survival Estimates for the Passage of Spring-Migrating Juvenile Salmonids Through Snake and Columbia River Dams and Reservoirs, 2001.

The report details how the researchers reached the overall 27 percent survival estimate of inriver migrating spring chinook from Lower Granite Dam to below Bonneville Dam in 2001, a year when river flows were barely half of normal and the second worst on record. The final report sticks by its earlier statement that the analysis couldn't conclude that last year's paltry spill program in the lower Columbia was beneficial for fish.

"Taken as a whole," said the report, "the inconsistency in results among stocks and sites and the existence of confounding temporal trends combine to offer little support for the overall hypothesis that observed patterns in survival were explained solely by spill. We emphasize, though, that this conclusion does not indicate that spill is not beneficial. Instead, it indicates the existing spill conditions provided an inadequate experimental design to determine the increases in survival benefits that may have occurred as a result of spill."

Though most spring chinook and steelhead from the Snake River were barged down the hydro system last spring, a limited amount of spill in the mainstem Columbia was undertaken to help inriver fish. An analysis by the Fish Passage Center concluded the spill improved fish survival. The BPA report says that its appendices were added in response to comments from the Fish Passage Center and others, including a technical staff made up of state agency and USFWS personnel, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Yakama Tribe, who took issue with the draft report's spill analysis.

But the BPA-sponsored analysis said the patterns of spill and no spill in 2001 lasted too long to be able to "control for confounding temporal patterns." The researchers said by chopping up spill and no spill into shorter, randomized time blocks at several dams, it was likely feasible to quantify spill benefits. The BPA report reiterated that "...spill has potential benefits for migrating juvenile salmon. The role of statistical analyses. though, is to separate subjective beliefs from objective empirical evidence, and that is what we attempted to do in this analysis."

The report said an analysis of PIT-tagged fish from the 1999 to 2001 migration years has found that a major assumption of the survival study may not be true. Up to now, the researchers have assumed that fish detected at dams (by passing via bypass systems) and those not detected (passing via spillway or turbines) have the same chance of survival downstream and the same chance of future detection.

State agencies and tribes have contended that non-detected fish passing dams via spillways show a higher survival to adulthood than bypassed fish, speculating that the accumulated stress from passing through dam bypass systems accounted for a higher delayed mortality of the juvenile fish once they reached the ocean. But the new report says that fish detected once, which can only occur in a dam's bypass system, have a higher probability of being detected again. The report says the difference may lie in the fact that they are smaller than fish that weren't detected at dams.

"There was strong evidence for a negative relationship between detection probability and fish length at tagging for both yearling chinook salmon and juvenile steelhead."

The finding could have significant impacts on current survival studies. "The implications of the results presented here go beyond direct survival of juveniles measured in survival studies," said the report. "If the bypass systems are selective for smaller fish, this may partially explain why multiply-detected fish return at lower rates than undetected or singly-detected fish (Sanford and Smith 2002). Also, transportation studies rely on fish collected in bypass systems. Are these fish qualitatively different from control fish?"

The scientists said they don't really know why smaller fish were detected at higher rates, but speculated that different-sized fish may have different depth preferences. Fish that swim higher in the water column have a better chance of encountering a turbine screen which directs them towards a bypass system. Also, larger fish may be able to better resist flows in to the bypass system.

The report also said that smaller juvenile fish survived the journey through the hydro system at a higher rate than larger fish in 12 out of 14 cases, "a result that was contrary to expectations." Since the trend was more pronounced last year with no spill at lower Snake dams than in 2000 when there was plenty of spill, the scientists said larger fish could have experienced higher mortality in 2001 from passage through turbines, since none were able to pass the dams via spillway. The report said avian predators also select for larger fish which could explain their finding. -B. R.


An Eastern Washington judge has once again told the state water agency that its arguments are all wet. Benton County Superior Court Judge Dennis Yule granted a motion for partial summary judgment to an irrigators' group and other parties who have been waiting for years for water permits.

The judge's ruling, in effect, tells Washington state it cannot use NMFS-based flow targets as an excuse to restrict water rights to 1.3 MAF from the John Day-McNary Pool. The state Legislature reserved that water in 1980 and mandated that it be set aside for both agricultural and municipal use. Since the state water agency adopted the NMFS flow parameters much later, they do not condition the 1980 designation, the judge said, because Washington state water law is based on the concept that "first in time is first in right."

The ruling supports the plaintiffs' argument that any change to that 1980 reservation must be accomplished by a formal rulemaking process, which includes notifying legislative committees before the agency wants to make any changes, a footnote the 1997 Washington Legislature added to the process.

But that doesn't mean the state will be issuing any new water rights. DOE spokesperson Joey Redfield-Wilder said her agency has 30 days in which to file an appeal to the judge's order once it's handed down in writing. "We have an obligation to take fish into account," she told NW Fishletter, adding that DOE may begin a new consultation with state agencies over establishing minimum flows.

Mainstem Columbia/Snake irrigators won a round in court last January when Judge Yule said DOE could not issue any new water rights permits based on the NMFS flow targets. The irrigators had renewed an earlier lawsuit against the state when a settlement fell through after the state promised that several new permits would be issued. Yule finally issued a written order of his January decision on June 6. The DOE said they may appeal that one too.

The main issue for irrigators is that the state has quietly supported the NMFS "no-net-loss" water policy for the mainstem Columbia River, which means that any new water rights must be balanced by the retirement of older water rights. Irrigators say the NMFS policy doesn't track with the findings of federal scientists, who concluded that augmented river flows, especially in spring, don't necessarily improve juvenile fish survival. But state water policy is sticking with the federal policy, including support for the flow targets mandated in the hydro BiOp.

However, DOE was willing to issue a few new permits, provided that users didn't withdraw water from the Columbia during July and August, a condition that irrigators said made the permits functionally useless. The DOE's draft report admitted that NMFS BiOp target flows were typically not met during those months, even in average flow years like 1998 and 2000.

Meanwhile, the debate goes on. Yule scheduled arguments among the parties for next October to hash out whether the state should issue water rights for seven of the applicants involved in the January hearing.

DOE's Redfield-Wilder said the litigation is not helping the Columbia River Initiative, an Ecology-sponsored process that's trying to get all stakeholders in the basin water fight together to develop productive and collaborative ways to manage water in the Columbia River. "As for now, " she said, "can you manage anything without going to court?"

But water consultant Darryll Olsen applauded Yule's decisions. "These rulings are highly significant," said Olsen. "The Washington Department of Ecology can no longer provide any credible, legal justification for failing to issue new water rights from the mainstem Columbia, particularly, from within the McNary-John Day Pool." -B. R.


The spring run officially ended at Lower Granite Dam on June 17, when a few more than 75,000 chinook were tallied there--the second-best run ever seen at the dam, following last year's all-time record of 172,000 chinook. Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife fish managers had predicted a run of 50,000, but the chinook had other ideas.

The summer run is now coming on strong. More than a thousand fish are passing the dam every day; another 18,000 fish were coming up the lower Snake River from Ice Harbor Dam when the spring count officially ended at Lower Granite. The summer run's momentum hasn't let up either, as evidenced by counts in the lower Columbia River. About 3,000 fish are passing Bonneville Dam daily; many will be heading for the Snake.

One shad had also made it all the way up the lower Snake to Granite by June 17. So far this year, 2.8 million of them have been counted at Bonneville.

The latest spring run is nearly 70 times the size of the chinook migration of 1995, when only 1,100 lonesome chinook were counted at Lower Granite. Next year's run is shaping up nicely, too. With more than 2,100 jacks counted at the dam this spring, 2003 will likely end up number three in the record books. The old 10-year average for spring jacks was only about 700 fish until it was boosted by the big runs of the past two years. -B. R.


Residents along the White Salmon River are trying to blow a hole in a settlement proposal that calls for blasting the base of PacifiCorp's Condit Dam to open the river above the dam to fish for the first time since 1913. PacifiCorp decided dam removal was cheaper than building $30 million worth of fish ladders--a FERC requirement that was part of the dam's relicensing process.

The dam removal plan has been universally supported by state and federal agencies, environmentalists and most sports fishermen. But comments that local residents and the Corps of Engineers sent to FERC this spring on a draft supplemental EIS that deals with removing the dam have raised many questions over the proposal. The final SEIS on dam removal was expected at the end of April, but has yet to be issued. And PacifiCorp has asked for more time to address issues raised by two southwest Washington counties that filed an April 5 motion to reject the settlement proposal.

FERC hasn't yet granted the utility its request for more time to comment, said Gail Miller, PacifiCorp's coordinator for the dam removal project, who felt the late hits were misguided.

"I don't believe the counties have all the information on the settlement," Miller told NW Fishletter. "It's available from FERC." Miller said once the final EIS is issued, the Washington Department of Ecology is expected to issue a water quality permit for the proposed operation; then it's back to FERC for final commission action. Miller said she expected the state to OK the permit by August.

Both Skamania and Klickitat counties have objected to the $17.5-million cost cap for removal, and have voiced concern over the potential obliteration of a wild trout fishery and possible siltation in the lower river from more than 2 million cubic yards of sediment that would be released when the dam was removed. Some comments filed with FERC estimated that dam removal could cost $60 million if PacifiCorp was on the hook for dredging and removing the sediment before taking down the dam.

The counties also expressed concern over regional power needs. The 125-foot dam produces about 9 MW of electricity, or about 0.1 percent of the utility's total output.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) sent a letter to FERC April 10 that asked the agency to consider the counties' concerns and look into options besides dam removal, along with the possibility of licensing local PUDs to operate the dam. Baird had previously sent a letter to FERC supporting the removal of Condit.

Others are also concerned about the dam removal plan, including the Corps of Engineers. The agency was especially worried about the potential impacts of up to 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment being discharged into the Columbia River and Bonneville Pool, including "undiscussed" impacts to several in-lieu tribal fishing sites on the mainstem, the Spring Creek Hatchery, the lock at Bonneville Dam and other nearby fishing and recreation sites. "It is inappropriate to expect the Corps to remedy adverse impacts on Corps and Corps-built facilities caused by the removal of Condit Dam," said the agency in April 12 comments filed with FERC. The Corps has since decided that PacifiCorp's proposal for removing the dam would need a Section 10 permit under the Rivers and Harbor Act of 1899 because the action would affect the lower White Salmon and Columbia rivers, both of which are navigable. The Corps said its April comments were not intended to oppose dam removal, but "to identify adverse effects that would be associated with the action."

Other comments sent to FERC on the sediment issue were even more pointed. A local community council asked why FERC staff had rejected any dam removal option that called for sluicing sediments downstream in 1996 and "has now reversed itself, for no apparently valid reason."

Though the FERC staff made no recommendation on which alternative commissioners should choose, the Husum/BZ Corners Community Council said since commissioners only approved a relicensing proposal that included the expensive fish ladders, they are left with approving the "blow-and-go" alternative. The local residents wondered what has changed to reverse the staff's position: "The environment is the same; the fish are the same; the wildlife is the same; and indeed, the sediment is the same." They suggested that FERC staff "is overwhelmed by the prestige and authority of the governmental agencies that signed the Settlement Agreement."

Washington's Department of Ecology, a signatory to the agreement, had suggested that woody debris released during dewatering of the dam could slow sediment flows and create a "forced step-pool morphology which could actually lessen impact from the sediments and could improve the overall habitat." The DOE suggested the supplemental FEIS should include an evaluation of potential benefits from such a scenario.

The state's Fish and Wildlife Department, which also signed, told FERC it still supported the dam removal agreement, and also addressed an issue with the reservoir behind the dam, a body of water called Northwestern Lake. A number of cabins on the lake will be left far from any waterfront if the dam is removed. Locals pointed out that the lake was good habitat for the Western Pond Turtle, a species listed under the state's own endangered species act. One of these turtles was observed there in 1993, but WDFW wasn't impressed. It said the lake was not good turtle habitat. "We suspect that the turtle sighted in 1993 may have been placed there by an unknown party," said the agency, "since no turtles have been sighted in the lake since then."

NMFS' comments were in keeping with its original remarks--that short-term effects of dam removal would be outweighed by benefits of opening up 30 miles of the White Salmon above the dam site to salmon and steelhead populations. But the community councils said that several waterfalls would prevent fish from utilizing that much of the river. The councils claimed that when narrow canyons and steep gradients are taken into account, the net gain would be less than six miles' worth of spawning habitat.

Both the White Salmon Conservation League and the White Salmon River Steelheaders oppose dam removal as well, pointing out that the sediment released by the dam was only found to have no significant impacts after the "blow-and-go" strategy was scrutinized by an "unconventional, untested, theoretical model." They said the sediment release would wipe out valuable spawning grounds at the mouth of the river, but an environmentally acceptable alternative that included dredging was estimated to cost more than $60 million, according to the original EIS. -B. R.


Federal budget cuts are affecting the production capacity of hatcheries on the Columbia River funded by the Mitchell Act, legislation passed in the late 1930s to mitigate for federal programs such as dam construction. It was a catch-all process that has become primarily a hatchery funding program that's now administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But an estimated production shortfall of 35 million coho and chinook salmon from the cuts could impact fisheries from California to Alaska. However, if state and ratepayer money could come to the rescue, it won't be the first time. "Bottom up funding should help us correct this problem," says R.Z. Smith of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In the past few years, five hatcheries and two rearing ponds have been closed by budget cuts. Some of these hatcheries' costs have been picked up and maintained by state and BPA funding.

Hatchery programs that are no longer funded by the Mitchell Act are Klaskanine, Gnat Creek, Grays River, Beaver Creek, Abernathy, along with Stayton Pond, and Wahkeena Pond. Klaskanine and Gnat Creek have been funded by the state of Oregon and BPA to support the select area fisheries on the lower Columbia. The Abernathy and Stayton Pond tule fall chinook programs were ended. Wahkeena Pond was converted from coho rearing to a hatchery-based trout fishery. Grays River rears a few chum salmon; Beaver Creek, a steelhead hatchery, was closed.

Funding for the Mitchell Act activities is a top-down budget from the President. The Bush Administration has pencilled in $16.7 million for this year's operations, but hatchery advocates say that's not enough. They have approached the Oregon and Washington congressional staffs hoping to boost funding to $19.7 million.

NMFS wants more funding, too. Smith said NMFS' hatchery activities are faced with a declining budget with no inflation costs (3 percent per year) factored in. Maintenance has been cut, leading to a backlog of problems that has been growing for decades. Smith said if Congress bumps the hatchery budget up to $19.7 million, it will not restore any production, but will just keep operations even.

Six Northwest senators have sent a letter to Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asked for a increase of $3.3 million for Mitchell Act funding. "This continued flatlining of the budget will lead to the inevitable closure of more hatcheries in Washington and Oregon," they told Hollings, noting that the hatcheries supported 600,000 angler days with a value of over $30 million and 38,000 jobs-values that would continue if the budget was increased.

The projected $16.7 million did not provide enough to fund the hatchery marking program and keep production up. However, regional NMFS administrator Bob Lohn said that his agency would not fund the release of hatchery fish that cannot be used; such fish have to be marked in order to be used. At this point, funding for marking comes out of the production program.

Fish are marked at hatcheries so they can be identified in fisheries. Only marked fish can be killed, wild ESA-listed fish must be released. These marked fish are also important in evaluating hatchery fish survival and in identifying stray hatchery fish in natural spawning grounds.

NMFS' Smith says he has been instructed to develop a bottom-up budget. "It is needed in order to plan," he said. "The original Mitchell Act included no objectives and we have not put down on paper what we need so this diverse program can be successful. We are also going to ask the public what they want the program to be.

"Relying on annual budget add-on packages from Congress does not allow us to do multiple year planning," said Smith. He estimates that it would take $25 million a year to fully fund the Mitchell Act program. Planning for the bottom-up budget will begin at the next meeting of the Production Advisory Committee associated with the US vs. Oregon negotiations. After the committee reaches agreement, Smith will take the concept to the public and ask for their ideas.

Smith says that NMFS is advancing hatchery reform, because the region has an obligation to not overwhelm threatened wild fish populations with hatchery fish. The current Mitchell Act budget includes $1.7 million for research into reform. This includes the Kalama steelhead research project and support for a fish geneticist at Abernathy Hatchery, now a research program.

For example, there is a need to fund a weir on the Little Washougal River to prevent hatchery steelhead from spawning with protected wild steelhead. Right now, Smith says, there is no budget for this type of work. He also said that the water intake screens at hatcheries do not meet existing standards and must be upgraded to protect naturally produced juvenile salmonids from being penned against the screens and dying. Another cost increase is associated with buying fishmeal. Public hatcheries are paying more for this essential ingredient in fish food, which is also used by the farmed salmon industry. -Bill Bakke


The latest try at reforming the Endangered Species Act has morphed into a new bill from two earlier attempts that a House subcommittee discussed last March. The committee met June 26 to begin mark up after a hearing on the proposed legislation last week.

It's HR 4840, called the "Sound Science For Endangered Species Planning Act of 2002," and is still being pushed hard by James Hansen (R- UT), chair of the House Resource Committee.

"We all understand that this legislation will not resolve the entire sound science debate," Hansen said last week in prepared remarks. "Congress cannot legislate ethics, no matter how hard we try. But we can improve the process."

Hansen said the bill would give greater weight to "any scientific or commercial study or other information that is empirical or has been field-tested or peer-reviewed." He said it would prohibit the Secretary of Interior from listing a species "unless data in the field supports such a determination." HR 4840 also proposes to establish a higher threshold before a listing petition could be considered, along with a peer review process that meets National Academy of Sciences standards.

Last week the bill received qualified support from William Hogarth, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries, who testified that his agency would like to work with the committee to ensure the peer review process doesn't duplicate efforts already in place.

Department of Interior assistant secretary Craig Manson told the committee his agency also supported the effort but had several suggestions to improve the bill. He wanted changes to get the bill provisions to mesh with current ESA timelines and cited budget constraints to cut potential pay for scientific reviewers.

The bill has six co-sponsors in the House, including representatives Greg Walden (R-OR), Richard Pombo (R-CA) and Butch Otter (R-ID). -B. R.

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