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NWF.173/Jan.16.2004
[1] NOAA Says Snake River Spring Chinook Return Rates As Good As They Get
[2] Fish Managers Predict Monster Spring Chinook Run For 2004
[3] Debate Sharpens After Economists Take Cost-Effective Look At Spill
[4] Hydro BiOp Rewrite Near, Just How Much Still Unclear
[5] Another Year Of High Redd Counts For Snake River Fall Chinook
[6] Controversial Study Says Farmed Salmon May Pose Health Threat; Some Wild Fish Risky, Too

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[1] NOAA SAYS SNAKE RIVER SPRING CHINOOK RETURN RATES AS GOOD AS THEY GET

NOAA scientists and policymakers, rushing to get several products out the agency door before the end of the year, left several large presents under the regional Christmas tree, in the form of updated white papers that have corralled current research on Columbia Basin salmon and the dams they cross. They are expected to play a big role in writing a new Biological Opinion for the basin and contained several optimistic predictions for future runs.

Perhaps the best news from the research is that ESA-listed wild spring chinook have been returning to the Snake River at an average rate of nearly 4 percent over the past few years, a level not seen since the mid-1960s, before the last mainstem dams were constructed.

For now, scientists say things are relatively rosy. Escapements have been going up for six straight years--the longest stretch since record-taking began in the 1960s. And they say there's plenty of evidence to predict that adult runs will stay high at least through 2006.

Yet the latest research still finds "little or no relationship between flow volume and survival."

While NOAA scientists gave the region a nice Christmas present, the agency's policy makers weren't being so generous. On Dec. 23 NOAA released its 2003 BiOp check-in report to gauge progress on BiOp implementation, even though the plan is in legal limbo during the current remand. A new draft BiOp has been promised by the end of March.

According to the check-in, action agencies (BPA, BuRec, Corps of Engineers) have not fully met expectations, "but are capable of timely resolution of the shortcomings."

The check-in said several actions are behind schedule, including the completion of priority subbasin assessments and plans, genetic monitoring plans for hatcheries, and research and monitoring plans to evaluate progress by 2005 and 2008.

But in a press release that accompanied the report, NOAA Fisheries said it was continuing to work with other federal agencies to review the BiOp, "to ensure that it is legally and biologically defensible."

A federal judge threw out the old BiOp last May because it didn't clearly say that offsite mitigation efforts were reasonably certain to occur. Since then, the agencies involved have been trying to decide whether to satisfy the judge's technical concerns or do a major re-write.

That's where the updated white papers come in. On Dec. 23 NOAA Fisheries' Seattle Science Center released preliminary drafts for public comment, even before NOAA Fisheries had completely vetted the documents in-house.

Scientist Bill Hevlin of NOAA's Portland-based hydro operations group said his office saw the drafts for the first time Dec. 23 and it would take some time to go through them.

The draft that covered hydro system effects on salmon populations contains some very up-to-date information that is sure to garner comment from state and tribal fishery agencies. For instance, NOAA scientists reported that smolt-to-adult returns [SARs] to the Snake River from the drought-plagued 2001 migration have been calculated at 1.5 percent, much better than fish managers had expected, even though most of the fish were barged and the 3-ocean component (fish that spend three years at sea before returning to the river) won't show up until next spring.

"This return rate already exceeds total SARs for all Snake River spring-summer chinook outmigrations between 1976 and 1997," the scientists said. They also noted that returns for Snake steelhead and fall chinook have increased by a comparable amount over the past three years, with median counts three to four times (or more) higher than during the previous period.

With new data from the past couple of years, the study said that transported spring chinook survived to adulthood, on average, at a rate that was only about two-thirds that of in-river migrating fish, but that fish barged from Lower Granite Dam fared about the same as in-river migrators.

Barging a Mixed Bag

The results suggest that survival of barged spring migrants may improve if they are only picked up at Lower Granite dam, rather than at the two other dam sites on the lower Snake where barging is now conducted.

But the issue is complicated, since barged spring chinook and steelhead migrants of hatchery origin survived to adulthood better than their inriver brethren.

However, scientists said that within-year variations in survival between barged and inriver migrants were so high that an annual ratio of transport survival to inriver survival "should not be used as a basis for management decisions." In some cases, like during the 2000 migration, the transported fish returned at higher rates and provided large survival benefits for steelhead as well.

With little data for fall chinook, they said the BiOp's estimate of barged fish surviving at only one-fifth the rate of inriver fish "is reasonable, albeit highly uncertain," since fall chinook do not migrate as quickly as other salmonids, which makes measuring their survival through the system difficult. Results so far show that fall chinook migrating after Sept. 1, when both spill and barging have ended, have a SAR rate of four times higher than earlier migrators--1.29 percent compared to 0.32 percent.

For inriver migrating spring chinook, questions have been raised about higher mortality rates for those passing lower Snake dams via bypass systems, compared to fish that pass through turbine bays or over spillways. But the latest report says that wild chinook detected only at Lower Granite had "significantly higher" return rates than fish not detected at all (which means only turbine or spillway passage).

Size Matters

However, scientists said differential adult return rates don't necessarily mean that some bypass systems are worse for fish than others--or that simply swimming through one makes a fish less fit. Citing newer data from 1998 to 2000, they point out that "return rates are strongly influenced by the size of individuals and the timing of their outmigration."

Smaller fish may tend to be more easily guided into bypass systems by turbine screens and then routed to barges, which could bias the survival data on the low side, the report said.

The scientists also hypothesized that the act of PIT-tagging fish has a greater negative impact on smaller wild fish, which could account for the fact that hatchery fish have shown higher SARs than wild fish in recent years.

But the region cannot rely on good ocean conditions forever, since it is a cycle that will shift to a more unproductive mode at some point. "With predictions of increased global warming in the near future, ocean conditions may actually become worse than any we have experienced," the scientists said. "For these reasons, we must continue to assess the impacts of the hydro system in the context of all impacts, including impacts occurring in both seawater and freshwater habitats." -Bill Rudolph


[2] FISH MANAGERS PREDICT MONSTER SPRING CHINOOK RUN FOR 2004

The technical advisory committee handling Columbia Basin salmon-harvest issues has released its pre-season prediction of returns for 2004, and it's another jaw-dropper. The managers predict an upriver chinook run of nearly 361,000 fish (counted to the mouth of the river). That's far beyond the 2003 run of 209,000 fish, which was 44 percent higher than TAC's pre-season estimate last year.

Washington Fish and Wildlife Department harvest manager Joe Hymer said the overall 2004 upriver Columbia run is likely to be second only to 2001's record-setting 416,000-fish return. The 10-year average run size for the upriver springers at Bonneville Dam is about 123,000 fish.

Hymer said his agency thinks that about 340,000 fish will be two-ocean adults--fish that spend two years in the ocean before returning to the river. But others say that the run size could be even higher if the three-ocean component from the 2001 outmigration returns at a rate comparable to that observed this year.

The news is good for Idaho as well. The TAC estimated that nearly 170,000 springers will return to the Snake River, close to 2001's record run and well above the 2003 run of 107,000 fish. About 46,000 wild spring-summer chinook listed under the Endangered Species Act are also expected to return to the Snake. -B. R.


[3] DEBATE SHARPENS AFTER ECONOMISTS TAKE COST-EFFECTIVE LOOK AT SPILL

Using an updated salmon passage model, the independent panel of economists that works under the aegis of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council says there are better and cheaper ways to get fish past dams than by spilling water.

In a preliminary report that will be discussed at next week's Council meeting, they said that extended length screens at two lower Snake dams and the new corner collector at Bonneville Dam "are all highly cost-effective in comparison to August spill at Ice Harbor." The report estimated that the extended-length screens at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams are about 50 times more cost-effective than summer spill at Ice Harbor. The screens guide fish away from turbines to bypass systems where most are routed to barges.

And they said the new corner collector at Bonneville Dam's Second Powerhouse is six times more effective than August spill at Ice Harbor.

The study focused on summer operations at lower Snake dams designed to help ESA-listed fall chinook, but the economists said it could be used to show how cost-effective analysis could identify combinations of actions that benefit both ratepayers and fish. The analysis was led by Independent Economic Analysis Board member Roger Mann, a Davis, California-based consultant. The draft study said that improving the inriver fall chinook survival from the current 12-percent range wouldn't come cheap. They pegged the cost of achieving another one-percent survival boost at $600 million.

In light of that yardstick, it's easy to see how other less drastic measures might measure up, especially since most Snake River fall chinook are barged through the hydro system. Any change to dam operations for improving inriver juvenile survival therefore affects only a small part of the population.

For years, some regional parties, mainly utilities, concerned about the huge costs associated with some hydro operations to help ESA-listed fish, have asked for a look at the real costs and benefits associated with spilling water, a strategy that BPA says costs the region more than $200 million a year in foregone revenues and power purchases.

The Power Council even put a cost-effective clause in the latest iteration of its Columbia Basin's fish and wildlife plan, calling for evaluating potential fish recovery measures that might produce the same survival benefits at lower cost.

Big Ticket Items Questioned

Though this initial report stressed the limitations and uncertainties in its analysis, it said many other recovery actions could be evaluated subject to available data on fish survival and costs. It also looked at the economics of installing a removable spillway weir [RSW] at Little Goose Dam, similar to the one now undergoing tests at Lower Granite, and said it was unlikely to be cost-effective. Though the weir would be expected to get the same number of juvenile salmon over the spillway at much reduced levels of spill, its annual cost (amortized over 20 years) added up to nearly $4 million, while the annual value of reducing spill at the dam was only $1 million. An RSW at Lower Monumental Dam came out more even as to cost-effectiveness, but still questionable.

But at Ice Harbor, the report says an RSW "would easily justify its costs," which were pegged at $3.5 million annually compared to $14.5 million in power revenues that would be lost by spilling without the help of the specially engineered weir.

Spill Evaluation May Soon Be Reality

The economic study is just one of many fronts in the spill debate. Next week, federal agency representatives will go before the Power Council to explain progress on implementation of a summer spill evaluation. Though details were sketchy, it seems likely that a passage survival modeling effort will show that potential adverse effects from ending all summer spill may be less than many had anticipated.

Depending on the smolt-to adult return rates plugged into the model, it was reported that adult losses from ending summer spill at four dams would range from 4,000 to 40,000 returning fish, with results favoring the lower end of the range. Effects on ESA-listed Snake River fall chinook would be minimal, reducing numbers by 5 to 50 fish.

Some long-time players in river politics say odds are good that the feds will also suggest beefing up the pikeminnow predation project and call for further reduction of daily river fluctuations in the Hanford Reach to improve fall chinook fry survival. Those two strategies may be enough to offset any losses from spill reduction. An expanded pikeminnow bounty program would focus on the lower Columbia, which would benefit all stocks that migrate from basins below McNary Dam.

But ratepayers shouldn't expect much savings from this coming year, since it's likely the only serious reduction may occur at Bonneville Dam during a test period to measure survival differences between BiOp-mandated spill and something less than that.

The first showdown over spill reduction is likely to come next month when regional debate over Spring Creek spill is likely to come to a head. For years, BPA has spilled a considerable amount of water (for up to 10 days) at Bonneville Dam in March to help an early release of about 7 million fall chinook from a nearby hatchery run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service get past the dam.

However, with a brand new corner collector in operation, designed to improve juvenile fish survival to reach the 98-percent level estimated at the spillway, BPA representatives say spill is unnecessary. However, fish managers want both spill and the collector to operate together during any tests of the new $45-million dam modification.

Spring Creek tules "keep on truckin."

In 2002, before the collector was in place, Corps of Engineers' biologists reported that spilling would boost survival from 95 percent to 96.5 percent overall. BPA spilled for three days at Bonneville that year to aid the Spring Creek release, but last year, the March spill lasted only 36 hours, after the power agency originally said deteriorating financial conditions would keep it from spilling at all. Even then, BPA figured the spill would cost $3,000 for every extra adult fall chinook created by the effort.

The Spring Creek fall chinook, called tules, are a mainstay of both commercial and sport fisheries both on the ocean and in the river, fish advocates say. The Spring Creek tules make up about 27 percent of the chinook catch off Washington and Oregon and 9 percent of the catch off Vancouver Island, according to the hatchery's manager Larry Marchant.

But fishermen, sandwiched between low prices and harvest restrictions to let ESA-listed fish pass by, couldn't catch enough tules last year and the hatchery was swamped with returning fish. Marchant said over 54,000 fish returned to the facility, but only 7,000 to 8,000 were needed for egg production.

Marchant said the spawned carcasses were trucked to Warrenton, Oregon where they were processed into pellets that will be used to fertilize streams throughout the region. The rest of the excess fish went into the federal prison system to feed inmates, Marchant said. The hatchery provided many thousands of fish for inmate meals the previous year as well, when the Spring Creek facility filled up with 60,000 extra adults. -B. R.


[4] HYDRO BIOP REWRITE NEARS, JUST HOW MUCH STILL UNCLEAR

Oregon federal judge James Redden is meeting with parties in the hydro BiOp remand case (NWF v. NMFS) today to discuss progress in rewriting the opinion to satisfy his concerns. Redden threw out the BiOp last May, saying that its proposed offsite mitigation actions were not reasonably certain to occur.

NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn has hinted that his agency might tackle a major revamp of the document, in addition to satisfying the court's immediate concerns. But insiders say there is nothing particularly new that Justice Department attorneys will offer the judge this week. Lohn was vacationing out of the country and unavailable for comment. Also before the court is a motion to consolidate litigation against the federal government by irrigators, who have filed a suit against NOAA Fisheries over scientific issues to do with the BiOp. If the judge agrees, the irrigators, represented by Portland attorney James Buchal, may stay their suit until June for a seat at the table during the remand process.

NOAA's Lohn had earlier promised to release a draft BiOp by the end of March. The judge wants it finalized by early June. Judge Redden ruled to keep the old BiOp in place while it's being fixed, and the feds have submitted a report to the court that says most BiOp actions are on schedule.

But they found that the region's subbasin planning process, a key ingredient in the BiOp's offsite mitigation effort, is behind schedule. The subbasin process is being led by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and involves coordinating watershed planners, and local, state and tribal officials throughout 58 different subbasins in the Columbia drainage.

The subbasin planning work, which began as an amendment to the council's 2000 fish and wildlife plan, has been prioritized to speed work that involves ESA-listed fish stocks. However, ESA issues have bogged down subbasin planning work, and some participants have complained about a lack of direction from NOAA Fisheries. Plans are scheduled to be completed by the end of May, when they will be reviewed by the panel of independent scientists who will judge the merit of proposals in the Bonneville Power Administration's fish and wildlife program.

Feds Go on Defensive

Back in September, NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator Rob Walton told a subbasin planning coordination group about getting an "assurances package" to satisfy ESA obligations out soon and making sure the results were legally defensible. The plans may include a general assessment and a management plan for each major watershed.

A month later, Walton told the group that NOAA scientists were not intending to "trump" local efforts, but to add input to make a defensible BiOp reflecting the best available science. He called for a candid discussion to "try to make lemonade out of what is turning out to be a lemon," according to minutes posted on the council's Web site.

But last week, council members like Washington's Tom Karier still weren't satisfied. "NMFS should be meeting more in technical committees," Karier told NW Fishletter, though he thought his state's subbasin planning efforts were pretty much on track. "I don't see any reason to be alarmed," Karier said.

In its BiOp check-in report delivered to the court two weeks ago, NOAA itself recommended establishing a "fix-it loop" to add input from technical reviews to subbasin plans between next May and December. It's seen as a way to show the judge that the process is on track.

An important element of the subbasin planning effort is an analysis of hatchery operations in each watershed and their effects on ESA-listed stocks, but NOAA Fisheries has yet to release its updated policy on the hatchery/wild issue. A draft policy shopped last year among states and tribes has been quietly shelved.

Contributing to the understanding of this issue is NOAA Fisheries' new white paper on hatcheries that reviews the scientific literature dealing with the relative fitness of hatchery and wild fish. The paper is an attempt to better quantify growth estimates of ESA-listed wild stocks that contain naturally spawning hatchery fish. Most studies were conducted with steelhead, but the reviewers found that hatchery fish seemed less fit the longer they spent in captivity.

Any new BiOp would have to include a hydro system jeopardy analysis that incorporates the latest research results. NOAA released some preliminary results in another white paper presented to the court together with the hatchery paper. It shows for the past few years that ESA-listed Snake River spring/summer chinook are returning at a rate of nearly 4 percent. That's nearly a 600 percent improvement over average return rates from 1988-1997. During this period dam operations were guided by a 1995 hydro BiOp, itself a rewrite performed to satisfy another Oregon judge, Malcolm Marsh, who said the status quo wouldn't do.

Unfortunately, there's little evidence so far that the subbasin effort is taking advantage of the latest research. An October missive from Mobrand Biometrics to subbasin planners advised them to use a return rate of less than 1 percent for the Snake spring chinook, claiming it had been taken from "the [1998] PATH process and elsewhere." A committee effort begun in 2001 and charged with an attempt at validating the EDT [Ecosystem Diagnosis and Treatment] method, developed by Mobrand and being used to assess potential productivity gains, died some time ago, wasting $140,000 in BPA funding and not producing a single report.

To satisfy Marsh's ruling, federal policymakers called for boosted spill regimes and flows throughout the system. The increases were challenged as inadequate by fishing and environmental groups and the state of Oregon, but they eventually lost and the 1995 BiOp has become the basis for the latest one, completed in late 2000. However, the results of the new federal research reviews don't report much of a relationship between flow augmentation and fish survival, especially for the spring runs.

Rumors are even circulating that when the latest returns are factored into the status updates, the feds may call for the potential de-listing of several Evolutionarily Significant Units--upper Columbia steelhead and Snake River fall chinook seem to be primarily mentioned as candidates. Both wild components of these stocks have rebounded strongly in recent years, and both have a large hatchery component included in their respective ESUs.

What happens next will depend largely on how the federal agency handles its thorny hatchery policy. A case that deals with the hatchery/wild issue that is on appeal in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hasn't yet been ruled on. The Niners, in the meantime, stayed a lower court's decision that ruled NMFS must offer hatchery fish the same ESA protection as wild fish if the agency had designated them in the same ESU. -B. R.


[5] ANOTHER YEAR OF HIGH REDD COUNTS FOR SNAKE RIVER FALL CHINOOK

Biologists from Idaho Power delivered some good news to the region just before Christmas when they released the latest redd counts for ESA-listed fall chinook in the Snake River, whose juvenile migration is one of the main justifications for the summer spill program at federal dams in the Columbia Basin.

The biologists reported that 1,524 redds were counted in the mainstem Snake in 2003, up from 1,113 in 2002, and 649 redds in 2001. Throughout the mid-1990s, counts ranged between 67 to 185 redds.

The utility says that since 1992, more consistent flows from its Hells Canyon complex have helped the fish during the fall spawning season.

A large supplementation effort has also boosted fish numbers, but a large unmarked segment of the run has made it difficult for biologists to estimate the number of truly wild fish that have returned in recent years.

NOAA Fisheries recently stated that the wild run has averaged around 2,000 returning adults for the past several years. That's close to the interim recovery goal of 2,500 fish.

The annual survey, which uses both helicopters and underwater video cameras, is a joint effort between the utility, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nez Perce Tribe. -B. R.


[6] CONTROVERSIAL STUDY SAYS FARMED SALMON MAY POSE HEALTH THREAT; SOME WILD FISH RISKY, TOO

A new study that analyzed two tons of farmed and wild salmon from around the world says that organic contaminants are "significantly higher" in the farmed variety, with European-raised fish carrying much greater contaminant loads than farmed fish from North and South America.

The study, published in Science (Jan. 9, 2004) and supported by research funding from the environmental division of the Pew Charitable Trusts, said risk analysis showed that eating farmed salmon "may pose health risks that detract from the beneficial effects of fish consumption."

The study said farmed salmon from Europe should only be eaten several times a year, using EPA consumption guidelines for potential cancer risks. Washington state and Chilean farmed salmon could be eaten once a month.

But one relatively unnoticed element of the study showed that wild chinook from Southeastern Alaska should only be eaten once a month, while wild chinook, sockeye and coho from British Columbia, along with Oregon chinook, and sockeye from BC and Southeastern Alaska could be consumed twice a month. Sockeye and coho caught near Kodiak, Alaska, could be eaten four times a month, while chum salmon from both countries could be eaten up to eight times a month.

Purdue University researcher Dr. Charles Santerre, now a paid consultant for a fish farm industry association, said he agreed with the overall findings, but disagreed with the study's conclusion that consumers should limit their intake of farmed salmon due to an increased risk of cancer.

"The study demonstrates that farmed salmon is very low in contaminants and meets or exceeds standards established by the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization," Santerre said. "The study also shows that the cancer risk from eating large amounts of salmon is significantly lower than the risk of developing heart disease from not eating generous amounts of the fish."

Last August, when NW Fishletter reported that PCB levels in many wild fish were higher than some farmed fish, Santerre was contacted before he began consulting with the farmed salmon industry. At that time, he said "while a person consuming farmed salmon weekly over a 70-year lifespan may slightly increase their risk of cancer, the heart-healthy benefits to maintaining a diet rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids far outweigh the risks."

Public health officials throughout the nation have said the contaminant levels found in both wild and farmed salmon are too low to worry about, echoing remarks of Dr. Michael Gallo, a public health professor from Rutgers University, who was interviewed recently in Intrafish, an online industry publication. He said the difference between 5 ppb [parts per billion] and 30 ppb of PCBs in the samples "is meaningless" when used in the EPA mathematical model. Gallo, who helped put together the EPA model of cancer risk assessment, said that the study authors should not have discounted the FDA's guidance on contaminants in fish. "As a professor of public health, I would never tell anyone to limit their intake of salmon," Gallo said. -B. R.

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