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[1] Spring Chinook Run Either Real Late, A Lot Less Than Expected, Or Both
[2] Power Council Gets Mixed Messages On 2005 River Operations
[3] Wash. Knocks Both Sides In Biop Beef; Oregon Waffles On Injunction
[4] BiOp Judge Confused, Says Irrigators' Attorney
[5] Feds Say Oregon's Fish Recovery Efforts Lagging; ESA Funds Jeopardized
[6] More PCBs In Puget Sound Salmon

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When only 69 spring chinook were officially counted at Bonneville Dam by April 6, fish managers began to wonder just how late the spring run was going to be. They’re still wondering. However, just in case the run totally fizzles out, they have decided to keep all inriver commercial fisheries closed and planned to close all mainstem sports fishing from the estuary all the way to McNary Dam by tonight.

Numbers have edged upward in the past few days, with the total now slightly above 2,000 fish, a record low for this time period. Over the past 10 years, the average to this date has been in the 55,000-fish range. On April 19, the managers’ technical advisory committee reported they were not comfortable making a point estimate at this time, but all their current predictors are coming up with a spring run below 82,000 upriver spring chinook, a far cry from the pre-season estimate of more than 250,000 fish.

According to the managers, about 31 percent of an average spring run would have been counted at Bonneville Dam by now, while a late run would typically be only 11 percent to 15 percent completed.

They said recreational fishers have seen more fish this past week, but they were still ready to shut them down. If an upriver spring run of less than 82,000 fish actually materializes, then the allowable non-Indian 2 percent impact to ESA-listed spring chinook will have already been exceeded.

Columbia River tribes announced they had sent a letter to both states expressing concerns over the significant failure of the pre-season forecast, and called for a post- season review of the technical committee’s work. They said some longhouses hadn’t even been able to catch a salmon for their "first fish" ceremony yet.

Commercial and sports interests expressed support for closing the fisheries for the time being, which is exactly what the managers from Washington and Oregon decided to do, opting to wait until next week when they will know better whether the run is simply late or a lot smaller than they had estimated. Earlier this spring, non-Indian gillnetters had landed more than 5,600 springers, with about 44 percent of their catch pegged as part of the upriver stock. Sports fishermen had caught about 11,000 chinook between the estuary and Bonneville Dam by April 17, with impacts to upriver stocks estimated about .3 percent (based on pre-season forecast).

Some fish managers seemed stunned by the state of affairs, WDFW’s Bill Tweit said if the run turns out real low, it means the salmon that went to sea in the drought year 2001 had better overall survival than those that that went out in 2003.

Bonneville sea lions
All you can eat at Bonneville Dam
(courtesy COE)
Testimony from both non-tribal and tribal fishers pointed to ongoing predation by sea lions near Bonneville Dam and in the fish ladder as a serious problem. Dam operators got the OK recently to use firecrackers and other non-lethal methods to get them out of the ladders. It seems to have worked for now.

But fish managers didn’t seem to have quantified the marine mammals’ eating habits into their analysis. Corps of Engineers’ biologists have pegged sea lions' salmon intake at about 2 percent of the spring run in 2004. That's the same level of take allowed non-Indians by the federal authorities.

With river flows well below average through March, some biologists say that could help explain the late run this year. More recent rain was expected to bring fish numbers up considerably and managers still had their fingers crossed by mid-week. -B.R.


The Northwest Power and Conservation Council heard last week from federal officials who explained how the new BiOp will affect fish operations in a low-flow year, and from detractors of the plan who support a motion to override the BiOp mandate, but were not on the Boise meeting’s agenda.

With 2005 turning out to be the 11th worst water year for the Columbia and possibly the 4th worst on the lower Snake, Council staffer John Fazio reported that the January-July water supply was estimated now about 69 percent of average. But, he added, there would be around 3000 aMW of surplus energy over "critical" hydro production.

"So there is ample supply," he said. "That's not the issue today." Rather, the major rub is power prices. Fazio said the 40-percent increase in natural gas prices and shorter supply of cheaper hydroelectric energy could mean a rate increase for utilities. "For BPA, it also means a reduction in revenues," since summer sales will be reduced.

Getting down to river flows, Fazio said computer simulations of the 50-year water record show that flows will likely be much lower than average, especially in the Snake. Flows at Lower Granite are estimated to be about 39 kcfs in July, 31 kcfs for the first half of August and 21 kcfs for the second half of the month.

Fazio said BiOp target flows were rarely met in the simulation, and never in August at Lower Granite where the summer target is 50 kcfs.

With such a likely scenario, the Corps of Engineers' Witt Anderson said the "best, available science" dictates the strategy that is spelled out in the BiOp for low-water years--no spill at McNary and the three dams on the Snake, and collecting as many fish as possible for barging.

The same maxed-out barging strategy was used in 2001, the second worst year in the past 60-year water record, and seems to have worked well, with smolt-to-adult return rates for spring chinook recently estimated at 1.9 percent in an updated memo by NMFS scientists. This outcome is nearly ten times the return rate from just a few years ago, and close to the 2 percent rate that biologists have said is necessary for recovery

But some basin salmon managers who don't agree with this approach have joined environmental and fishing groups in a motion for injunctive relief before BiOp judge James Redden to change summer operations. The motion calls for spilling all the water in the Snake except what's needed to keep dam powerhouses going, along with some reservoir drawdowns and flow augmentation to boost water velocity by 10 percent to aid survival of migrating juveniles, which supporters claim could at least double fish survival.

Some were on hand at the Council meeting to explain why they are backing the motion. The Council also heard from Earthjustice attorney Todd True, who is leading a court challenge by environmental and fishing groups to some summer BiOp actions as well as generally to the new BiOp.

Until the meeting, when Fazio reported that his preliminary calculations pegged the costs of added spill from the enviros' summer proposal at $100 million, nobody had attached a price tag to the proposal.

But Fazio said the proposal isn't specific about what kind of a mix of drawdown and flow augmentation would be used to boost water velocities by 10 percent. "They leave it up to power managers to figure out the best way to do that," Fazio said.

At this point, Fazio said he didn't know what the optimal operation would be to achieve that goal, but he said flows in the Snake would have to be increased about 3,000 cfs for 72 days, equivalent to releasing an additional 430,000 acre-feet.

Boosting Columbia River flows by 10 percent would take about 2 MAF of water. "Of course," Fazio said, "we haven't identified where this water would come from." He said it wasn't clear where the best place would be to get it, or if it was even available.

Fazio said lower Snake reservoirs would have to be drawn down about 6 feet to achieve the increase without adding more water. Columbia dams would have to be drawn down about 5.5 feet to achieve the same result. He said some reservoirs could be drawn down more than that, and others less, but the best strategy is still not evident. "There are literally thousands of possibilities here," he said. In response to a question from Washington council member Tom Karier, Fazio said the drawdown would likely "affect" navigation, fish ladders, and irrigation withdrawals.

Flow augmentation would actually increase power generation in the summer, Fazio said, but he expected flows would have to be reduced in the fall or winter to refill reservoirs later on "because it is sort of a zero-sum game here."

The council also heard from IDFG biologist Pete Hassemer, who noted that Brownlee inflows are only 35 percent of normal. He said the lowest survivals for spring chinook in recent years came during the low-flow year 2001 when fish travel times were longest. Hassemer said fish managers expected survival this year to be "intermediate" between 2001's poor results and average numbers. Unless ocean conditions are really good, managers expect the fish migrating to sea this year not to be able to replace themselves upon return.

Jaime Pinkham, speaking for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said his group supports the injunctive relief because the new BiOp seems to be "backpedaling" from the previous one, causing CRITFC to take a more aggressive position.

CRITFC biologist Bob Heinith used charts to explain his agency's view that the Snake fall chinook would be better off with this injunction. But Heinith neglected to mention that the skimpy survival data for the fall chinook is even more suspect because many of the fish don't migrate until the following spring.

Earthjustice attorney True said wild returns were actually declining from recent peaks in 2001, "so we're not achieving the kind of self-sustaining populations that we've aimed for." He said this year doesn't look any better.

"Things are shaping up in a way where salmon will get the short end of the stick. That's why the injunction is before the court," True said. "The court is only going to get to that question of that injunction if it rules in our favor and finds that the biological opinion doesn't comply with the law. And even then, we are the ones who are going to have to prove that an injunction or the relief we've requested is appropriate."

Faster water, more spill, and more water to reduce temperatures--these are the basics of the injunction, True said, who noted that he is not asking that flow targets be met, only "moderate" improvements in migrating conditions for fish.

But Washington member Karier said it was possible to draft upstream reservoirs that were "particularly warm" to reach the injunction's velocity goal, but could potentially endanger fish survival, as some regional scientists have pointed out.

True said that was their concern as well, to develop a combination of water that will work and keep forebay temperatures at Lower Granite down. "We're not interested in poaching salmon," True said.

Idaho council member Jim Kempton said the potential for adverse effects from the injunction's proposal had him concerned, including the prospect for reducing effectiveness of fish ladders and turbine efficiency.

Kempton and fellow Council member Judi Danielson also expressed some dismay about True's appearance before the Council, since neither he nor Sara Patton, executive director of the NW Energy Coalition, who also spoke, were mentioned on the meeting's agenda, nor had they expected discussion of the injunction. The agenda said only fish managers, the feds and Fazio would take part. Danielson asked True who had invited him. He said a "plaintiff group" had asked him to appear.

Patton presented the Coalition's cost estimate of $43 million for the proposed changes to summer operations, which the Coalition supports. She said it would only cost the average ratepayer somewhere between 10 and 54 cents a month.

The council went into executive session after the regular meeting, where it was reported that other members as well expressed their concerns over being blindsided by the agenda issue. -Bill Rudolph


With a court showdown over the new hydro BiOp scheduled for April 27, both Washington and Oregon state attorneys have waded into the fray with severe criticism of the new direction federal agencies have taken in their analyses of the effects of Columbia River dams on ESA-listed fish.

Washington state's amicus brief takes issue with the feds' own reason for narrowing their approach in the BiOp, that it was necessary to comply with the judge's remand. However, the state says "a more appropriate characterization" would be to say federal agencies found themselves facing "a very difficult task" of developing offsite mitigation measures from the 2000 BiOp that it planned to implement with the help of state, tribal and local governments. The anticipated boost in fish numbers from improved habitat was the 2000 BiOp's way of letting federal dams off the ESA jeopardy hook.

The state says the new BiOp doesn't really contain all the offsite measures from the previous BiOp, though a brief from the Washington Farm Bureau says they were "front-loaded" into the new one. But Washington calls the WFB notion a "significant misstatement" because of many differences between the two documents.

Washington sided with plaintiff environmental and fishing groups by not supporting another significant part of the feds' new jeopardy analysis, because NMFS put the dams' existence in the environmental baseline, along with non-discretionary future hydro operations.

"While the action agencies may have escaped responsibility for the effects of these future actions," says the state, "everyone else within the Columbia River Basin will have to live with this more sensitized baseline when dealing with salmon under the ESA."

Washington also argues that environmental lawyers have misinterpreted the way NMFS' ESA Consultation Handbook's calls for adding up future impacts. Washington said it agreed with Idaho, whose brief argued that such a reading "could lead to a jeopardy call for any action that has mixed effects, but which are net positive, if the condition of the species is already in jeopardy from the baseline effects (the effects of past and present actions)."

The 2004 BiOp produced equally absurd results, "and does a far worse job of matching impacts to action," Washington also said in its brief. The state said a better analysis would be to properly identify the agency action and conduct an analysis on the effects of the total action, instead of using a "theoretical conception" of what is discretionary.

In the new BiOp, the feds analyzed dam effects by comparing fish survival from the proposed operations with a hypothetical set of operations chosen to maximize fish benefits, but not necessarily achievable in the real world.

The state of Oregon sided with environmental lawyers on this issue, and pointed out that the court itself has the broad authority to "instruct" the federal fish agency on remand to write a BiOp that is consistent with the law.

Even if the BiOp's new framework is legal, Oregon says NMFS used an "illegitimate accounting gimmick" to reach a no-jeopardy decision for the proposed hydro operations. Oregon claims the agency didn't add in potential benefits to fish survival from future dam improvements, like removable spillway weirs in its hypothetical reference operation. Oregon said this failure alone justifies a new remand.

The state sent a letter on March 29 to BiOp Judge James Redden saying it has not joined plaintiffs in their call for an injunction to add more water and spill to this year's hydro operations. Assistant attorney general Doug Leith said the state wasn't waiving its right to seek relief against action agencies, but was in discussions with the Bonneville Power Administration and the Corps of Engineers over river operations.

Earlier this year, Oregon floated a draft plan for future river operations that called for more flow, spill and severe reservoir drawdowns that would have rendered fish passage facilities at several dams useless. Oregon said it would join the latest round of BiOp litigation if talks with federal agencies failed to address its concerns. The state rejoined the fray in Redden's court late in January, asking for full plaintiff status along with environmental and fishing groups in their challenge to the new BiOp.

Mike Carrier, natural resource policy director for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, was reported in the March 23 edition of the Pendleton, Ore., East-Oregonian saying the governor's office dropped the drawdown option when it became clear that river navigation would be impossible if it occurred.

But it seems that state some officials were already aware of the significant impacts from the draft proposal.

A hydrographic analysis of the drawdowns and water particle travel time was completed last October for ODFW policy analyst Ron Boyce by the Fish Passage Center. The analysis cautioned that with drawdowns of more than a few feet below operating minimums and maximums, "problems would be encountered [at] fish ladders, navigation channel depth, and turbine[s]. The severity of each of these problems and the repairs that would be necessary to allow significant drawdown are unknown to the FPC at this time."

In early March, minority Republicans in the Oregon Senate called on Kulongoski to drop out of the BiOp litigation at a press conference sponsored by the Oregon Rural Electric Association. It was reported there that the Corps of Engineers, in answer to a question from members of the Northwest congressional delegation, had estimated the potential economic cost of the drawdowns from the governor's plan at between $543 million and $1.5 billion, with another $240 million in costs for added spill at dams.

Carrier told NW Fishletter that Oregon is still talking with action agencies and NMFS about long-term hydro operations and has been joined by other Northwest states to discuss operational constraints and develop a better understanding of how the feds developed their jeopardy standard in the new hydro BiOp. Talks are confidential, but he hoped something positive would come from the discussions by mid-May. -B.R.


Portland attorney James Buchal, who represents irrigator groups in their litigation against the latest hydro BiOp, has sent a letter to Oregon District Court Judge James Redden saying the groups believe the judge would "benefit" from the assistance of Dr. Howard Horton, the court-appointed science advisor in the BiOp litigation.

The letter stems from Redden's April 8 opinion and order that said, "mitigation actions such as increased spill over the dams enhance river flow," which led Buchal to point out to the judge that spilling water over the dams "has no impact on river flow."

Buchal said Horton could help the judge understand how the science of flow and fish survival has evolved into sophisticated computer models from the relatively simple linear ones still used by federal scientists in the latest BiOp.

In his April 13 letter, Buchal also said Redden mischaracterized the irrigators' argument that claims NOAA Fisheries had grossly "understated" benefits to transported fish and that the judge should use Horton to help understand information submitted by them that compared fish abundance in the Columbia Basin to other areas.

In his opinion, Redden said irrigators claimed that NOAA overestimated the benefits of transportation.

The judge struck Buchal's declaration and nine attached exhibits, saying they were an "improper attempt" to supplement the record.

Redden also struck parts of a declaration from an Oregon analyst that supported plaintiff environmental and fishing groups' arguments in their own litigation over the new BiOp. But Redden granted part of consultant Gretchen Oosterhout's declaration that "updated" NOAA calculations of survival improvements from both hydro and non-hydro measures based on the 2000 BiOp's framework, rather than the new one. He also allowed several other paragraphs that he found helpful in analyzing the "potential impacts" of the changes in the framework of the feds' jeopardy analysis.

By allowing some of Oosterhout's declaration, some long-time court watchers say Redden's latest opinion could be a strong hint that he will rule against the new BiOp.

The judge also struck a declaration by Tom Lorz, hydraulic engineer with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, saying it strayed beyond permissible purposes for extra-record materials. But he granted in part two other declarations submitted by two lower Columbia tribes that he found helpful in understanding the history of ESA consultation in the hydro system and the differences between the new BiOp and previous ones. -B.R.


The federal government says Oregon is falling behind other states in its effort to develop recovery plans for ESA-listed salmon and steelhead, and promised to jerk recovery funding unless it's used for its intended purposes.

In an April 5 letter from Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Conrad Lautenbacher to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, the federal government said it won't approve any more funding for Oregon through the Pacific Salmon Recovery Fund if the state plans on "backfilling" the fish agency budget to pay staff salaries as in the past.

In 2003, the feds approved a one-time use of the PCSRF funds for that purpose during the state's fiscal crisis. The state is slated to receive $11 million in 2005 for ESA-related projects from the fund.

"The generalized use of PCSRF funding for ordinary agency duties," said Lautenbacher, "such as enforcing forest management practices or maintaining state-adopted environmental standards, is beyond the intentions of the PCSRF."

Mike Carrier, Gov. Kulongoski’s natural resource policy director told NW Fishletter that he is meeting with NMFS regional administrator Bob Lohn next week to discuss how his state is using federal recovery money. "We don’t agree with the letter," Carrier said. "We don’t think we were quite as recalcitrant as one might interpret from a cursory reading of it."

Carrier said once Oregon clarifies the past use of funds, the situation should improve, to reduce misconceptions about where the state’s recovery emphasis "ought to be." He said Oregon plans on moving forward with the recovery effort, but staff limitations have hampered the state’s progress. No completion date has been set for the draft of its part of the lower Columbia recovery plan, but Carrier said NMFS wants it done by the end of the year.

The letter noted that Washington state has already turned in a plan for its side of the lower Columbia (the feds formally endorsed the Washington product April 18) and a recovery plan for Puget Sound is expected by July, with others coming by next fall. Idaho's subbasins plans, developed under the leadership of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, have all been completed and that state's Office of Species Conservation is working with NOAA Fisheries on completion of recovery plans "as soon as possible."

"Unfortunately, Oregon's effort's are falling behind," said Lautenbacher. Though he appreciated the state's help on a listing decision Oregon coastal coho, he said subbasin plans for the Grande Ronde and John Day watersheds haven't yet been adopted by the Council, and no recovery plans were near completion, either. -B.R.


New research has reinforced earlier findings that showed Puget Sound salmon contain more PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) than other wild salmon on the West Coast. The latest results show that Sound chinook contain nearly three times as many PCBs as chinook from northern BC or Alaska, with levels in the Sound’s resident chinook even higher. PCBs were once widely used as industrial coolants and in electrical transformers, but they have been banned since 1976. However, they will be around for a long time to come.

WDFW scientist Sandie O’Neill told NW Fishletter that it will take decades for PCB levels in local fish to diminish by much, and though levels in urban areas will slowly go down, various biological transport mechanisms will raise levels in more pristine areas of the coast. PCBs may be a carcinogen and there is evidence that it can hinder learning development in childhood.

Until recently, O’Neill said there was no data available to directly compare PCB levels in Puget Sound fish with other stocks on the coast. However, concern over PCB levels in a resident pod of killer whales has led to funding for the latest research, which examined salmon within the range of both northern and southern populations of resident killer whales.

The Puget Sound chinook contained PCB levels averaging more than 40 parts per billion (ppb) while BC chinook (Skeena River) were found to contain less than one-quarter of that amount.

Measured against other foods, salted butter contains about 70 ppb of PCBs, according to FDA data, a roasted chicken breast 32 ppb, a beef steak about 22 ppb, and a plain English muffin about 10 ppb, reported a 2004 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The latest finding show Columbia River chinook were in the 15-20 ppb range, and Sacramento River chinook averaged around 15 ppb. Puget Sound’s sockeye samples were in the 20 ppb-range, about twice the amount found in BC sockeye.

Chinook likely picked up the chemicals from foraging on herring which are already contaminated with PCBs from other prey lower in the food chain. Herring themselves ingest PCBs from zooplankton; the populations with the highest levels were found in central and south Puget Sound.

Other salmon species such as sockeye, chum and pinks, feed at lower trophic levels than chinook and coho, therefore take in fewer PCBs and other toxics.

The researchers used whole-body salmon ground up before testing. Earlier sampling of filets between 1992-1996 found comparable results, but PCB levels were higher since more fatty tissue was found in filets. PCBs tend to congregate in the fattier tissue.

The latest results were first reported last fall to the state’s fish and wildlife commission by a group of state agency and federal scientists and reached a wider audience at a Mar. 29-31 research conference in Seattle that focused on Puget Sound and Georgia Strait habitat.

But the PCB findings made scary headlines recently in some Northwest newspapers. Tacoma's News Tribune ran a headline that said "State’s chinook packed with PCBs," but PCB levels in the 50 ppb range are still well within FDA health guidelines of 2000 ppb.

Wild salmon advocates have been unusually silent since the latest findings were announced. Several such groups have used results from several highly publicized studies to claim that farmed salmon contain alarming levels of PCBs, pointing to a report published in Science (Hites et al, Jan. 2004) to make their case most emphatically. But WDFG’s O’Neill said the Hites study mistakenly lumped all salmon species together when it compiled its data. When the data is singled out, O'Neill said BC farmed salmon has been found to contain PCB levels similar to most wild fish. Most of the differences in contaminant levels in farmed salmon can be traced to the feed used to grow these fish, she said. Many farmers are using more soy-based fishmeal, which has reduced PCB levels in their product.

A farmed salmon advocate group, Salmon in The Americas, says researchers in the Hites study tested farmed salmon nearly two years before the results were published in Science. Their own independent testing of farmed salmon comes up with only one-third the PCB levels reported in the Hites study, with fish from Chile and Canada averaging about 11.5 ppb. The salmon group’s report says North Sea herring meal was likely the source for previous high levels of PCBs found in European farmed salmon. Chilean farmed product is always down in the 5-ppb range because fish meal from that region reflects the much lower levels of PCBs in southern latitudes.

But the campaign against farmed salmon has helped raise prices for wild chinook. Alaska trollers saw much higher prices for their chinook last spring, and it’s likely they will hold this year as well. They’re high enough now that in some places like Manhattan, unscrupulous brokers are pawning farmed product off at wild prices, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

However, another group of chemicals may be seriously contaminating aquatic species as well, O’Neill said. These are known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), used commonly as flame retardants in everything from computer monitors to carpets. She said their chemical composition may make them act a lot like PCBs when interacting with molecules in the human body to mimic normal proteins which may lead to impairment of learning skills during childhood. They "off-gas" from the environment into the air, where they return to earth in rain and eventually enter the food chain.

They are everywhere, "and they’re still legal," said O'Neill, who noted that the FDA has set no limits for them. She said researchers have found resident chinook in Puget Sound had eight times the PBDE levels of migrating chinook. Although there is no concrete evidence that PBDEs are harmful to humans, "it’s prudent that we slow their use," said the WDFW scientist, who noted that PBDE levels were doubling every five years in fish and in people. "We know enough to be concerned." -B.R.

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