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NW Fishletter #241, January 18, 2008

[2] Future Harvest Regime May Nab More Listed Steelhead

Earlier this month, the region got a few glimpses of what's likely in store for the future of Columbia River fisheries. It's a process called abundance-based management that would allow more salmon and steelhead to be caught, including ESA-listed stocks such as wild B-run steelhead, when more of them are returning to their native streams.

A sliding harvest rate is already in effect for spring chinook, and that won't change much, said Guy Norman, WDFW regional director and one of Washington's negotiators in the ongoing U.S. v. Oregon process.

But numbers released at a recent joint Oregon-Washington meeting on harvest issues mean the new draft agreement calls for boosting inriver fall chinook harvest rates for both tribal and non-tribal fishers when runs are healthy.

First reported in a Jan. 3 article in the Vancouver, Wash.-based Columbian, the harvest rate for non-tribal fisheries would go up from about 8.25 percent to 11 percent when the fall run is above 200,000 fish.

When runs are that good, the tribal share would go up as well, by several percent from its current 23.04 percent, said Norman, who was careful not to get too specific about the future share of tribal fisheries. There is a long-standing confidentiality agreement among parties to the U.S. v. Oregon process.

But Norman said the lower Columbia tribes and feds had OK'd the release of the information at the meeting of non-tribal harvest stakeholders from Oregon and Washington that was reported in the Columbian article. The meeting was part of the Columbia Salmon River Fisheries Visioning Process that is trying to sort out harvest allocation issues between the sport and commercial sectors.

He said the draft agreement also calls for less harvest on listed Snake River fall chinook than now allowed when future runs are low. The non-tribal rate could drop to 4 percent or even lower if future fall runs are as low as some years in the 1990s.

Norman said when runs are between 217,000 and 271,000 fall chinook, non-tribal fishers would get the same share as they do now.

Left out of the discussion was the impact of the abundance-based harvest regime on ESA-listed B-run steelhead that are heading for Idaho, thought by many to be in pretty poor shape overall. The steelhead are mainly caught in tribal gillnet fisheries above Bonneville Dam.

Norman did say in years when higher harvest rates kick in, more steelhead would be caught in tribal fisheries, but the draft agreement also calls for more protection of the steelhead when runs are low.

He couldn't get any more specific than that, citing the confidentiality agreement in the ongoing U.S. v. Oregon process, which has expanded from its original focus on harvest to include hatchery production issues.

NOAA Fisheries must still complete a biological opinion on the harvest agreement for both tribal and non-tribal fishers, but it's likely the agency will approve the current draft since they have been a party to the ongoing talks all along.

However, other sources said that a retrospective analysis of the harvest proposal shows that if it had been in effect in recent years, more listed B-run steelhead would have been caught in the tribal fisheries than actually occurred.

The B-run fish are in pretty tough shape compared to most other listed Snake River stocks. Only the Redfish Lake sockeye are worse off.

The harvest agreement that expired at the end of the year, and was just extended until Mar. 24, allowed the tribes a 15-percent impact on the B run during their fall chinook season. An abundance-based harvest regime would allow catches a few percent higher than that in years of good runs (see story [3] for more on harvest rates).

At last month's status conference on the hydro BiOp, the steelhead harvest issue came up, with tribal representatives calling for the feds to include the future harvest regime in its baseline analysis. However, since the harvest agreement was not likely be completed before the BiOp, that issue has been up in the air. The extension granted by NOAA Fisheries may solve that problem.

In late December, WDFW's Bill Tweit told NW Fishletter that the draft harvest agreement was nearly finished and the states of Oregon and Washington were beginning their biological assessment, which will then be handed over to NOAA Fisheries.

He said there were elements in the hydro BiOp that affected the harvest BiOp. "It's an All-H plan, after all," he said, including issues like nailing down the funding certainty for "conservation" hatcheries that will contribute to recovering listed stocks.

Tweit also acknowledged there were still questions about the accuracy of B-run steelhead harvest numbers, which some parties say may be underestimated. -B. R.

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