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[1] West Coast Chinook, Coho Catch Tops One Million Fish Again
[2] Robust Spill Evaluation Faces Tough Hurdles
[3] Conservationists Put Idaho Water Talks On Hold
[4] New Hatchery, Harvest Agreement Announced For Upper-C Steelhead
[5] Letter From Congress Urges Consideration Of More Drastic Fish Recovery Options

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It was another banner year for fishermen as more than one million salmon were caught off the West Coast by sports and commercial fishermen this summer. While it was a great summer to catch fish, it was a lousy year to sell them, as the glut of salmon on the market depressed prices and caused many Indian fisherman to pull their nets early this season.

The summer returns were a boon to recreational fisheries, with charter services doing a land-office business and sports fishermen crowding coastal communities, supporting local economies in the process of landing over 150,000 chinook and nearly 250,000 coho.

Commercial fishers from California to the Canadian border landed more than 700,000 chinook, but prices were still grim, reflecting the new economic reality of the salmon industry, brought about by the dominance of the farmed fish segment.

That hard reality was especially evident in prices for Columbia River gillnetters, both Indian and non- Indians. And the farther upriver a fish was caught, the lower the price it fetched.

Tribal gillnetters above Bonneville Dam saw wholesale prices of only 30 cents a pound or so for upriver brights heading for Hanford Reach. Lower river gillnetters were getting almost double that price.

But the lowly tule salmon, the main product of the Spring Creek hatchery above the dam, were fetching only about five cents a pound in the tribal fishing zone.

In fact, some tribal fishers quit early, said Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. So many of the low-value tules have shown up this year that marginal profits have become even more meager.

Stuart Ellis, harvest manager for CRITFC, said the tribes would end up catching about 15 percent of the upriver bright run--about 9 percent short of their projected share. But they were expected to land about 15 percent of the B run wild steelhead stock, an ESA-listed run headed for Idaho, which effectively ended their season anyway, since the 15 percent harvest rate on the steelhead is the maximum allowed.

The tribal catch was expected to add up to about 131,000 chinook, Ellis said, about 34,000 fish less than their projected share. Only 300 or so gillnets were catching fish in the tribal zone this year, much less than the 400 to 500 nets in recent times.

Ellis said low prices played a big factor in reducing the size of the fishery, along with a dwindling tribal effort to sell salmon and steelhead directly to the public. He said a brush fire near Cascade Locks during the fishing season pretty much killed the public sales effort.

Non-Indian gillnetters in the lower Columbia were projected to catch about 60,000 fall chinook, with sporties catching another 48,000 fish. The combined estimated impact of the catches is nearly 21 percent on the upriver bright run, much higher than the 8 percent allocation in the pre-season harvest agreement.

After huge numbers of chinook showed up in mid-September, harvest managers revised their pre-season estimate of the upriver bright run upward by 47 percent, to 372,000 fish. The tule run was re-pegged at 181,000, 90 percent higher than the pre-season estimate.

The huge run reflected salmon returns all along the West Coast this year. Preliminary information from the Pacific Fishery Management Council shows offshore chinook catches for California, Oregon and Washington nearly reached 900,000 chinook. That's close to harvest managers' latest estimate for the number of fall chinook entering the Columbia River, the largest since 1942.

With jack counts up, another great run is expected next year. But the number of commercial fishermen chasing them, both tribal and non-Indian, may continue to decline, since poor prices are likely to plague commercial fishermen up and down the coast for the foreseeable future.

The state of Alaska has tracked the decline of fish prices, due largely to the influx of farmed salmon in global markets. In an October report, analysts said chinook prices have fallen by 70 percent since 1988. Across-the-board declines have occurred for other species of salmon as well, reducing the ex-vessel value of the state's salmon harvest from $550 million in 1990 to less than $150 million in 2002. Nearly 40 percent of the state's salmon fishermen have bailed out of the business in the last 10 years. -Bill Rudolph


Evaluating the benefits to fish of the $100 million annual summer spill strategy at Columbia River dams is a top priority on the NOAA Fisheries policy radar, Power Council members heard last week, but there could be one big hangup--not enough salmon in the river at that time of the year for researchers to develop a robust survival study.

That was the take-home message from federal agency folks who spoke at last week's meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Missoula, Montana. The Council's latest fish and wildlife plan calls for such an evaluation of spill and flow augmentation. Four study alternatives are under review, ranging from looking at status quo operations to other scenarios of more or less spill and investigating more specific survival rates of summer migrants at the dams.

NOAA Fisheries spokesman John Palensky said conducting this type of research "is not easy" with such small numbers of fish to study. He said researchers have gathered very little information on Snake River fall chinook, a stock listed for protected under the ESA and principal benefactors of summer spill operations.

Palensky said the agency was "somewhat skeptical" that it would be able to develop a research plan that will give them the statistical power for a valid study He said high water temperatures make it risky to tag fish in August, and the questionable availability of chinook for the study "can be problematic depending on what the scientists tell us are the numbers of fish that are necessary to get the power of the test that we want..."

Other logistical logjams Palensky named were the short time-frame left to order radio-tags and develop ways to sample more fish in the Columbia estuary, while making sure the spill research doesn't conflict with other ongoing studies.

About $30 million in research is being conducted throughout the hydro system every year, said Witt Anderson, chief of the Corps of Engineers' fish management office. He briefed the council on ongoing spill research at federal dams, where some spill regimes have been altered after intense survival studies.

Anderson pointed to places like Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake, where juvenile fish survival was found to be only about 88 percent for juvenile fish, instead of the 98 percent previously estimated. Spill survival at John Day Dam was also found to be less than expected, so spill levels have been adjusted to maintain biological benefits to fish while reducing spill costs.

Anderson said John Day spill may be re-adjusted once again to 30 percent both day and night from the 0 percent daytime/60 percent nighttime spill strategy now in effect during the juvenile migration.

The Corps' spokesman also said that some spill tests have shown evidence of adverse effects on both adults and juveniles. Adult fish may have more trouble finding fish ladders when spillways are operation, and tailrace currents created by certain spill patterns can create eddy currents where river predators like pikeminnow find it easier to pick off juvenile salmon migrants.

Improved juvenile fish survival from new dam modifications like the $45 million "corner collector" at Bonneville Dam will have to be quantified to create a new baseline for future survival studies, Anderson said. About 90 percent of juvenile fish in the forebay of the dam's Second Powerhouse are expected to use either the new corner collector or the bypass outfall already in place, with an estimated survival rate greater than 95 percent. Spillway survival is estimated in the 98-percent range.

BPA VP Greg Delwiche explained different options for "offsets" his agency is studying to make up for any less survival of both listed and non-listed salmonids from a reduced spill regime. These offsets would be created by expanding strategies besides spill that are designed to improve fish survival, like increasing predator control projects in the reservoirs.

Council members will hear more on spill evaluation at their meeting next month after a technical review is completed by fish agencies.

But Rod Sando, director of the Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Authority inserted a note of caution towards the end of the discussion. He said regional fish managers recognize the difficulties of quantifying the benefit of spill, but potential adverse effects on non-listed salmon stocks and the last migrating segment of ESA-listed salmon should be acknowledged, because the last five percent of the run is "the most innovative" part of that population. Nevertheless, he said he understood the economic reasons for the analyses.

He called on policymakers to borrow a concept from conservation biologists-"the precautionary principle," which generally permits a lower level of proof of harm to be used in policy-making whenever the consequences of waiting for higher levels of proof may be very costly and irreversible.

Montana council member Ed Bartlett had a different view. With his state pushing hard all year for flow and spill evaluations to be included in the council's program, and later calling for an early end to spill last August, Bartlett said he was aware of the difficulties of measuring the impact of the spill program. "We knew that temperature makes it difficult to tag fish, and there may be few fish to tag. But if there are so few fish in the river, why are we spilling?"

Federal agency heads faced mounting pressure last August to end the summer spill program early (which was costing $1 million a day) because most listed fish had passed through the hydro system by the middle of the month, the vast majority being barged from Snake River dams, anyway. The agencies went on record noting the excessive cost of the strategy relative to the biological benefits. They cited a council analysis that showed August spill at four mainstem dams increased the survival of ESA-listed Snake River fall chinook by only five fish and boosted non-listed upriver bright numbers from the Hanford Reach by about 2,400 fish.

By the middle of October, so many fish had returned to the Hanford Reach area to spawn that the number of extra fish that would have been saved by the August spill effort amounted to less than two-tenths of a percent of the returning run. -B. R.


Talks in Idaho over more water for fish are on hold while conservation groups decide whether to continue discussions being brokered by Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID).

Federal agencies and irrigators met with the groups several times over the past month to head off a potential lawsuit. Now Crapo wants conservationists to hold off any potential litigation until next June.

But Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said it will be at least several weeks before they decide whether to keep on talking. "We want to make sure we're not selling the fish short," he told NW Fishletter." He said they must gauge the potential for real gains.

The groups, which include the Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers, and the National Wildlife Federation, had withdrawn their "intend to sue" letter to federal agencies for 30 days as a show of faith before the talks began in Boise last month. But time ran out on Oct. 13.

Back in September, Idaho Conservation League director Justin Hayes said they hoped their original letter would get parties talking about more upper Snake water for migrating salmon.

"Our overriding concern," Hayes said in a Sept. 11 letter to Crapo, "is to provide salmon and steelhead critically needed help, including water, at a time when the Administration and its agencies are failing to deliver their promised measures for salmon virtually across the board."

In their original notice, the groups said that the water was needed to recover fish runs, especially fall chinook, as long as the four lower Snake dams stayed in place.

The potential lawsuit takes aim at a biological opinion developed by the Bureau of Reclamation that looked at 10 irrigation projects on the upper Snake and concluded that the water wasn't needed to help ESA-listed fish runs. NOAA Fisheries agreed.

Currently, Idaho ponies up 427,000 acre-feet a year to help salmon on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis. It's part of the 2000 biological opinion approved by NOAA Fisheries that governs federal hydro operations in the Columbia Basin.

But the environmental groups point out that flow targets in the hydro BiOp are rarely met, and more water is needed to satisfy its demands.

However, irrigators and Idaho water agency officials say that the lower Snake flow targets generally cannot be met even in average water years. And they point out recent fish runs are setting records in Idaho.

Norm Semanko, director of the Idaho Water Coalition, says the groups claim they don't want to dry up farmers' fields, but that's what would happen if they got their way.

"We showed them the math," Semanko said. He said that about 3 million acre-feet of additional water would have had to come from the upper Snake to meet 2003 summer flow targets in the lower Snake, which would have effectively dried up about a million acres of irrigated agricultural lands in his state.

Earlier, Semanko had called flow augmentation "a failed experiment that has been wholly discredited by the scientific community." -B. R.


NOAA Fisheries has announced a 10-year agreement with the state of Washington, two mid-Columbia utilities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colville Tribe that outlines four new steelhead propagation programs, along with a streamlined decision-making process for recreational harvest opportunities.

The agreement ends a painful annual process that agencies have followed to legalize the harvest of "surplus" hatchery steelhead, which are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act along with the wild component of that run. Fishermen began catching marked hatchery steelhead Oct. 8 between Rocky Reach and Chief Joseph dams in the mainstem of the Columbia River, and in the lower Methow and the Okanogan rivers. A fishing season will begin Nov. 15 in the Similkameen River.

Since some hatchery steelhead returning to the mid-Columbia are unmarked, they will be allowed to spawn with wild fish to supplement natural stocks. But with so many fish returning for the third straight year, policymakers say the marked hatchery fish can be caught without hurting recovery efforts.

This year's run is expected to the second-highest steelhead return in the last 15 years. -B. R.


More than a hundred members of Congress sent a letter to President George Bush last week urging "that all scientifically credible options" be considered for restoring stocks of Northwest salmon and steelhead, including breaching Snake River dams and more flow augmentation from Idaho and Canada. The letter reached the White House a few days after Columbia Basin fish managers boosted the size of the fall chinook run once again. The 900,000-plus fish return will be the largest since 1942.

The letter, sponsored by House member Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), cited a 2002 study by the General Accounting Office that said the GAO found little evidence to quantify benefits from $3.3 billion BPA had spent on fish in the past 10 years. BPA took issue with the GAO report, saying that it seriously underestimated fish recovery costs by neglecting to include foregone revenues and power purchase cost for operations, which totaled more than $2 billion over the past five years. NOAA Fisheries had taken issue with the report as well, citing research that found major improvements to juvenile fish survival after 1993, when extensive dam modifications began.

The letter from Congress claimed the 2000 hydro BiOp was seriously under-funded, to the tune of almost $500 million annually. That's likely based on internal NOAA e-mail cited by environmental groups that suggested more funding was needed than appropriated. NOAA officials later said the e-mail was merely part of the policy dialog and did not represent the agency's final position.

The letter also said the recent court ruling that invalidated the BiOp means the Administration is faced with "crafting a new, scientific and economically viable plan that not only protects, but restores salmon to self-sustaining, harvestable populations." However the judge himself said his ruling wasn't based on scientific issues, but on the relative uncertainty that offsite mitigation was going to take place.

The letter said complete restoration was necessary to meet tribal treaty requirements. This year's Columbia River fall run was so large and prices so poor that participation in the Indian fishery above Bonneville dam was down from previous years and some fishers quit early because of deteriorating markets.

Three Washington Democrats signed the letter, Adam Smith, Jay Inslee and Jim McDermott, along with Oregon's Blumenauer and fellow Democrat David Wu.

Smith spokesman Lars Anderson said his boss was mainly concerned about the economic side of the salmon recovery issue to ensure that the final plan is "fiscally responsible. Inslee told the mainstream press that he didn't favor dismantling the four dams.

A dozen House Republicans also signed the letter, including Thomas Petri (R-WI) who co-sponsored legislation last year with Washington's McDermott that called for the GAO to undertake a study of the economic effects of partial dam removal.

The bill, called the Salmon Planning Act, was originally co-sponsored by 89 members of the 107th Congress and asked the Corps of Engineers to conduct preliminary engineering studies for breaching the dams, as well as authorizing the Corps to remove the dams if necessary, a power that now resides with Congress. -B. R.

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