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[1] Fall Chinook Run On Track, But Prices Head Down
[2] Salmon Soldiers March Back Into Court Over BiOp
[3] State Wants More Info On Condit Dam Removal
[4] Funding For Oregon Hatcheries OK'd Again
[5] Review Out On Puget Sound Hatchery Operations
[6] Meyer Named Director Of Washington's Salmon Recovery Office

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With more than 456,000 fall chinook tallied at Bonneville Dam since Aug. 1, the late summer run is on track to finish up as the third largest since 1948. About 550,000 fish are expected by the end of the season. According to fish managers, more than half the run is made up of upriver brights, born and bred in the Hanford Reach. But prices are so poor, biologists say some commercial fishermen have been dumping the less marketable tules overboard instead of bothering to sell them.

The worldwide salmon glut is still with us, due mainly to a steady supply of farmed salmon across the globe. The huge drop in salmon prices has hurt harvesters of wild fish from Alaska to California, and the situation is not expected to change anytime soon.

Tribal fishermen had caught about 97,000 chinook by Sept. 14, and were expected to harvest another 15,000 fish or so. Faced with declining prices like other West Coast commercial harvesters, tribal harvesters salvaged some economic worth from their catch by selling about 23 percent of it directly to the public, according to Stuart Ellis, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission harvest manager.

Tribal fishers could sell chinook for about $2/lb. directly to the public, about four times the price wholesale buyers were offering on the fishing grounds. Ellis said commercial buyers were no longer interested in steelhead this season. They had been paying as little 5 cents per pound for them.

Ellis said wholesale prices for brights had declined from 50 cents/lb. to 35 cents/lb., but the less marketable tules from Bonneville Pool hatcheries were selling for only 5 cents a pound to buyers who were reportedly smoking them. The tules, with softer, whiter flesh than upriver brights, are nearly ready to spawn by the time they reach the upriver Indian fishery.

The fall tule run was expected to be the largest since 1976. By last week, it had already surpassed preseason estimates of 136,000 fish with another 28,000 tules expected. However, the low prices had evidently put some fishermen in the awkward position of shaking fish out of their nets and just dumping them in the river instead of selling them.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Joe Hymer said there was evidence of dumping in both the non-Indian and tribal commercial fisheries. Hymer said 500 dead tule chinook reportedly had been seen floating behind Bonneville Dam, evidently discarded by unhappy harvesters in the tribal fishery. "You've got to feel for the guy who hauls a 30-pound tule to the fish buyer and gets $1.50 for it," Hymer said. "Guys are hauling one or two full totes of fish into the buying stations and leaving with only 80 to 90 dollars in their pocket." Hymer said he had also heard that difficulties with wholesale buyers had left some tribal fishers with fish in their nets and no place to sell them.

The tules are a hatchery stock raised at USFWS' Spring Creek Hatchery, upriver from Bonneville Dam. Nearly every year, BPA spills millions of dollars' worth of water in March to help the juvenile fall chinook from the Spring Creek facility make it over the dam. However, the power agency, citing its own economic woes, recently informed fish managers that it may not spill for the hatchery release in the future.

Fall chinook trapped last week at Lower Granite Dam.
(photo courtesy NMFS LGR staff)

But Hymer said sports fishermen were ecstatic over the good fishing. Over 10,000 chinook had been landed by the sporties in the first nine days of the September season on the lower Columbia. "And they're still at it," he said. "We've never seen fishing like this before." The Buoy 10 sport fishery took about 19,000 fall chinook, with the lower Columbia sporties projected to take another 25,000. Non-Indian commercial fishermen were expected to take about 30,000 fall chinook as well, with total non-Indian harvest totaling about 87,000 chinook.

Projected impacts from both tribal and non-Indian catches were estimated at 202,000 fish, with upriver brights making up about 26 percent.

Hymer also said the coho salmon run may come in a bit better than expected. This year's coho return was estimated at only 172,000 fish, nearly a million fish shy of last year's huge return. But biologists expect next year's coho run to be much better if their first catch of jacks is any indication. Hymer said the 5,000 or so coho jacks caught in the first pass of the fish trap on the Lewis River was more than the total that showed up there all last fall. He said the jacks that signal the following year's run strength looked very healthy. "They're like little footballs," Hymer said. Harvest managers bumped up their forecast for early run coho from 113,000 fish to 226,000 adults entering the Columbia.

Lower Columbia tribes have been touting their fish recovery efforts in recent days, noting the numbers of fall chinook counted at Lower Granite Dam this year. In a Sept. 10 press release, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said fish supplementation efforts were paying off. "Last year, we set a record run with a dam count of 8,900 fall chinook, and this year will be more," CRITFC harvest manager Stuart Ellis noted. "In 2000, we had 3,500 fish, and that was a record run."

By Sept. 29, over 10,200 fall chinook had been counted at Lower Granite, where the 10-year average is less than 1,000 fish annually. In recent years, millions of juvenile fall chinook have been trucked from the Lyons Ferry Hatchery on the lower Snake to various sites above the dam to acclimation ponds before release. In 2000, the brood year that produced most of this year's returning fall chinook, over two million juveniles were released above the dam. Whether the returning hatchery fish will add much to wild runs that are listed under the ESA remains to be seen, though redd counts have improved each year, said Dave Johnson, the Nez Perce Tribe's fisheries program manager.

Don Sampson, CRITFC executive director, said the stock will likely achieve recovery before the NMFS plan to recover the Snake River fall chinook is completed. The federal fish agency has had a difficult time keeping track of wild fall chinook passing Lower Granite because they are mixed with large numbers of hatchery fish whose adipose fins were never clipped to differentiate them from the wild fish. NMFS has still not decided how many wild fish passed the dam last year, nor has any projection been made for this year's wild run. In 2000, about 857 wild fall chinook made it home.

Redd counts could improve markedly if the returning hatchery fish spawn successfully. Biologists would not be able detect any visible differences between future generations of the supplemented fish and older strains of wild chinook.

CRITFC has been pushing the fish supplementation issue as a region-wide review of artificial production is nearly finished. The group released an August report that found the Priest Rapids Hatchery was a strong contributor to wild runs in the Hanford Reach. The report said the hatchery-reared fish contributed up to 33 percent of the adult returns to the reach in any one year, averaging nearly 9 percent over the 20 years surveyed.

But almost three years ago, Idaho consultant Don Chapman warned Northwest Power Planning Council members about the effects of too many hatchery spawners in the Hanford Reach. Chapman said about 240 spawners, or 25 percent of the total number, were of hatchery origin. He said that was too much and could cause "genetic drift" of the natural population. Chapman said there were very few wild fall chinook used in the Priest Rapids hatchery brood stock, a situation that should be corrected.

"Don't screw it up," he admonished, pointing out that the hatchery fish were there for one reason--to increase the salmon catch in the fisheries. This year, escapement past McNary Dam is more than 123,000 fall brights, surpassing last year's 110,000-fish escapement, the largest number since 1988, when about 115,000 fall chinook passed the fourth dam on the Columbia. With about 14,000 fall chinook headed up the Snake and about 22,500 passing Priest Rapids Dam beyond the Hanford Reach, that leaves more than 86,000 fish, a mix of wild and hatchery fish to remain in the productive reach. A sports fishery opened up in that area Aug. 16. -Bill Rudolph


Earthjustice lawyers went back to court last week with a motion to throw out the hydro BiOp, the latest sign of life in a lawsuit that was filed in May 2001 by the National Wildlife Federation against NMFS. The lawsuit has been in a state of suspended animation while a months-long effort to mediate the dispute has thus far proved fruitless. While no one involved has claimed any progress, all stakeholders have promised the federal judge overseeing the situation to keep their mouths shut.

Environmental and fishing groups who originally backed the lawsuit were not shy about their intentions. When the lawsuit was first filed, Earthjustice characterized it in a headline on its Web site: "Suit Seeks Breaching of Snake River Dams."

Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda told NW Fishletter that the latest filing doesn't necessarily mean that mediation efforts are over, but it seems unlikely that stakeholders will continue their efforts to make the huge NMFS document--which spells out nearly 200 different actions to help recover ESA-listed stocks affected by the federal dams--palatable to everyone. Government attorneys had requested mediation last January in hopes of creating a BiOp that satisfied everybody, said US attorney Fred Disheroon at the time. Even then, environmental groups were lukewarm about the talks. The last scheduled mediation meeting was held Sept. 19 in Portland. A statement on the progress of the talks was expected more than a week ago, but no word has yet been released.

In their latest motion for summary judgment, the groups want the NMFS jeopardy analysis judged illegal because it relies on benefits of future actions "that are not reasonably certain to occur," and is vague and uncertain, according to court documents. According to the motion, NMFS never explained how it weighed risks and uncertainties, and did not adequately discuss comments from scientists that indicated the NMFS alternative was unlikely to prevent jeopardy of the stocks.

The latest motion said that by relying on offsite mitigation efforts to boost fish numbers, while keeping dams off the hook for a jeopardy declaration, NMFS developed a qualitative approach to judging the value of future actions.

The groups also said the feds erred by not considering "incidental take" of the listed stocks by hydro operations or the combined effects of all authorized "take" and that it's wrong to rely on barging juvenile fish around critical habitat "in order the avoid the conclusion" that the BiOp alternative "adversely modifies this critical habitat and jeopardizes these species.

"In the end, the NMFS [Reasonable, Prudent Alternative] for FCRPS operations puts the fate of imperiled Northwest salmon and steelhead, species admittedly on the brink of extinction, at the mercy of vague, uncertain, unfunded, unenforceable and ineffective actions by federal, state, and private parties," the brief concludes. "NMFS does little more than venture a hopeful guess that everything will work out, leaving these species, like Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire, to 'depend on the kindness of strangers' for their very survival. The ESA does not permit NMFS to impose this extraordinary risk on these species."

The brief does not mention the huge turnaround in fish runs since the BiOp was issued in 2000, due mainly to a sharp increase in ocean productivity. Nor does it mention the stock status update now underway that has the potential of de-listing some runs.

Preliminary 2001 redd count data released by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game showed that wild fish runs were improving rapidly. With 764 redds counted in tributaries of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the number is the highest since 1973. About 224 redds were counted there in 2000 and only 53 redds in 1999. It's much the same story in the South Fork of the Salmon, where overall counts were the highest since 1967.

But the motion quotes from an inter-agency NMFS e-mail to make a case for agency bumbling. One citation, in particular, between a government attorney and the NMFS deputy administrator shows how cautious the agency was about admitting its own lack of knowledge.

Uncertain Benefits

The attorney said the BiOp needed an explanation of actions needed at the watershed level to get necessary population improvements. The deputy administrator's response was candid, though unsettling. "Even if we did know where and how much, we'd be hard pressed to quantify the benefits in terms of fish survival. We might be able to cobble together some guesses (pretty wild ones), but not in the time available...The danger is that such a display might just highlight how uncertain we are about the benefits we can expect from off-site mitigation."

The NWF motion hammered home the lack of quantifiable benefits from actions outlined in the current BiOp, especially in the context of "check-in" points in 2005 and 2008 to determine if these actions are improving fish runs. Though BPA and other agencies are now struggling to develop extensive monitoring and evaluation strategies, some of those involved say little progress has been made. Others feel it may take years longer than the 10-year span of the BiOp before any accurate trends in fish populations could be detected from improvements to habitat.

A July memo by Washington state's independent science panel said an extensive search of the literature found no evidence that habitat restoration programs produced significant gains in juvenile fish numbers. The memo outlined a review of habitat programs by Oregon State University ecologist Peter Bayley, who said the programs suffered from design deficiencies that made it impossible to determine whether restoration efforts actually increased juvenile fish numbers or returning adults, or if some other factor, such as improving ocean conditions was an important element. "Without long-term monitoring," said the panel, "it is difficult to detect trends in populations and the link between juvenile and adult abundances."

Plaintiffs in the suit include the National Wildlife Federation, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Washington Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Steelhead and Salmon United, the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association, Friends of the Earth, Salmon for All, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Northwest Energy Coalition, the Federation of Fly Fishers and American Rivers.

Intervenor defendants include Northwest Irrigation Utilities, the Public Power Council, the Franklin and Grant County Farm Bureau Federations, the Washington Farm Bureau Federation, and the Inland Ports and Navigation Group.

Friends [amicas] include the Umatilla and Warm Springs Tribes, the Yakama and Nez Perce Tribes, the Northwest states and the NW Power Planning Council. -B. R.


The Washington State Department of Ecology said it needs more information before it can issue a water quality permit that would allow PacifiCorp to move forward with plans to remove Condit Dam. Ecology announced plans Sept. 17 to supplement FERC's EIS on the dam removal to satisfy the state agency's concerns.

PacifiCorp's 14.7-MW Condit Project is on the White Salmon River, a tributary of the lower Columbia River. The utility reached an agreement in 1999 to remove the dam, ending 10 years of relicensing efforts. FERC issued its supplemental EIS on the removal proposal in June. Polly Zehm, Ecology's central division director, said the state's environmental impact statement [SEPA] "sometimes calls for additional rigor to be applied" compared to the federal EIS. Condit is one of those cases, she said, adding that the state needs more information on sediment issues before her agency can issue a water quality permit.

While the state still supports FERC's preferred alternative that calls for blasting a hole in the dam and removing most sediment trapped behind the dam in one great surge, Zehm said Ecology needs more information on water quality impacts and mitigation measures for dealing with the sediment that will remain in the river after the dam is breached.

A study by URS, a private consulting firm Ecology hired to review FERC's draft supplemental final EIS on Condit, said the federal agency needed to develop a plan that would limit the duration of periods of high-turbidity river water after the reservoir behind the dam had been drained. The URS study also recommended using hydrologic modeling to determine how much of the reservoir's sediment would need to be removed to limit the impact of potential future floods.

The state expects to complete its supplement by early next year, Zehm said. PacifiCorp spokesman David Kvamme said his company will work with the state to provide any information it may need to complete the process. -B. R.


Budgets for some of Oregon's fish hatcheries have been on the chopping block ever since the state began wrangling over how to balance the books. The Legislature cut funding in one session and restored it in another.

But the four hatcheries that ODFW had put on the block all have Clear Water Act compliance problems, a backlog of expensive repairs and are subject to high water flooding.

According to Tom Gilg, from ODFW's Restoration and Enhancement Board, the backlog of repairs alone could top $100 million. "Most of Oregon's hatcheries have a very long list of maintenance issues," Gilg said, "including: ponds that need resurfacing, failing pumps, water lines clogged with gravel, the need for redundant power/water supplies and smaller ponds to support the rearing of separate locally-native broodstock versus one mega-pond at multiple hatcheries for Skamania summer steelhead, new alarms/water-level-alert systems, etc.

"The last official figure for the maintenance backlog was $27 million, he added. "The Restoration and Enhancement Board has been told more recent calculation efforts stopped when they hit $50 million, and informed guesses are saying $100 million. Water pollution is indeed part of the backlog."

The hatchery cuts were restored in the fifth special session of the legislature and "will now be funded through the balance of the biennium with $427,695 in license revenues rather than from general fund dollars," said Jim Myron, Conservation Director for Oregon Trout. "While this solves the immediate problem of having to close down hatcheries, it only delays a final solution, " he said.

"Even if the income tax surcharge proposal on the January ballot fails," Myron said, these hatcheries will continue to operate, at least through the end of June. The end result of this maneuvering by the Legislature means that fish hatcheries have a higher priority for funding than public schools."

The complicated budget agreement actually reduces ODFW's General Fund monies by $427,000, which is the cost of operating the four targeted hatcheries for the remainder of the 2001-2003 biennium. That reduction, however, will be filled by shifting $427,000 in Other Funds from the department's anticipated ending balance. Good fishing license sales, conservative spending for the last few months and careful budgeting for the rest of the biennium should enable ODFW to avoid cutting any programs. The department originally had been directed to reduce its budget by a total of $877,000.

"I am very pleased with the impressive amount of support we received during this process from the public, from so many legislators, from Governor Kitzhaber, and from the Legislative Fiscal Office," said ODFW Director Lindsay Ball. "We owe this outcome to the combined efforts of many people who worked hard in support of the agency's hatchery programs."

However, Ball noted more budget cuts could be on the horizon. If voters reject the temporary income tax increase in January, $95 million would be cut from schools and an additional $215 million would be cut from state agencies. ODFW's share of those cuts would mean an additional $624,000 in cuts from the current budget. The continuing economic slump also could have more negative consequences.

"This budget agreement suspends the immediate hatchery closures and allows us some time to discuss long-term funding for hatcheries and other programs," Ball said. "It's one small step, but we have a lot more work to do. If voters reject the tax increase and if Oregon's economy continues to slip, we could be faced with recurring budget instability. It's time to discuss just what kinds of fish and wildlife services and programs Oregonians want, and how those activities should be funded in the long-term."

The statewide discussion about hatcheries will have to include a number of assessments now being prepared, Myron said. These include the results of ODFW's study of deferred hatchery maintenance, the hatchery audit by the Secretary of State, the NOAA Fisheries hatchery policy, and ODFW's hatchery management policy to be adopted in the near future.

"In the meantime, the news for anglers is good," said Ball. "The hatcheries are staying open." -Bill Bakke


Puget Sound Indian tribes and WDFW have completed a two-year review of more than 40 regional chinook hatcheries as a first step in developing a comprehensive, scientific framework for operations to help recover wild chinook populations that are listed as threatened under the ESA.

"The state and tribes have worked hard over the past two years to do the assessments necessary to correct any deficiencies," said WDFW director Jeff Koenings. "These corrections will take both time and money. I believe completing this major review demonstrates our commitment to move forward as expeditiously as possible while continuing to operate much needed facilities."

The hatcheries are essential to the recovery of many "severely depressed" wild chinook runs, said Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "Hatchery production is necessary to provide an opportunity for the tribes to exercise their treaty-reserved fishing rights. Hatcheries will continue to play an important role in salmon management."

The co-managers have sent the plan to NMFS for approval. The federal fish agency had previously approved a chinook harvest plan submitted by the co-managers that was contested by local conservation group Washington Trout, who agreed to end their lawsuit over the harvest plan if the feds developed an environmental impact statement to study potential impacts. The conservation group, along with the Native Fish Society, announced in June they intended to sue WDFW over operations of its chinook hatcheries in the Sound if problems weren't fixed.

WDFW's Koenings said the hatchery review is part of a broader effort to reform hatchery practices throughout the region. Agency officials say hatchery releases have been significantly reduced in watersheds where wild chinook runs exist, and increased only in places where the hatchery is being used to recover a population through a captive broodstock program.

The latest review calls for more effort to reduce potential risks from interactions between hatchery and wild fish, including changes in hatchery release practices, along with maintaining state-of-the-art monitoring of fish health, facility disinfecting and disease management procedures.

The co-managers have also completed genetic management plans for chinook production for hatcheries in the Puget Sound region, currently under review by NMFS. -B. R.


Gov. Gary Locke announced last week that Steve Meyer, head of the state's Conservation Commission, will move into the top salmon spot vacated last June be the retirement of Curt Smitch. Meyer has served nine years as executive director of the commission and six years as director of governmental affairs for the National Association of Conservation Districts in Washington, DC.

"Steve knows the state salmon programs and individuals involved, and he is the right person for this job," said Locke. "Steve knows I want on-the-ground results, and I want accountability for the money we are spending on salmon." Meyers hails from Montana and graduated from Montana State University.

The state's salmon recovery office took a budget hit this year, with several staffers returning to previous agency positions. Locke said Meyer will be working with WDFW and other state agencies, along with the Power Planning Council to help develop salmon recovery plans in the works.

Meyer will also work to secure federal funding for recovery efforts. The 2001-03 biennial budget for the State of Washington includes $270 million in salmon-related expenditures for new activities, or changes to existing activities necessary to recover salmon or to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The budget is predicated upon $90.7 million in federal funding for the two-year period, and includes appropriations for federal fiscal year 2002 and 2003. Future salmon budgets may face tough sledding in the years ahead as the state faces a $2 billion deficit when it convenes next January. -B. R.

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