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NW Fishletter #241, January 18, 2008

[3] BiOp Critics Ignore Science Board Findings

NOAA Fisheries has been on the receiving end of hundreds of pages of comments on its forthcoming salmon plan and they must now respond. But it's not like they weren't asking for it.

Last November, regional NOAA Fisheries administrator Bob Lohn said his agency was going to accept public comment in the spirit of the collaboration that has guided the new biological opinion on federal hydro operations in the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. However, judging from the tone of many of the comments, the collaboration has been something of a flop.

The comments ranged far and wide over the salmon recovery spectrum. One individual expressed concern about the possibility of killer whales becoming schizophrenic if they don't get enough fish oil in their diet. Then there were nearly 20,000 pre-fabricated letters calling for breaching lower Snake dams, orchestrated by environmental groups, yet individually signed.

The exercise has also given parties to the BiOp litigation an excuse to expand on their comments at last month's status conference in BiOp Judge James Redden's court.

For environmental and fishing groups, the lengthy submission from the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition amounts to a play book for the next round of litigation about the newest salmon plan, scheduled for a Mar.18 release.

In their opening remarks, they said "a serious attempt to heed the best available science would lead NOAA to take a wholly different approach to this BiOp and its RPA" because they claim the science clearly shows that all Columbia Basin ESUs would benefit from the removal of the lower Snake dams.

However, when it comes to heeding the advice of the Independent Science Advisory Board, these groups and the state of Oregon as well, do not even acknowledge the ISAB findings on such important issues as the computer modeling used by the feds to estimate hydro passage survival, and other controversial topics like latent mortality and the Montana flow proposal because the board's conclusions do not mesh with the coalition's own long-standing mantra of dam breaching, more spill, more flow and less barging.

For lower Columbia tribes, represented through comments from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the exercise has been a way to apply more pressure to Action Agencies as final negotiations for long-term settlements come nigh in a confidential process that is trying to buy tribal support for the next BiOp.

The negotiations with individual tribes are reportedly not proceeding very well, and the Action Agency officials were discouraged by the nasty tone of the latest comments from Inter-tribe as they tried to forge the 10-year agreements which are expected to add more habitat restoration jobs on tribal turf and cost tens of millions.

"With respect to the hydrosystem the draft BiOp is a step backwards from current system operations specified under the 2000 and 2004 BiOps and the court for flow and spill," said the Jan. 4 CRITFC letter to NOAA Fisheries.

The tribes took issue with several new actions in the BiOp because they would reduce summer flows in the mainstem Columbia. That included the Montana proposal for flattening flows from its reservoirs--a strategy given the thumbs up several years ago by the independent science board.

CRITFC also complained about more "out of river" withdrawals from Lake Roosevelt, moving some upper Snake withdrawals into the spring from the summer period, downgrading spring and summer flow objectives, the draft BiOp's call for ending spring spill in May to boost steelhead survival by barging more fish downstream, and ending spill altogether in dry years.

The tribes also called for the final BiOp to contain other options if performance and recovery standards aren't met--breaching one or more lower Snake dams, drawing down John Day reservoir to spillway crest and adding more flows from Canadian or US storage.

The tribes made a big point of supporting more evaluation of delayed mortality. They said they supported the analysis by USFWS' Howard Schaller and IDFG's Charles Petrosky--which the ISAB has also looked at and found unconvincing. The board said regional scientists should stop trying to quantify that kind of mortality and concentrate on answering questions about the biological benefits of barging fish.

Overall, the tribes said most of their input during the collaboration process had been "disregarded," and that the proposed actions didn't go far enough. "For some stocks this may be too little, too late."

But their concern for weak stocks hasn't stopped the tribes from negotiating a new harvest agreement with state and federal agencies that could bump up future harvest rates on the distressed wild Snake River steelhead as much as 25 percent--up to a 20- percent level. According to the new agreement, that 20-percent take would go into effect when the upriver bright fall chinook run is estimated to come in above 200,000 fish and the overall hatchery and wild B-run is expected above 35,000 fish (the 2007 forecast for the B-run index was more than 45,000). The new harvest rate schedule is included in the CRITFC comments (Attachment F).

The parties to this agreement are saying it also provides for more protection for the fish when runs are low. For instance, if the B-run index falls below 20,000 fish, the tribal harvest rate would slide down to 13 percent, while the non-treaty rate stays at 2 percent. But the B-run index hasn't been below 20,000 fish since 1999. And the URB run has been over 200,000 fish in 6 of the past 8 years.

However, any mention of an increase in the tribal take of fall chinook that would obviously occur with this increased effort, including catching more ESA-listed Snake River fish was not included in their comments.

But it has been reported that the new US. v. Oregon agreement calls for the current 23 percent harvest rate on fall chinook to stay pretty much the same until the URB forecast is above 200,000 fish and the wild Snake fall forecast is between 2,000 and 5,000 (to Columbia River mouth); then it will rise to 25 percent.

With a Snake wild run expected between 5,000 and 6,000, the tribal harvest rate would go up to 27 percent, and the non-tribal harvest rate would bump up to 11 percent; with a 6,000 to 8,000 wild Snake fall forecast, the tribal rate would rise even more, to 30 percent, with the non-tribal rate rising to 15 percent. That's a combined inriver harvest rate of 45 percent, but it may take years to implement it.

The wild fall chinook run on the Snake has averaged about 3,000 for the last five years, which exceeds the 2,500-fish interim recovery target established by NOAA Fisheries. Returns have ranged from about 2,000 to 5,000 fish since 2000.

In the hatchery area, the tribes, especially the Nez Perce, called on the feds to maintain their mitigation obligations despite an ongoing hatchery reform effort they called an "empty promise."

The SOS coalition had a more jaundiced view of hatcheries. They said the draft BiOp "reflects an unjustified reliance on hatchery actions--the success of which are currently uncertain and the known negative impacts of which are not accurately or effectively taken into account--to mask the effects of ongoing hydrosystem operations and assert that these operations will not jeopardize the listed species. This approach is contrary to both the law and the science."

SOS said the latest science on hatcheries makes the mitigation standard "suspect" in the Mid-Columbia PUDs' Habitat Conservation Plan, which allows hatcheries to substitute for up to 7 percent of its no net impact standard for unavoidable mortality past each dam. They called on NOAA to "seriously consider" reopening the HCP to do more to make up for its deficiencies "by requiring significantly improved survival rates at the federal dams on the lower Columbia."

The feds have already admitted that there isn't much they can do to squeeze more juvenile fish survival out of the dams. They estimate that survival past each FCRPS dam now averages about 96 percent for spring migrants and 93 percent for summer migrants.

So just what will it take to sort out all these comments? BiOp Judge James Redden said last month he may appoint a science panel himself to look at certain elements in the next BiOp. He might use the current ISAB, but it was reported that there is some resistance to that idea from several ISAB members themselves. A potential list of ex-ISAB members was delivered to the judge a long time ago. Most on the list were on the board when they judged the Montana proposal and other controversial issues. -B. R.

The following links were mentioned in this story:

comments

status conference

ISAB findings

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