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NW Fishletter #204, October 24, 2005

[1] Politicians Get Earful On Salmon Harvest, Canadian Interceptions

With salmon recovery plans nearly completed for several Northwest regions, some stakeholder groups are wondering if stocks can actually recover if half of the fish are still being caught before they reach their spawning beds. Canada is a major culprit, they told a Congressional panel a couple of weeks ago.

But U.S. representatives to the Pacific Salmon Commission say they will come out "swinging" in the next round of negotiations with Canada over the interception of ESA-listed stocks by British Columbia fishermen. The only problem is that those talks aren't going to start until 2008.

Those were just two bits of information gleaned from two days of hearings held in Vancouver, Wash., and Tacoma on Oct. 11-12 by three Northwest congressmen, Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.). They conducted a whirlwind tour where they heard from long-time harvest critics, supporters and tribal fishermen, along with agency officials like regional NOAA Fisheries administrator Bob Lohn.

Lohn told the Vancouver panel that harvest rates on Snake River fall chinook were "painfully large." But the following day he said the measures in place were adequate to recover the listed stocks, noting that the Snake falls have been returning "well above" interim recovery goals for the past few years, an observation he said was "unimpressive" to the judge who ordered summer spill at lower Snake dams.

It was clear that the politicians were reacting to increasing pressure to take a closer look at harvest actions before the region is saddled with expensive habitat fixes of unknown benefit.

Oregon's Walden seemed amazed that the government allowed incidental take at all. "When I go out pheasant hunting, I don't get to take a spotted owl if my aim is off," he said.

The Tacoma panel heard from attorney Svend Brandt-Erichsen, who represents a coalition concerned about Canadian interceptions of listed U.S. stocks that may sue federal agencies to reopen consultation over the U.S.-Canada salmon treaty. The coalition has also called on the Customs Service to enforce regulations that would keep U.S. sports fisherman from returning home with chinook caught in B.C. because they might be from an ESA-listed U.S. stock.

In a letter received Oct. 3, the Customs Service told the coalition that they would refer the question about ESA imports to NOAA Fisheries.

In its notice-to-sue letter, the Salmon Spawning and Recovery Alliance said Snake River fall chinook make up less than 2 percent of the Vancouver Island catch. However, that's more than 50 percent of the ocean catch of the listed stock, and equals the number of Snake River falls in all the in-river Columbia fisheries.

The letter also reported that the Canadians catch many chinook bound for Puget Sound streams, where chinook are listed under the ESA for protection. According to the letter, between 1985 and 2002, B.C. fishers landed more than 55 percent of the Skagit River chinook caught in all fisheries, and just last year caught 70 percent of the natural-origin chinook bound for the Nooksack.

The alliance says these interceptions can be reduced if Canadians develop a mark-selective fishery for chinook like they have for coho, along with more terminal area fisheries.

But it may be hard to get Canadians interested in developing a chinook fishery that targets hatchery fish, said Larry Rutter, NOAA policy analyst and a U.S. commissioner to the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Rutter said he was concerned about "growing sentiment against Canada." Furthermore, he said, some of the DNA data used by Brandt-Erichsen's alliance are wrong, and developed by a lone Canadian rather than vetted in a bilateral process.

The alliance says nearly 90 percent of the chinook caught by Canadian fishermen off Vancouver Island are of U.S. origin.

Rutter said a bilateral effort to look at the interception issue was launched last February, and noted that Canadians "won't be greatly swayed" by arguments to cut back because they know that most are hatchery chinook from the lower Columbia, even if they are part of the listed evolutionarily significant unit (ESU).

Canadians are also cool to mass-marking because they feel the problems raised by marking all hatchery fish the same way coded-wire-tagged fish are identified (clipped adipose fin) are not solvable, Rutter told the congressional panel.

The coded-wire tag (CWT) database goes back many years, and has been used to determine which fisheries catch which stocks. But mass marking hatchery fish could undermine assumptions used until now by analysts on both sides of the border and could raise questions whether hatchery fish can still be used to represent wild stocks and if the hatchery stocks are caught in the same proportion to wild stocks as in previous years if only marked fish are kept.

The Vancouver hearing gave both dam bashers and supporters a forum. Bonneville Power Administrator chief Steve Wright said "dams are harvesters, too," because of cumulative mortalities at projects, but he noted the significant improvements in survival over the years, while the exploitation rate (ocean and in-river combined) of listed Snake fall chinook hovered in the 50 percent range, down from about 80 percent in the late 1980s.

Wright cited 2001 remarks from an independent science panel used by NOAA Fisheries to review recovery actions, who said they were "somewhat mystified concerning the scientific justification for current allowable harvests, especially the continuation of substantial or high allowable harvest rates on listed salmonid ESUs."

He also outlined BPA involvement in reducing harvest impacts to listed stocks by supporting select area fisheries, live capture methods, buying large-mesh nets for tribal fishers and supporting removal of ghost nets.

But ODFW fish division director Ed Bowles told the panel that 80 percent of juvenile salmon were killed by federal dams, according to the hydro BiOp's incidental take statement, while adult impacts such as inriver harvest have been reduced seven-fold.

Congressman Walden questioned Bowles, who said his mortality numbers came from the take statement, and that he did not know the measurements. Walden said he wanted more information.

Terry Flores, director of Northwest River Partners, a new coalition of BPA customer groups and river users, pointed out that 90 percent of the Snake fall juveniles are actually barged through the hydro system, where direct survival is 98 percent. In her written testimony, Flores said her group wasn't interested in putting the fishing industry out of business, nor did they want to get involved in the debate between sportsfishing, commercial and tribal fishers. "We do know that harvest reforms must be enacted," she said. "Endangered fish simply will not recover while they are continuing to be caught at today's high harvest rates."

But some fishermen and conservationists didn't blame the dams for everything. Native Fish Society director Bill Bakke said removing the lower Snake dams would not save the fish, and more immediate problems along the coast needed fixing

Others, like Gary Loomis, president of Vancouver, Wash.-based Fish First, a group of sportsfishing enthusiasts and other interested parties dedicated to improving wild fish runs in the Lewis River system, said they could live with the dams. Loomis said what is needed most is more native spawners in streams, a sentiment echoed by Ramon Vanden Brulle of Washington Trout at the Tacoma hearing a day later.

Dicks told spectators that the recovery goals developed in the Shared Strategy process in Puget Sound will be looked at again. Todd Woolsey, from the Puget Sound ESA Business Coalition, said his group feels that recovery actions should first focus on delisting the chinook and chum stocks currently under ESA protection, and then develop ways to reach sustainable harvest levels. He said a big assumption in the Shared Strategy process is that constraints to habitat are the biggest problem and further harvest cuts are not necessary. -Bill Rudolph

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