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NW Fishletter #322, September 19, 2013

[3] Newest Fish Plan Adds More Habitat Actions

On Aug. 23, the Action Agencies--BPA, BuRec and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--released their latest laundry list of specific habitat actions designed to improve ESA-listed fish numbers in the Columbia Basin, with some new ones added to improve six problem populations.

The list of new actions was included in the draft implementation plan that spells out federal fish recovery activities through 2018. The agencies are following U.S. District Judge James Redden's 2012 order, when he remanded the last hydro BiOp because it lacked specific habitat actions after 2013. He called for a new or revised hydro BiOp by Jan. 2014.

The revised draft hydro BiOp from NOAA Fisheries was released Sept. 9, and contains the plan's continuing and future actions, which will likely allow NOAA to judge that federal dam operations will not jeopardize ESA-listed salmon and steelhead populations in the basin.

Expert panels, convened in 2012, have looked at each habitat action in depth and have estimated juvenile fish survival improvements from both completed and future actions to restore habitat in tributaries and the estuary, a murky process that usually involves "best, professional judgment."

The panels were made up of biologists and tribal members familiar with each subbasin under review. More habitat actions have been added to boost numbers of six priority populations, where the panels had judged that current restoration work was inadequate to reach survival improvement goals developed in the earlier BiOp.

The draft implementation plan also includes tweaks in other areas, like fish transportation. It calls for barging fish from the lower Snake to begin as early as April 21, to increase the number of spring Chinook being barged. Last year, barely 25 percent of the spring Chinook and steelhead were barged from the Snake, when the BiOp itself called for more of a 50-50 split between transport and inriver passage.

According to the draft plan, the start date "is supported by research data indicating an April 21 start date will benefit listed wild ESUs. If recent years' estimates of percent of fish transported suggest a later start date would likely achieve this goal, then an alternative date may be recommended and coordinated through the TMT."

But hydro operations over the next four years will stick with the court-ordered spill operations that short-changed the percentage of fish barged from the Snake in the first place.

The court-ordered spill could also be playing a role in decreased adult survival of Snake spring Chinook and sockeye over the past few years, by making it harder for fish to make it up ladders without falling back. The draft plan calls for more study into this question, which will also examine the possibility that inaccurate harvest estimates in the lower river may also play a role, principally in tribal fisheries in Zone 6, above Bonneville Dam.

The latest plan also calls for ending expensive summer spill at lower Snake dams if juvenile fish numbers fall below 300 per day, beginning at the end of July. This was an element of the 2008 BiOp, but was nixed by Redden's court order that called for spill through Aug. 31. If juvenile numbers rise to 500 per day for two days in a row, spill would begin again.

"Additionally, in any year where natural-origin adult returns of Snake River fall Chinook salmon are equal to or less than 400 fish, summer spill in the following year would continue at Snake River projects through August 31, even in years where subyearling Chinook counts fall below the 300 fish per day for three consecutive days as stated above."

Adult numbers haven't been that low since 1998. Managers have released preliminary data on the size of the 2012 return, and it approaches 13,000. -B. R.

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