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NW Fishletter #231, May 24, 2007

[5] River Managers Reject Call To Maximize Spring Chinook Barging

Hydro managers turned down a recommendation last week by NOAA Fisheries to maximize fish transportation in the Snake River for the rest of the spring. With reduced flows expected after the freshet's spike, the agency said fish would be better off in barges than facing poor inriver migration conditions.

The federal agency pointed to research data that indicated later-migrating juvenile spring chinook at Lower Granite and Little Goose Dam had a far better smolt-to-adult return rate when they were barged.

According to a NOAA memo posted on the Technical Management Team's Web site, the approach is warranted because the group anticipates "substantially fewer adults will return from fish left to migrate inriver versus those transported during the low flow and high temperatures anticipated to occur this year in the later part of May."

But NOAA Fisheries' Paul Wagner didn't get much support for talking up the bump in barging. Only Montana's Jim Litchfield and Shane Scott from Northwest RiverPartners expressed support for the action at last Wednesday's TMT meeting in Portland.

Oregon and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission opposed the change. Other representatives remained quiet about the issue.

Neither BPA nor the Corps of Engineers supported the barging plan. Both agencies had signed agreements earlier with lower Columbia and Colville tribes regarding 2007 hydro operations that included funding for some tribal projects excluded from the latest fish and wildlife budgets.

The agreements didn't specifically call for maximizing barging if spring flows were significantly reduced, though the updated proposed action for hydro operations still in effect calls for maximizing transport under low-flow conditions by ending spill at projects where fish are barged.

Curiously, NOAA Fisheries never made an official request for the change in operations, called an SOR, or systems operations request. One source said the fish agency didn't officially promote the maximized barging strategy because it was trumped by the side agreement between BPA and the tribes, developed in the remand process in federal court.

The NOAA Fisheries document that accompanied the recommendation said the 2002 water year was comparable to this year's flows, and transport smolt-to-adult survival rates (SARs) for wild chinook were four times higher than inriver fish for the late May period in that year.

Steelhead SARs were better for barged fish during that same timeframe--1.5 to 3 percent for barged fish versus less than 0.4 percent for inriver migrants.

Spring average flows at Lower Granite are expected to be around 72 kcfs, while the current May average is 82 kcfs. In 2002, the May average flow was 83 kcfs.

Another study (Muir 2006) cited by the feds said the poor performance by late spring migrants is probably because they miss optimum near-ocean conditions and are in poorer condition.

According to the University of Washington's DART [Data Access in Real Time] Web site, about 86 percent of the spring run, plus or minus 17 percent, had already passed Lower Granite Dam by May 16. In 2002, about three-fourths of the spring run had passed the dam by the middle of May. -B. R.

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