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NW Fishletter #311, December 13, 2012

[2] NOAA Fisheries Goes Fishing For Salmon Recovery Advice

NOAA Fisheries Deputy Northwest Regional Administrator Barry Thom has invited more than a hundred different parties and individuals associated with the Columbia Basin salmon recovery effort to weigh in on future planning. In a Dec. 11 letter to invitees, Thom said the results will be available to all by late summer 2013. Until then, the recommendations will be confidential.

"NOAA Fisheries considers salmon recovery strategies within the context of Endangered Species Act, Tribal treaty and trust responsibilities, and other federal obligations," said Thom's letter. "In order to address these multiple mandates over the long term, we would like to better integrate existing and future recovery plans with Basin-wide strategies to address all elements of recovery. I believe that we will make better and more sustainable decisions that advance recovery with your engagement."

It's no secret that the agency is straddling many contentious issues besides hydro operations and debates over barging fish and spill. Will more hatcheries hinder wild fish recovery efforts? Or moving harvest regimes more to terminal areas reduce impacts on wild fish? Or is restoring habitat really very cost-effective, when in the long run, many stakeholders just want more fish to catch?

The feds will use the Oregon Consensus Program at Portland State University and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington, to conduct a "situation assessment" of regional views on long-term salmon planning. Both groups promote collaborative governance and consensus-based public policy. An assessment team will be put together that includes experts from Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

In his letter, Thom said "a situation assessment is an interview-based process undertaken to better understand and explore relevant issues and interests of involved parties and situation dynamics." Each interview will last an hour.

Thom said his agency would like to build on the momentum of our positive collaborations with local watershed groups and recovery boards, to "take another step forward. We want to ensure our existing and future recovery plans are comprehensive and integrated. A number of regional parties have expressed views that such an assessment would be informative to moving salmon recovery forward."

Several stakeholder groups have already expressed support for the assessment. "Northwest RiverPartners (NWRP) supports NOAA's focus toward basin-wide recovery because so many factors have contributed to salmons' declines," said Terry Flores, its executive director, in a statement. "And, as NOAA's announcement clearly recognizes, regional salmon recovery needs to happen on a broad scale." Flores said her group "greatly appreciates" that NOAA drew a clear distinction between long-term recovery efforts and the hydro BiOp. "The BiOp's hydro operations are only one factor affecting salmon, among many man-made and natural forces," said Flores. "Clearly, only a comprehensive approach encompassing all the factors limiting salmon survival throughout their lives will get us to the ultimate goal of salmon recovery."

The Northwest Energy Coalition also supported the federal initiative in a press release. NEC director Sarah Patton said she applauded "the start of wide stakeholder engagement in a Northwest salmon recovery that benefits fish, people, the economy, clean energy and our shared environment," and "that open, collaborative discussions among all interested parties offer the greatest opportunities for long-term success."

Patton said her group hoped that federal agencies move quickly to establish a formal solutions process. "After decades of illegal salmon-recovery plans, it's high time to move forward with an approach that works. Early indications of declining salmon returns next year further underscore the need for immediate action."

But Patton may be reading too much into the fed's new situation assessment. In an information sheet that accompanied the invitation, NOAA was clear about assessment's broad focus on long-term salmon recovery. "The scope of the assessment is fairly broad, seeking views on recovery planning processes that would be used to address habitat, hatchery, harvest and hydro strategies. We believe that in order to recover Columbia Basin salmon, we must address all sources of mortality."

Since the interviews will be confidential and no views will be attributed, the feds said regional parties can speak freely because the assessment is being conducted by a "neutral third party," which will identify potential options in an objective way.

Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, called the feds' initiative a critical first step. "It will be important that this effort leads to a collaborative process that includes all interested parties and considers all recovery options. Direct stakeholder engagement that allows all affected interests to collaborate on shared solutions for salmon, our communities and our economy will represent a significant turning point for our region." -B. R.

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