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[1] Study Says Cuts Needed in Incidental Catch of Fall Chinook
[2] Snake River Recovery Plan Goes On Hold
[3] EPA Wades Into Columbia Basin Controversy
[4] FERC Selects Approach to Idaho Dam Assessment
[5] Dry December Leads to Below Normal Precip Outlook
[6] Scientists Find Big Differences in Neighboring Salmon Stocks
[7] More Diversity Found in Cutthroat than Other Pacific Salmon and Trout



A new study says that although loss of habitat may be the major cause of declines in fall chinook stocks, the continued incidental catch of immature fish is still an important factor. The report was written by University of Washington professor Steve Mathews, who analyzed long-standing harvest management policies for the sports fishing group Long Live the Kings and the Northwest Area Foundation, a regional grants group. His findings are sure to generate controversy among sports constituencies; Mathews recommends wholesale changes to allow more immature fish to reach spawning age.

"The same biological standard that is applied to other species should be applied to chinook--the capture of mature fish only," Mathews said. He pointed out that benefits would include increased yields in weight and fish value; decreased incidental mortality; diminished selectivity against older maturing fish; and easier maintenance of optimal harvest rates if the fish were caught only in their last few weeks of ocean life.

But Mathews recognized that major changes in harvest strategies would have to be implemented to reach these goals--changes in types of fishing gear, length of seasons and areas fished.

He said fall chinook are exploited at much higher rates than spring stocks because of differences in ocean distribution and intensive nearshore fisheries on immature feeding stocks. He said up to 80 percent of the fall stocks from the Columbia is harvested, much of it taken at sea.

"The Columbia River dams kill more juvenile salmon than do the fisheries," Mathews wrote, "but if we ignore the shaker [immature fish] problems, we leave the hydropower industry a big sword to swing back at us when we fight for water releases to improve outmigration survival. We dull their sword by fishing responsibly."

Mathews said the region shouldn't rely on hatcheries to bring chinook abundance back. Natural runs must be rebuilt, insuring escapements on both large and small stocks.

He said the present catch level is about one-third to one-fifth of the pre-development level of around seven million fish. About half are caught by commercial trollers, 28 percent by sports fishermen and 22 percent by commercial net fishermen.

Incidental mortality from commercial trolling is around 300,000 fish a year, said Mathews. The impact from the sports fishery is also "substantial," he said. Studies in Puget Sound have shown that three sub-legal fish are hooked for every legal-sized fish (over 22 inches) encountered, with about one of every three dying from the encounter. Mathews reported that new studies have shown that coastwide mortalities from all fishing gear may account for about 30 percent of the reported catch.

"These various calculations and extrapolations," he continued, "indicate that there is substantial incidental catch waste, approaching one million dead chinook a year. If such waste was eliminated, and some of the savings converted to additional spawning escapement, total catch of chinook salmon in the long run could be increased even more than one million fish per year."

Foreign Fleet Never A Big Problem

Mathews' analysis concluded that two common culprits in the salmon's decline--bottom trawling and high seas gillnetting--have been "relatively inconsequential" compared to the incidental catches of chinook in the directed domestic sport and commercial salmon fisheries.

To focus on catching mature fish is of fundamental importance, he said. Promoting mass marking of fish without such a focus is "irresponsible fishery management" because catching immature fish has selective effects on populations that tend to reduce the reproductive potential of the average spawner.

Mathews has made several recommendations to change Washington state fishing regulations to reduce the incidental mortality. These include establishing a 28-inch size limit; banning treble hooks, downriggers, and flashers from all gear; closing winter fishing altogether; reducing depth of commercial nets; allowing only day-time gillnetting; and establishing a five percent allowance for catch of immature fish and closing a fishery if that standard was exceeded.

But by emphasizing harvest management in his report, Mathews said he didn't intend to "leave the slightest impression that the decline of chinook salmon can be unequivocally reversed by simply improving the harvest regime...Many rivers are sick." Replacement rates (number of adults produced per brood year spawner) "are dropping so fast in several cases that even if all fishing ceased tomorrow, stock recovery would be in doubt." -Bill Rudolph



NMFS Regional Administrator Will Stelle has indicated the recovery plan being developed by the federal fisheries agency for Snake River salmon is "on hold" because its focus is too narrow. He hinted as much on Dec. 15, when he told a Seattle group that the feds should suspend single-species recovery planning in favor of a basin-wide approach, and confirmed it in a Dec. 31 discussion with NW Fishletter. It has been over six years since the first Snake River salmon species was listed, and a recovery plan is still in the works.

The new tack toward a basin-wide approach isn't exactly a fresh idea, though. In 1993, the original Snake River recovery team had advocated strategies they felt would help other salmonid stocks in the basin as well.

The Snake River sockeye were listed under the ESA in November 1991, and the spring/summer and fall chinook were listed the following April. To fulfill ESA requirements that mandated a recovery plan, NMFS in 1993 appointed a group of experts to develop recommendations, a team that included three biologists, two engineers, an ecologist and an economist. Led by the late Professor emeritus Don Bevan of the University of Washington, the Bevan Team submitted its final recommendations in 1994.

In its October 1993 draft, the Bevan Team wrote, "In general, strategies for recovery recommended by the Team are mutually advantageous with other indigenous species of the Columbia River Basin, and can provide a framework for halting further declines and conserving natural populations of anadromous salmonids elsewhere."

The following March, NMFS presented its proposed plan for public comment. The agency received almost 1,400 individual comments and another 2,100 preprinted responses. Another draft was developed by August 1997, and has been undergoing review by fishery agencies and the panel of independent scientists shared by NMFS and the Northwest Power Planning Council.

Stelle told NW Fishletter that the change in focus is the result of two basic facts. First, the region is in the process of listing more stocks. Second, he pointed out that recovery strategies for each stock, as they relate to operation of the mainstem hydro system on the Columbia and Snake, must be weighed carefully because "everything relates to everything else."

Stelle said a basin-wide recovery process cannot just begin with the Snake stocks and go from there. He said NMFS scientists are now discussing just how to grapple with this new focus--to begin developing strategies that balance the risks to different stocks. These kinds of questions are already being addressed, such as the study of relative survival benefits from barging different stocks of fish at the same time--a strategy that's being analyzed by the joint NMFS-NWPPC science panel. They are expected to have a recommendation by Feb. 1 on whether it would be wise to transport fish from McNary Dam in the spring--a measure that would put more listed steelhead from the mid-Columbia in barges. Normally, barging from McNary doesn't begin until June to help juvenile fall chinook.

Stelle said the basic path remains the same, with a decision by late 1999 on whether to go to a full transport option or breach lower Snake dams. But he said the decision path could shift if the new focus points to a change in direction.

Stelle was hopeful the region is ready to cooperate in such a basin-wide recovery effort. He pointed to positive signs, such as the successful negotiation with the Yakama tribe on development of a hatchery program to improve mid-Columbia stocks--part of the habitat conservation plan that's being developed by the feds, the state of Washington, tribes and PUDS. "If we can do it here, why can't we be successful elsewhere?" he asked. -B.R.



The Environmental Protection Agency has entered the fish wars, wielding the big stick of the Clean Water Act. EPA officials last month served notice on other federal agencies they are ready to enforce federal standards for temperature and gas supersaturation in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

EPA Region 10 administrator Chuck Clarke sent a letter to the US Army Corps of Engineers on Dec. 9 that requested the Corps describe actions it will take to comply with water quality standards for total dissolved gas and temperature. EPA also wants a compliance schedule and a detailed budget "for making the necessary alterations to comply." And the agency wants answers by next March 15. The letter was also signed by Tom Fitzsimmons, director of the Washington Department of Ecology and Langdon Marsh, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Federal standards call for a maximum temperature of 68 degrees F. and dissolved gas limits of 110 percent. Although both limits are routinely exceeded, there is evidence that temperatures in the lower Snake have actually gone down since the late 1960's, after the four federal dams were built there. This has led some to question the true motivation behind the EPA's request. In part, the letter said that to ensure that the millions of dollars spent to comply with these standards in tributaries of the Columbia and Snake are not wasted, "we must make a concomitant effort to meet water quality standards for the mainstem as well..."

Clarke said the Corps' proposed research related to studying the incremental biological benefit of different levels of gas abatement "may ultimately provide useful information," but he added, "In this time of budget constraints, however, such research must not take the place of expedited actions to reduce gas levels and attain the water temperature standards."

On Dec. 30, Bolyvon Tanovan of the Corps of Engineers said his agency was studying EPA's letter, but had not yet officially responded. Tanovan said it was unclear whether EPA had in mind just the eight dams in the Columbia Basin under Corps authority or the 800 projects throughout the country. Tanovan was blunt about the situation. He said if one wants to get back to the temperature regimes in the pre-hydro days, "you can't do it" with the river system's present configuration.

Bureau of Reclamation's Response

The US Bureau of Reclamation has responded to an earlier joint request from EPA, the Colville tribes and Washington state agencies regarding gas releases from Grand Coulee. Their 14-page response, signed by BuRec's regional director John Keys, outlined the Bureau's strategies to reduce gas levels, but also raised the issue of what kind of coordination exists among the different agencies to manage gas levels. Keys said his agency would continue to work within the framework of the NMFS forum, which has been developed to deal with gas supersaturation issues that involve the BiOp, where an annual plan has been adopted that balances fish mortality associated with gas bubble disease and that which occurs from turbine passage.

The Bureau said that opportunities for reducing gas levels "are very limited" without expensive modifications to the dam "in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars," with costs going even higher from bank stabilization work.

Keys' letter also pointed out that "Grand Coulee is only one of many projects within the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest region which would need structural changes to comply with total dissolved gas standards. The high costs of gas abatement, combined with a lack of clarity on whether action is needed to solve a resource problem or a water quality standards problem, the infrequent nature of spills, the heavy influence of upstream sources of dissolved gas on levels observed downstream of Grand Coulee Dam, and competing regional needs for other ecosystem management actions may result in problems with securing funds for implementation of structural gas abatement measures at Grand Coulee Dam. An implementation funding strategy with some level of state and tribal cost-share may be appropriate under these circumstances."

In a 1991 study, consultant Don Chapman found that adult salmon migration in the Snake slows significantly for steelhead when the inriver temperature exceeds 72 degrees, and doesn't improve much until the water cools to 68 degrees. But his study pointed out that from 1962 through 1989, temperatures at Ice Harbor on the Snake trended downward. "This surprised us," said the report, "since several [of the] most recent years have been low flow years. During the 1960s, temperatures were higher than in the late 1980s, even though August flows were higher. While low flows can result in increasing temperatures, other factors such as air temperature regimes may be more important in determining future water temperature as irrigation withdrawal increases."

The study also pointed out that since Brownlee and Hells Canyon dams were constructed, a trout fishery developed below those projects, "which indicates a cooler water regime during summer than formerly existed."

Retired federal biologist Jerry Bouck said that years ago, the water temperature issue had been rated a low priority for research. According to Bouck, in 1982, the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Council, precursor to the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, decided that temperature was not a priority problem and that temperatures had declined in recent years.

As for EPA's entry into the Columbia Basin fray, Bouck was blunt. "It seems that EPA is either badly confused or chasing a hidden agenda. However, the facts are clear: the river is reportedly cooler now than before the dams were built, and these salmon were highly successful in a naturally warmer environment."

Based on BPA's controlled experiments, Bouck doubted cooling down the river by a couple of degrees could have a "demonstrable biological benefit."

"Now, if you could get it below sixty degrees," Bouck said, "there might be benefits, but unfortunately, that would be impossible, unnatural, and contrary to the evolutionary history of these stocks. And this isn't just my opinion. When I proposed to continue studying this issue back in 1982, the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Council declined support because temperatures in the Columbia and Snake weren't considered a problem anymore. I still have the letter."

But EPA official Jack Gakstatter said his agency was finally weighing in. He told the Oregonian on Dec. 24 that the failure of other federal agencies to reverse the decline of salmon has pushed the EPA into action. -B.R.



The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has decided how to approach the bevy of hydroelectric relicensing applications Idaho Power needs for its Snake River projects. Because so many of the projects are close to each other both geographically and in terms of relicensing timelines, the agency has been looking for the best approach to considering the projects' cumulative effects.

"We regard it as a positive development that we all now have a road map from FERC on how they intend to go about complying with their responsibilities" under the National Environmental Protection Act, said Steve Herndon, Idaho Power's director of hydro relicensing and compliance.

Idaho Power has eight projects consisting of 11 dams in the Snake watershed. Licenses for the Bliss, Lower Salmon Falls and Upper Salmon Falls projects all expired last month. They and the Shoshone Falls project, whose license expired last May, are all within a 57-mile stretch of the mid-Snake in southern Idaho. Not far up a tributary that nearly bisects the stretch are the Upper and Lower Malad projects, whose licenses expire in July 2002. And about 120 miles downstream is CJ Strike; its license expires next November. Further down, both the river and in time, are the three Hells Canyon projects, with licenses expiring in July 2003, and Swan Falls, expiring in June 2008.

Idaho Power filed to relicense Bliss and Upper and Lower Salmon Falls in 1995 and Shoshone in 1997. It is currently working in a collaborative process to prepare applications for the other projects.

FERC laid out four approaches in a scoping document and took comment. On Dec. 18 it announced it had selected "Approach A" in which "staff would prepare a site-specific EIS for the Bliss, Lower Salmon Falls, Upper Salmon Falls and Shoshone Falls Projects, which would include a cumulative analysis of all eight Idaho Power relicense projects--but only for resources affected by the first four projects (anadromous fish would be deferred)." FERC said it will do separate environmental documents for CJ Strike, Hells Canyon, Swan Falls and the Malad projects as their relicense applications are filed. "Additional or revised cumulative analyses would be included as appropriate."

The question FERC faced, Herndon said, was whether it should wait for all the applications and do one cumulative analysis for all of them--holding those already filed in abeyance--or do them in some serial fashion, looking at each project separately but taking all into account. "Essentially, they have decided to do a separate EIS for each project and, within each EIS, have a cumulative effects analysis that will build as additional projects are added." But some parts of the analysis would be deferred until the last relicense application is filed (for Hells Canyon), namely, the cumulative effects on anadromous fish. "They appear to be saying that each relicense will have a reopener for the anadromous fish issue," said Herndon, who noted he had only had time to skim the decision. "At least, that's my reading."

No Consensus Among Agencies

There was no consensus on the approach to take, FERC noted. It said the Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game liked Approach A, but wanted a multi-project analysis for anadromous fish to begin immediately. NMFS voted for Approach B, which calls for a basin-wide cumulative analysis followed by project-specific EIS's. The Forest Service wanted Approach C, which calls for simultaneous execution of the basin-wide analysis and project-specific EIS's for some projects, but wanted study plans for Hells Canyon relevant to cumulative analysis to be deferred until the analysis is completed.

EPA had the most confusing suggestion, saying, according to FERC, that it "supports a combination of Approaches A and B by using either Approach C or D." FERC said American Rivers wanted Approach D, which is like C except that staff would produce separate reports for certain key resources, and that Idaho Power wanted Approach C, believing it dealt best with the prospect of "extensive reopeners."

"What we said is we prefer to see a method that does not rely on reopeners," Herndon said. But while saying he would wait and see, he added Idaho Power is "not too concerned" about the prospect of reopeners for the Bliss, Upper and Lower Salmon Falls and Shoshone projects under Approach A, which defers the anadromous fish issue. "On these earlier projects, we don't anticipate any significant cumulative effects on anadromous fish." There haven't been anadromous fish on the mid-Snake for at least 70 years, he said.

Meanwhile, Idaho Power's effort to relicense the Hells Canyon complex through a collaborative team process continues. IPC released a consultation document a year ago. Last Nov. 19, the four work groups--aquatics, terrestrial, economics and recreation & aesthetics--submitted their list of issues and proposed studies to the full collaborative team, which approved them and forwarded them to IPC management for review.

Herndon said the company is in the process of developing a study plan for Hells Canyon as a result of the input it received. "We will be taking a summary of that back to the collaborative team in February for further input from them." He said it's "premature" to say there will be disagreement, but "we may need additional discussion." The document "should be viewed as a living plan that won't ever be complete," he added. Once field studies get under way this spring, "we may find we want to further amend it."

Herndon said he is pleased with the collaborative process, the first time IPC has used this new method to approach a relicensing. "I think we'll come out with a relicensing application that everyone will feel more comfortable about and without some of the acrimonious debate that accompanies the traditional method of doing these things." -Ben Tansey



The latest report from the Northwest River Forecast Center in Portland has estimated the January-to-July water supply at Grand Coulee will be 83 percent of normal, 75 percent of normal at Lower Granite on the Snake River, and 80 percent of normal at The Dalles, all down two to four percent from the December forecast.

December rainfall was low throughout the region, at about half of normal, with the Columbia Basin above Coulee receiving only 1.54 inches, or 51 percent of normal precipitation. 1.04 inches, or 53 percent of normal, was recorded at Ice Harbor on the Snake; and 1.58 inches of precipitation was measured at The Dalles--54 percent of normal.

Strong El Niņo conditions remain, which forecasters say will keep temperatures above normal all along the West Coast. According to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, three independent forecast models show a rapid change after June, with two models showing mild La Niņa conditions building by next fall and the third suggesting a "continuing, but grossly weakened" El Niño. -Bill Rudolph.



A recent article on the results of an intensive tagging and escapement study of coho on Vancouver Island should provide food for thought for Northwest fish scientists who are trying to model Columbia River salmon runs. It's an old saw in salmon management to use one stream in an area as representative of fish throughout a region, but this study has shown that such methodology can be truly misleading.

The study, authored by Canadian researchers Marc Labelle and Carl Walters of the University of British Columbia and Brian Riddell of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Nanaimo Biological Station, was published in a recent issue of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (54:1433-1449). The study was conducted from 1985 to 1988 and looked at 14 coho stocks in nine different streams within a 150 km. section along the east coast of Vancouver Island. Wild, hatchery, and mixed origin stocks were included in the study.

The results showed that "no stock or stock type had consistently higher survival, but one hatchery stock exhibited consistently lower survival." Smolt-to-adult survival ranged from 0.5 percent to 23.1 percent, but survival rates were highly variable across the years.

Perhaps the most important conclusion reached was in the area of stock management. "Fishery managers who assume that the exploitation or survival rates of stocks in one region are similar to those of an indicator stock should take caution," wrote the scientists. "Based on our results, there seems to be no justification for assuming that any stock or stock type can be used as a yardstick for measuring the response of neighboring stocks to ocean conditions and fishing pressures with a high degree of reliability. At best, it appears that indicator stocks could be used to provide to provide a crude idea of trends in mortality rates operating on stocks from a given region."

The researchers found that average exploitation on the studied stocks was around 80 percent, but in some cases was as high as 96 percent. With estimates of optimum harvest rates on natural coho on the BC coast around 71 percent, they warned that the abundance of natural stocks could suffer as a consequence, which would reduce their genetic viability.

They warned that "it might prove extremely difficult" to maintain high harvest rates on hatchery stocks to please fishermen while reducing rates on wild stocks at the same time, because the hatchery stocks they monitored showed no distinct patterns in space or time of their marine distributions. As a result, it would be hard to use traditional strategies such as time, gear, and area closures to reduce effort on wild fish.

The scientists said if indicator stocks are used to measure harvest rate, a rate lower than the maximum sustainable rate should be used, "since other stocks in the assemblage may be subject to higher exploitation than the indicator stock." -B.R.



Coastal cutthroat trout once supported a major sport fishery on the West Coast, but it has largely disappeared as these fish fade from Pacific watersheds. The Umpqua River stock has already been listed as a federal protected species, and last year, the Oregon Natural Resources Council filed a petition to list coastal cutthroat trout under the ESA from California through Washington state.

The lack of historical and ecological understanding of this subspecies impedes both management and conservation, but scientists from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station have begun compiling information on coastal cutthroat trout throughout the region, including BC and Alaska. The data being collected by Thomas Williams, Gordon Reeves, Kitty Griswold and Ken Currens is aimed at describing patterns of genetic diversity of native populations throughout their range. So far, over 43 populations have been inventoried.

In a recent paper, delivered at a symposium in Yellowstone Park last summer, the scientists reported some basic facts about this little understood fish:

  1. Compared to other species of Pacific salmon and trout, coastal cutthroat trout are characterized by smaller, more genetically diverse local populations.
  2. There is greater genetic diversity among these populations than is found in other species of anadromous salmonids in western North America.
  3. Consistent differences occurred among populations from different regions (Alaska, Washington/Oregon, and California), but within regions there was less geographical structure than observed among populations of other salmon and trout. This, the authors report, "paints a picture of coastal cutthroat trout as many small populations evolving independently in habitats that are diverse and constantly changing..."
  4. The many migratory life histories that coastal cutthroat trout have evolved over time would be advantageous in unpredictable habitats where smaller populations expand, decline, or become extinct with changing conditions.
  5. Coastal cutthroat appear to consist of many small, local, diverse populations that have evolved in a dynamic environment.

The authors conclude by saying that coastal cutthroat trout exist in small populations, and because of this, they are at greater risk of extinction than larger populations of other Pacific salmon and trout. Consequently, conservation measures designed for Pacific salmon and steelhead may not be appropriate for them. -Bill Bakke

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