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NW Fishletter #250, August 14, 2008

[1] Sockeye Slapdown: NMFS Pans FPC Spill Memo

NOAA Fisheries scientists have panned a recent Fish Passage Center memo that attributed good sockeye returns to more spill and flow.

The July 14 FPC memo is one of more than a dozen released by the agency since early June that could help plaintiffs in upcoming BiOp litigation.

The popular media had picked up the FPC memo and touted its results in newspapers and radio, but there was nary a word about the response from the federal scientists.

The July 24 NOAA memo, from hydro division staffer Ritchie Graves to assistant administrator Bruce Suzumoto, was blunt: "The [FPC] memo fails to provide an analysis of Smolt to Adult Returns (SAR)--a glaring omission considering that the apparent goal of the memo is to describe factors which likely contributed to the larger than expected returns of sockeye salmon in 2008."

The NOAA response said the FPC memo suffered from some serious shortcomings, and failed to mention the variability in ocean productivity and freshwater factors like the total numbers of migrating fish, instead of simply citing hatchery releases; the relative survival through free-flowing reaches before entering the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers; and other factors besides spill and flow that likely affect survival--temperature, turbidity, fish conditions, and removable spillway weirs.

NOAA said the FPC analysis was driven by a single data point--2001--a year when little spill occurred. The feds called that a "serious oversight which should be remedied by providing an analysis of the data without 2001. Such an analysis would show essentially no relationship (low r squared, highly insignificant) without 2001."

They also said the FPC analysis that showed a relationship between fish travel times and water travel times was "not well correlated."

The NOAA review also noted the FPC memo failed to mention other actions undertaken by Canada besides hatchery releases to increase productivity, "especially improved management of flows to protect redds."

The FPC memo also "fails to provide any data supporting the claim that more adults returned because transport rates were lower than usual," said the feds, who pointed out that no upper Columbia sockeye had been transported for years, and starting in 2006, about 97 percent of all PIT-tagged sockeye from the Snake River had been diverted back to the river.

"So few had been transported that we would not expect to observe PIT-tagged adults that were transported as juveniles," said the NOAA review.

The feds' findings clashed with assertions by the state of Oregon, which argued in its latest BiOp complaint filing that the feds' maximized barging strategy to improve steelhead returns would shortchange Snake River sockeye.

FPC director Michele DeHart was quoted in an Associated Press story on sockeye touting the benefits of spill on the sockeye returns, and Nicole Cordan, from Save Our Wild Salmon, told a radio audience on Oregon Public Broadcasting July 28 that the FPC "found" three reasons for the good sockeye returns on the Snake--a good flow year in 2006, additional spill, and less transport of Snake River fish.

The NOAA memo said the FPC analysis failed to provide a figure relating average spill to sockeye survival in the mid-Columbia as they did for sockeye in the Snake.

Nor did the FPC take a closer look at why inriver survival rates for juvenile sockeye were so high in 2006, a trend that didn't seem to show up with other species of salmon. The feds said these data "should be carefully reviewed to ensure that they are not spurious."

"The memo contains many statements like 'strong' or 'likely' that are NOT supported with statistical results (i.e., significant P-values or high r2 values)," said the feds' review (a P-value of 0.05 is equivalent to a confidence interval of 95 percent). "In fact, P-values are not reported for any of the analyses, leaving the reader unable to assess which, if any, of the relationships are statistically significant."

NOAA Fisheries is expected to expand their sockeye analysis. Its July 24 memo was an "initial critique," it stated.

There was speculation that some members of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council would ask the Independent Scientific Advisory Board to review the FPC memo, but since the feds are expanding their own review, they probably won't ask for it now, said ISAB coordinator Erik Merrill. He said the "ISAB will consider sockeye, and to a limited extent 2008 returns, in its spill-transport review, but this won't be a specific peer review of the FPC analysis."

Last week, the Fish Passage Center said there is nothing wrong with its recent analysis concluding that increased spill, flow and less barging have boosted sockeye returns in both the mid-Columbia and Snake rivers.

"We found no technical basis for modifying the original conclusions," the FPC said in an Aug. 6 memo that responded to the critique by NOAA Fisheries scientists.

In its latest memo, the FPC argued that if ocean conditions likely played a large role in the good returns, as the feds say, other West Coast sockeye populations should also have shown increased returns.

Actually, some of them have--the Fraser River's early summer run was pegged at 425,000 sockeye last week by the Pacific Salmon Commission.

In 2007, the early-summer run came in about 150,000 strong. The summer run is estimated at around 1 million fish now, down a bit from pre-season prediction of 1.8 million. Last year, the summer run came in at around 650,000 sockeye.

The Lake Washington sockeye return has been dismal, though. Only about 35,000 have returned this year, around one-third of the pre-season forecast. State officials say lake and marine survival rates are highly variable from year to year.

NOAA Fisheries is expected to release a more extensive review of the likely reasons behind the good sockeye returns by the end of August. -Bill Rudolph

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