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[1] Columbia River Fish Trends Looking Good To Great
[2] Feds Say New Hydro BiOp Fixes Old One
[3] Sporties, Commercials Battle Over Possible Boost In Steelhead Bycatch
[4] Upriver Fall Chinook Forecast Expected To Be 4th Largest Since 1964
[5] Makah Winter Chinook Fishery Makes Waves

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A new report examining recent trends in fish numbers says 16 out of 18 ESA-listed salmon and steelhead ESUs have shown "substantial increases" in abundance after 2000, and that the two populations in question are likely to show the same optimistic trend when more recent data becomes available (The report will soon be posted on the salmonrecovery.gov website).

The Bonneville Power Administration-funded report, titled "Preliminary Abundance-Based Trend Results for Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead ESUs," counters recent statements by environmental and fishing groups who are challenging the revised hydro BiOp in court.

"These fish are expected to continue their downward spiral towards extinction," said Earthjustice attorney Todd True in his amended complaint filed last month.

The new review of Columbia Basin stocks is cited in the revised hydro BiOp by NOAA scientists, and says that during 2001-2003, Snake River spring chinook numbers increased 548 percent (average geometric mean) from the 1996-2000 period, growing from around 5,000 spawners a year to over 30,000 a year.

Snake River fall chinook have increased about 400 percent during the same period, and steelhead about 250 percent.

In the upper Columbia, spring chinook numbers have gone up, on average, more than 1000 percent, from a geometric mean of 436 spawners between 1996-2000 to about 5,000 in the 2001-2003 period. Upper Columbia steelhead have improved more than 200 percent, from 1,146 to 3,643 fish.

Federal fish analysts, who made up the NOAA Fisheries biological review team (BRT) and hadn't updated their own 2003 status review for the new BiOp, used the new report to comment on most recent trends. Their own analysis was already outdated by the time it was released because it didn't include any data on fish returns beyond 2001, only two years after improving ocean conditions led to huge improvements in Northwest salmon runs.

In their introduction, fishery consultants Tim Fisher and Rich Hinrichsen said the paper "explores population indicators and tests using data that is generally available within a year of the return of adults to the spawning grounds."

They used data sets from dam counts, spawner estimates from redd indices or redd densities, then calculated trends based on the slope of lines that graphed the logarithm of abundance indexes over time.

They said their analysis didn't need complicated age-structure data or estimates of hatchery effectiveness, which aren't available for all stocks anyway.

Hinrichsen told NW Fishletter that the methods they used were developed by NOAA Fisheries' BRT which had earlier reviewed the status of ESA-listed stocks in the Columbia Basin. He said it's a much simpler way to look at basic trends than the complicated and controversial "lambda analysis" used by NOAA Fisheries analysts in the 2000 BiOp to determine whether or not stocks were improving, and how much annual improvement was needed to keep fish stocks going up.

Hinrichsen said the lambda analyzers in the earlier BiOp had to estimate age composition of many runs and the relative effectiveness of hatchery fish spawning in the wild, factors with little data to support any conclusions.

The revised 2004 BiOp doesn't use the lambda analysis, but does use the 2003 BRT conclusions that left out most of the improved run data. However, BiOp authors cited Fisher and Hinrichsen's own report to show evidence of most recent trends, though they said the BRT had not carefully reviewed the BPA-sponsored analysis.

The federal fish scientists have consistently downplayed the big turnaround in fish returns and they voiced another cautious note in the latest BiOp.

"Even under the most optimistic scenario, increases in abundance might be only temporary and could mask a failure to address underlying factors for decline," they said. "It is reasonable to assume that salmon populations have persisted over time under pristine conditions through many such cycles in the past. Less certain is how the populations will fare in periods of poor ocean survival when their freshwater, estuary, and nearshore marine habitats are degraded."

But Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists said last week that scientists need to re-examine their paradigms after realizing that their own ESA-listed coastal coho ESU fared much better under the extremely poor ocean conditions from 1990 to 1996 than they had previously thought.

"Rather than continued decline, populations reached a low level of abundance and then stabilized at a new equilibrium," says a draft report out for public review. Productivity actually improved when spawner numbers decreased, which did not fit the old biological thinking. Reduced smolt densities in freshwater habitat allowed higher survival, the report said.

The report said the stock suffered from overharvest and poor hatchery practices in the 1990s that have now been changed. With improvements in water quality and forest management now in effect, they say the coho ESU is "biologically viable" and not at risk, with fish numbers rebounding to 200,000 or more from one-quarter that number.

Oregon policymakers hope that federal authorities will accept the report and not list the ESU for ESA protection when they announce results from updated status reviews in June. The fish lost federal protection in 2001 after an Oregon judge ruled that the feds had illegally listed the coastal coho ESU because they failed to offer the same ESA protection for hatchery components of the stock as the wild fish. Though the fish have been protected under the state's ESA law, timber harvesters and other landowners in coastal areas are counting on a federal change of heart, if not paradigm. -Bill Rudolph


The federal government has filed a 60-volume administrative record in the ongoing litigation (NWF V. NMFS) over the revised hydro BiOp, and along with it, a Jan. 28 response to the new challenge by environmental and fishing groups that got in a few digs at the BiOp baiters.

The feds say the latest BiOp corrects the "deficiencies" in the jeopardy analysis in the 2000 BiOp, yet doesn't represent a "sharp departure" from the earlier document as the plaintiffs have alleged since NOAA Fisheries ultimately reached the same no-jeopardy conclusion to ESA-listed fish stocks from hydro operations as the earlier BiOp had concluded.

Nor does the new BiOp represent a "novel" or "unprecedented" interpretation of the ESA as plaintiffs claim, say federal attorneys. The plaintiff groups have cried foul, noting that NOAA Fisheries has changed the basic framework for its jeopardy analysis from the earlier document by separating fish mortality from the dams' existence and their operations. The agency developed an analysis to estimate the difference in fish survival between dam operations maximized for fish and those proposed in the BiOp, and said it is only responsible for making up the difference, while an overall regional recovery plan will address major losses.

The 2000 BiOp called for a huge effort to improve fish survival by restoring habitat to make up for dam-caused fish losses, a strategy that led Oregon judge James Redden to toss it out because the offsite mitigation didn't seem reasonably certain to occur.

But with most Columbia Basin fish runs improving by leaps and bounds in the last few years, the federal response says NMFS' opinion is that "the status of most of the affected stocks has significantly improved since 2000."

The feds point to a graph used by plaintiffs in their amended complaint that shows significant run declines since the 1960s, but whose source and data are unclear, they say, but presented in the "guise of objective fact," and supporting plaintiffs' own views "which are substantially at odds with those of NMFS ... as set forth in the 2004 biological opinion." The graph tracks runs only through 2000.

Plaintiffs argue that NMFS "presents an inappropriately optimistic picture of salmon numbers and survival," because of the "artificially constrained time frame of its baseline."

The feds' response also tears into a series of pie charts included in the plaintiffs' amended complaint that purport to visualize the amount of survival improvement needed by different listed ESUs to avoid jeopardy after improvements in the hydro and harvest sectors are already factored in.

As an example, one chart shows between a 62 percent and 80 percent survival improvement is still needed from offsite mitigation measures for Snake River spring chinook after the 2000 BiOp's specified hydro and harvest measures are counted. Plaintiffs used the charts to argue that, in many cases, more than two-thirds of the needed improvements to avoid jeopardy had to come from non-hydro, non-harvest measures. They say the charts "are taken from information" in the 2000 BiOp and appendices, but the feds call the charts "inaccurate and misleading" characterizations of their conclusions in the old BiOp.

Justice Department attorney Fred Disheroon said he wasn't sure where it came from, but it sure didn't come out of the old BiOp, though language used by the plaintiffs makes it seem so.

"The graphs," says the feds' official response, "which do not appear in the 2000 Biological Opinion and are not supported by its administrative record, instead appear to be taken from the inadmissible written testimony of a witness retained by plaintiffs and unsuccessfully proferred in an earlier phase of this case."

Plaintiff lawyer Todd True from Earthjustice' Seattle office told NW Fishletter that the pie charts are taken from a declaration by Oregon consultant Gretchen Oosterhout, filed by the plaintiffs in September 2002.

Oosterhout had earlier achieved some regional notoriety as a co-author with Phil Mundy of a 2001 update of a Trout Unlimited study called 'The Doomsday Clock' that predicted median "functional extinction" of ESA-listed stocks in about 15 years, similar to the earlier report. The analysis deliberately excluded brood years from the early 1980s (used by NMFS in its own analysis) because the time frame showed "anomalously high productivities," according to the authors, who noted that the high rates of return could be due to a number of factors, "including climate trends, increased flows, and/or a response to harvest rate reductions."

True said that Judge Redden had stricken some parts of Oosterhout's first declaration, but the charts were untouched, the product of an analysis that began with numbers from tables in the old BiOp. True said the charts were definitely not part of the government's record.

In her declaration, Oosterhout said the government's no-jeopardy finding was a "partially quantitative, but "ultimately qualitative" judgment," and that she "set out in some detail below how NMFS describes making this judgment in light of the survival improvements it has calculated at step 3 of its analysis are necessary to avoid jeopardy."

But the NMFS tables from which she drew her conclusions used population data from 1980 through 1999, before improved ocean conditions caused fish return rates to quadruple or better. The feds argue that, for the current litigation, the administrative record for the new BiOp is the best and only admissible evidence of its conclusions.

The feds argue that updated scientific information and analysis has helped them reach the same no-jeopardy conclusion as the older BiOp with its 199 measures spread throughout the areas of hydro, harvest, habitat and hatcheries. They say the new BiOp has a modified approach, but is still consistent with earlier opinions, while plaintiffs are trying to base their own conclusions on needed survival and recovery levels "upon unsupported and contested opinions of an interested scientific witness that are not part of the administrative record, nor supported by it."

The federal response also supports its gap analysis by pointing out that the reference hydro operation that maximized theoretical conditions for fish survival (a point contested by plaintiffs), actually modeled more fish-friendly operations than the agency could actually implement under current law.

But environmental attorneys aren't satisfied they have all the facts in the 11 CDs' worth of material submitted by the government and argue that the administrative record offered by the feds is incomplete. Attorney True filed a Feb. 4 memo with the court asking for more documents, including a Jan. 31 letter he had written to federal attorneys asking for internal drafts of NOAA memos, along with other documents withheld by the government under the claim of attorney-client privilege, and other missing documents.

Disheroon responded forcefully in a Feb. 2 letter to Earthjustice lawyers, categorically rejecting the claim that the record was incomplete. Judge Redden has scheduled a Feb. 23 hearing to make a determination in the squabble. He will hear both sides argue the larger BiOp issues sometime in late April. -B. R.


Sports fishermen on both sides of the Columbia have been voicing their displeasure with a new harvest scheme for commercial gillnetters in the lower river that would allow them to double their incidental take of ESA-listed winter steelhead.

The Columbia River's wild winter steelhead run, returning to streams in the lower river region, is pegged at 27,000 this year, similar to runs over the past few years.

NOAA Fisheries actually OK'd the boost in the incidental catch to 6 percent in a biological opinion released in early January, supporting a move by harvest managers from both states who say boosting the steelhead take would allow more flexibility in the early spring fishery.

The proposed change is expected to give gillnetters more time to catch their share of returning hatchery chinook bound for the Willamette River, where 117,000 wild and hatchery springers are expected to return, the fifth largest run since 1990.

The spring chinook fetch several dollars a pound to fishermen, who will be using a combination of large-mesh nets and tangle nets to reduce impacts on wild stocks, along with the use of recovery boxes to revive wild fish before they are returned to the river.

Non-Indian gillnetters and sportsmen are allowed a maximum 2 percent impact on wild spring/summer chinook heading for the Snake and upper Columbia, with sporties getting a larger share at 1.2 percent.

Together, they are allowed a 15-percent limit on wild Willamette chinook, which is estimated to make up less than 10 percent of the run. Sporties will be allotted 70 percent of the hatchery surplus (42,000 chinook), while commercial fishermen get 30 percent, or 18,000 fish.

But pressure from sporties forced the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission to increase the incidental steelhead catch to only 4 percent at their Feb. 4-5 meeting.

Oregon fish and wildlife commissioners were met Feb. 11 to take testimony on the issue. Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportsfishing industry Association was rallying fishers on a popular website before the meeting. "Three out of the last four years they have fished into our share with the 2 percent cap in place," Hamilton said in an e-mail message. "This is the wrong direction for recovery and very bad public policy."

The commissioners agreed with sporties and voted to keep the 2 percent cap. Fish managers from both states will meet soon to resolve the bycatch issue before the season begains.-B. R.


Harvest managers have released their first estimate of this fall's chinook run in the Columbia River, and they expect another extremely good year, with about 650,000 chinook predicted to show up at the river mouth. That's less than what has actually materialized in the past three years, but it's still considerably more than the ten-year average of 460,000. However, they could be wrong. The technical advisory committee lowballed last year's fall run by 27 percent and 2003's by a whopping 42 percent.

The largest component, as usual, will be the upriver brights heading for the Hanford Reach, where about 352,000 chinook are expected, a little shy of last year's return. However, the strong return is expected to include a record high age-4 component (We inaccurately reported earlier this week that this year's returning age-4's migrated to sea in 2001, but they migrated in 2002. However, 95,000 age 4's did return last year from the 2001 migration).

Managers also expect about 114,000 more Bonneville Pool tules, and another 94,000 lower river falls, with about 20,000 of those fish in the wild category, which are listed under the ESA. -B. R.


The Makah Tribe's winter troll fishery inside Cape Flattery at Washington state's northwest tip made headlines recently after tribal fishers admitted catching nearly 20,000 chinook. Their winter season began Oct. 1 and harvest managers had expected the catch to be in the 1,600-fish range through April 15. The tribe has since shut down the fishery. The tribe's 2004 allotment was 49,000 chinook for the entire year. This year's share hasn't yet been determined.

WDFW's Phil Anderson, special assistant for intergovernmental resource management, told NW Fishletter that the agency's harvest model shows some wild Snake River fall chinook were probably caught during the winter fishery, but that 92 percent of the catch was likely of hatchery origin, with about half from Columbia River facilities and the rest from Puget Sound.

It was estimated that about 3 percent of the 14,000 chinook caught by tribal trollers in the area west of the Sekiu River were probably Columbia River spring chinook. Average weight of the catch was about 5.5 pounds, Anderson said, putting the age of most fish between two and three years old.

Anderson said the Makah tribe had reported its catches to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "They were watching it," said Anderson. "We weren't, frankly."

He said his agency wasn't too concerned since catches had been "pretty tame" for the last decade.

A February fact sheet produced by WDFW said co-managers expected a winter troll catch "of no larger than the average harvest during the past six seasons (1,600 fish)."

But, according to a Feb. 3 tribal press release, the Makahs say their catch was well within their allowable share. "The Makah Tribe has managed its winter troll fishery in strict compliance with [the] NMFS-approved State-Tribal management plan," says the release. "Nevertheless, because catch rates in the winter troll fishery are declining and the harvest is approaching the Tribe's in-season target of 20,000 fish, the Tribe has decided to close the winter troll fishery for the rest of the season."

Makah Tribal Chairman, Ben Johnson Jr. said, "we have been carefully managing this fishery in coordination with NMFS biologists and always expected to close the fishery when our catch approached 20,000 fish. We voluntarily restricted our fisheries for many years in response to depressed salmon abundance. The public should look at our increased chinook salmon catch this year as evidence that our sacrifices are paying off and that state and tribal salmon recovery efforts are working."

The Makah release said non-Indian recreational fisheries have had a much greater impact on ESA-listed stocks, with the non-treaty sport fishery projected to harvest over 70,000 chinook salmon in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound in the 2004-2005 season. They said Puget Sound sports fishers were projected to take 30 mid-Hood Canal chinook, five times the impact of the Tribe's fishery, while more than 80 mid-Hood Canal chinook were taken this season in Canadian fisheries.

The WDFW fact sheet says two ESA-listed stocks were hit about four to five percent harder than expected in the preseason plan. That adds up to an estimated 109 chinook from the Puyallup River and five chinook from the mid-Canal stock. WDFW said it was too early to determine whether adjustments would by made to future chinook fisheries.

"Based on recent years' postseason reviews," says the fact sheet, "actual chinook numbers often exceed the modeled preseason forecasts, giving co-managers some confidence that the final actual impacts to the listed stocks could fall within the co-managers' set limits." -B. R.

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