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[1] NMFS Responds To Critics Of Its Extinction Risk Assessment
[2] Possible Mid-Columbia Fish Goals Discussed
[3] EDT's Rosy Hatchery Assumptions Questioned
[4] Corps Declares War on Birds
[5] Mainstem Water Quality Issues Still Unsettled
[6] Precipitation Pretty Darn Average
[7] Administration Seeks More Salmon Money

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Scientists at NMFS' Science Center in Seattle have responded to a recent critique of their analysis of extinction risks. The critique was sponsored by conservation groups Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, who maintain that the extinction assessment of Snake River stocks contains seven critical errors. In their response, the federal scientists said the review raised several valid points, but they were "perplexed" by other parts of it.


Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber supported breaching of the four lower Snake River dams in a speech in Eugene February 18 to a meeting of the Oregon chapter of the American Fisheries Society. The breach support rumor circulated in the region during the previous week, but was not carried in Fishletter because it could not be corroborated. Sources in the governor's press office would not characterize in advance what Governor Kitzhaber was going to say about breaching or any other subject. The governor's speech is available on the Web at www.governor.state.or.us. [C. N.]

In a Feb. 3 press release, TU's western conservation director Jeff Curtis said, "These errors allow the federal government to overestimate the time we have to save the Snake River salmon and underestimate the impacts of dams on their survival."

Curtis said if the flawed study was not corrected, the federal government would make flawed decisions on the best course to keep the Snake River stocks from going extinct. Trout Unlimited has strongly supported the strategy of breaching the four federal dams on the lower Snake to recover the fish.

In a Jan. 25 letter to NMFS regional director Will Stelle, and cc'd to a wide range of federal and state authorities, including the White House Council on Environmental Quality, representatives of Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, and the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund said they were "particularly concerned" about some aspects of the CRI analysis because they felt optimistic estimates of time to extinction of Snake River spring and summer chinook "may lead reasonable people to assume that the region can delay making significant changes to protect the salmon while we conduct further studies."

The critique, written by private sector system analyst Dr. Gretchen Oosterhout (a former reliability engineer with Hewlett Packard, according to the TU press release), said the NMFS analysis used a quasi-extinction threshold of one fish, which underestimated the risks of extinction.

The NMFS response by three CRI scientists, Peter Kareiva, Chris Jordan and Michelle McClure, said feedback from their workshops has led them to increase the potential sensitivity of their analysis. Now they use thresholds of one fish, 50 fish, and a 90 percent decline from current abundance, but they point out that Oosterhout's report cited thresholds for species or independent populations, unlike salmon stocks "that can be revitalized by migration." In part, the NMFS report says, "None of the populations that the CRI is considering are closed; many have gone to zero historically and then rebounded."

The NMFS scientists said Oosterhout did raise an important point about an assumption in the model they used--based on work by Dr. Brian Dennis of the University of Idaho--that rates of population decline are linear, i.e., that fish numbers are not decreasing at an increasing rate, but they pointed out that they have incorporated this declining trend in their analysis, saying it is the most conservative estimate of extinction risk that can by made for the Snake spring/summer chinook ESU.

The critique also asserts that the NMFS analysis assumes post-hydro survivals four times higher than observed in recent years, but the federal scientists said survival rates were derived from peer-reviewed published papers, along with PATH documents cited on the CRI web page and the Anadromous Fish Appendix. The NMFS response also stated that Oosterhout was wrong in her own analysis of indirect mortality.

Another question about model validation received a long NMFS answer that explained how the CRI analysis is not based on a single model, but is exploring assumptions and testing their analysis' sensitivity to them.

The NMFS scientists said their analyses "is using the full-1980 onward time series to estimate variance, but only the most recent five years to estimate a worst-case instance of population trend. This is a temporary solution, but a conservative one. It is worth noting that if ocean conditions improve due to a regime shift, recruits per spawner ratios may start to increase and calculations dominated by a 'poor phase' of ocean conditions could be labeled as too pessimistic."

The feds emphasized that some assumptions with the extinction model--namely, that the fish stocks are demographically stationary--"may appear to be quite dangerous given what is known about the coupling of salmon population dynamics to dynamic environmental conditions…" The NMFS scientists said they are running extinction risk assessments under a variety of demographic conditions to test the assumption and reveal their assessment's sensitivity to the different parameters.

The feds said the use of the spawner-redd count data and run reconstructions by others that has expanded the database has increased uncertainties over the numbers themselves. Such shortcomings have required them to modify the Dennis model, which is why they haven't completed the kind of analysis advocated in Oosterhout's critique--using textbook risk assessment methods. The feds say that developing such an assessment as Oosterhout's could be made, "but parameterizing such a model relies more on intuition than on data." -Bill Rudolph


Regional policymakers meeting last week in Portland heard from NMFS scientists on a variety of issues, including some tentative goals for recovering listed stocks in the mid-Columbia, where both spring chinook and steelhead stocks are in worse shape than in the Snake River and are listed as endangered.

NMFS scientist Mike Ford of the agency's Science Center in Seattle said his group has developed some very general recommendations based on recent NMFS work in a draft paper on viable salmon populations and other work that attempts to sort out populations. He pointed out that the intensive hatchery program developed to mitigate for the adverse effects of building Grand Coulee Dam "genetically scrambled the fish about 50 years ago."

The NMFS papers cite work with cheetahs, prairie chickens, elephant seals and house flies to examine issues of genetic fitness and population bottlenecks. One of the knotty problems in the mid-Columbia is how to untangle the effects on wild stocks from the number of hatchery fish (all part of the endangered ESUs) that spawn naturally.

Ford said a goal of 2,000 to 4,000 spring chinook spawners per year for each of the main populations in the Wenatchee, Entiat and Methow rivers "makes sense according to the region's habitat capacity." He said these numbers compare with the fish returns in the 1960s, but may be a little larger. He added that NMFS could set the goal towards the high end if habitat capacity is high, but lower if it's determined that habitat has been substantially degraded. He said modeling efforts under way could help scientists reach a number.

But Ford also reported that less than 100 spawners now return to the Wenatchee River, and only 30 to 50 adults return to the Entiat. He suggested a goal of 3,750 fish might be adequate for the Wenatchee. Last year's jack counts suggest that 1,500 spawners may return to the Wenatchee this spring, according to Chelan PUD biologist Chuck Peven.

A 1992 USFWS study of the region (Mullan et al) estimated that about 4,500 spring chinook returned to the Wenatchee after mainstem dams were completed in 1967, with 1,200 fish going to the Entiat and 2,700 to the Methow, and that those numbers stayed fairly constant for the next 20 years.

As for steelhead, Ford told the IT that interim recovery levels might be in the 2,500-fish range for the Wenatchee and Methow rivers, with 500 annual spawners for the Entiat. -B. R.


A preliminary analysis of Framework alternatives for fish and wildlife recovery has been criticized for its optimistic assumptions of the future effectiveness of fish hatcheries.

The analysis uses a method called Ecosystem Diagnosis and Treatment (EDT), developed by Northwest fisheries consultant Lars Mobrand, who said that the seven framework alternatives are ways of evaluating risks and benefits associated with specific actions. But in early February, when the results were first presented to the public, NWPPC staffer Chip McConnaha said the findings represented a possible future if all the things now wrong with hatcheries were fixed.

As for optimistic assumptions, especially with regard to the benefits of hatchery production, Mobrand said one must "evaluate the risks associated with the actions. The discussion should focus on the assumptions and risk of whether the option will succeed or not." According to Mobrand, risks increase as the alternatives rely more on technology.

"The EDT model isn't a predictive tool of what will happen," said the consultant, "it is analyzing what could happen with hatchery reform."

Currently, the EDT model assumes that hatchery fish are only 10 percent to 25 percent as robust in the natural environment as wild salmon. But the model also assumes that reformed hatcheries will boost the reproductive potential of artificially produced fish to 50 percent that of wild salmon.

Other assumptions that come into play deal with water quality improvements and increases in fish survival. Mobrand said preliminary results were also figured using less optimistic assumptions.

"Conservative assumptions are likely outcomes," Mobrand said. Based on the EDT results presented to the public, using the conservative assumptions would change natural chinook production in the Columbia Basin from a present net loss to an increase of 150 percent for Alternative 1, which calls for a 6-dam breaching scenario and no hatchery mitigation. Using more optimistic assumptions, which the analysis calls "operating conditions," comes up with the rosier prediction of a 306 percent improvement for natural chinook.

Conservative results for Alternative 3, which calls for breaching lower Snake dams, predict a 75 percent improvement in natural chinook numbers, rather than a 120 percent improvement with more optimistic assumptions.

Alternative 6, backed by industrial users and agricultural groups, would keep dams, restructure flows and pursue an aggressive hatchery policy and fish transportation program. Conservative results from the EDT analysis of this scenario predict a small decline from present numbers, rather than a 60 percent improvement from the optimistic assumptions, which include higher estimates of fish survival from barging fish.

Other experts have expressed doubts about the optimistic results as well. In a letter to Mobrand, University of Montana biologist Chris Frissell said "...present goals for hatchery production appear more optimistic than can be empirically justified. Therefore, I am skeptical the 2- to 3-fold increases in hatchery production envisioned under 6 of the 7 alternatives are in fact achievable under any reasonable scenario."

Mobrand said that conservative assumptions are derived from the uncertainty in the data and the model. "Science can identify uncertainty but it cannot resolve all of it. Decisions must be made given the uncertainty rather than put off until science can provide the definitive answers. The only way to deal with uncertainty is to have an effective monitoring and evaluation program and a commitment to carry out adaptive management.

"EDT is a tool for determining what actions and assumptions are needed to meet specified goals and to evaluate the consequences if key assumptions were to fail," Mobrand added. "EDT differs from other methods used in the Columbia Basin in that it attempts to account for the cumulative effects of all factors affecting the ecosystem." -Bill Bakke


The Army Corps of Engineers has reiterated its commitment to reducing the effects of the salmon-eating tern population in the Columbia River estuary with the release of a draft environmental assessment on the subject. The agency is taking public comment of the issue until Feb. 18.

The assessment echoes a September 1999 BiOp that called for modifying the terns' nesting habitat on Rice Island, near the mouth of the Columbia, "so that it is no longer suitable as a nesting site for Caspian terns or provide for the nesting of terns off the island in a manner that will preclude their nesting." The colony has grown to about 9,500 nesting pairs, about ten times the number that showed up to build nests in 1984. The birds feed heavily on the huge numbers of young, mostly hatchery smolts swimming by each spring.

About four acres of nesting habitat will be maintained downriver at East Sand Island for the terns, while the Corps works on ways to keep double-crested cormorants off nearly two miles of dikes to reduce their foraging on hatchery, wild salmon and steelhead smolts. Biologists have estimated the birds eat six million to 25 million smolts every year, which means they could be consuming up to one-quarter of the outmigrating fish each season.

One inadvertent benefit of the bird colony's predation is that the island has become a rich depository for PIT-tag data. NMFS scientists have detected thousand of tags there, left behind after being digested by the birds.

Work will continue on relocating more birds downstream, where their diet would focus less on young salmonids. Last year, a pilot project to move the terns successfully relocated 1,400 pairs of terns to East Sand Island. Another part of the plan calls for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop tern habitat at former sites up the coast at Grays Harbor, where the terns originally came from in the 1980s.

Now that more Northwest fish runs have been declared threatened or endangered, NMFS has estimated that nearly six million ESA-listed fish reached the estuary in 1999, primarily salmon and steelhead originating in both Snake and Columbia River tributaries. Using the mean consumption rate of 11 percent, the assessment says birds could be eating 647,000 of the listed fish, not to mention millions of expensive hatchery fish. -Bill Rudolph


Regional policymakers discussed last week how to include ESA and Clean Water Act concerns in the Federal Caucus' All-H Paper and develop a water quality plan to be added to the new hydro BiOp for the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers.

The new policy would have two main elements, according to IT chair Brian Brown of NMFS. One part would deal with using water from Dworshak Reservoir to reduce temperatures in the Snake, and a second section would work out details of monitoring temperature and dissolved gas information. Brown suggested setting a target area of about 12 years from now, during which gas standards can be met as spill is ratcheted up, with a check point about 2008.

Brown's comments at the Portland session puzzled some policymakers. After the meeting, Corps of Engineers representative Jim Athearn pointed out that no actions like the spill regime Brown spelled out have been agreed upon by action agencies. Others say that NMFS is pushing for higher and longer spill at dams for passing juvenile fish because the agency's arsenal of scientifically supportable recovery measures is dwindling.

EPA spokesperson Mary Lou Soscia explained how her agency is working with states to develop TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) standards for the mainstem rivers.. Soscia said that regional EPA head Chuck Clarke had a "gentleman's agreement" with the three states to take the lead, in conjunction with the states, to develop the TMDLs. She explained that such standards were being developed for the mainstem Snake and Columbia only. But after questions from Idaho representative Jim Yost, Soscia said the standards would apply to the Clearwater River as well.

Others wondered how important such efforts would be, since they were not focused on biological standards. At this point, fish managers are split over how best to use the Dworshak water to cool the Snake for migrating fall chinook. Some want to stretch the water out for the entire summer, while others want it released in early August. But Michael Newsome of the Bureau of Reclamation was skeptical about efforts to model temperatures because the actions discussed to reduce them were not tied to biological effects on fish.

A new temperature model developed by EPA is at odds with the Corps' own model. The EPA model predicts cooler temperatures for the Snake if federal dams are removed, while the Corps' model does not. According to documents filed in an ongoing lawsuit environmental groups filed against the Corps of Engineers over alleged CWA violations, Corps biologists say that records show that temperatures in the lower Snake were higher before the dams were built. -B. R.


Just average is not good enough for most folks, but for the Northwest, normal water numbers are welcome. Storm systems throughout the region during January dropped heavy precipitation, bringing rainfall up to a near-normal 103 percent of average as measured at The Dalles on the Columbia River. That's a jump from December's posting of 93 percent of average. For the season--October through January--rainfall at The Dalles totaled 102 percent of average.

Above Grand Coulee, January precipitation measured 100 percent of average, a drop from December's 114 percent. Those numbers are reversed at Ice Harbor on the Snake River, where January precipitation totaled 119 percent of average--a big jump from December's 89 percent.

The October through January precipitation for Coulee is set at 114 percent of average; for Ice Harbor, it totals 89 percent.

The January through July runoff forecast for 2000, as measured at The Dalles, is set at 106 million acre-feet, or 100 percent of normal. At Grand Coulee, runoff is predicted at 66.1 MAF, or 104 percent of normal. On the Snake River, as measured at Lower Granite, the runoff forecast is pegged at 26.9 MAF, or 90 percent of normal.

Snowpack continues to provide good news, with the Columbia Basin in Canada posting the highest accumulations in the region at 116 percent of average. Most of the southern half of the basin saw significant increases in snowpack last month, with the largest posted in the Deschutes, at John Day and the Snake River in eastern Oregon. The headwaters of the Snake gained slightly, but remain the lowest in the region at 77 percent of average. Overall snowpack for the Columbia above The Dalles is 99 percent of the Feb. 1 average.

Average January temperatures throughout the Pacific Northwest were 3 degrees higher than normal. -Lynn Francisco


The Clinton administration is asking taxpayers to spend several hundred million dollars this coming year to help save salmon, but it's a veritable drop in the bucket compared to the $4 billion price tag for the Corps of Engineers" nationwide Civil Works Program sent to Congress.

The proposed budget includes $91 million in Corps spending for Northwest fish mitigation projects at federal dams, with more than half going to improve fish bypass systems and nearly $41 million to study improvements to fish survival through the hydro system. Another $39 million would pay for NMFS' salmon recovery activities.

The administration is also asking for $100 million to pay for salmon restoration efforts on the West Coast, to be divvied up among Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska and $20 million to buy out Washington salmon fishermen, part of a deal with Canada to reduce US harvest of Fraser River sockeye that was spelled out in the treaty signed last year. Included is a proposal outlined in the treaty to establish two $20 million funds which would pay for habitat improvements in northern and southern areas with income derived from investments. -Bill Rudolph

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