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NW Fishletter #360 August 1, 2016

[3] Council Looks At Past Efforts Before Preparing Fish RM&E Plan

In summarizing recent spending on research, monitoring and evaluation, Tom Karier, a Washington member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, told colleagues at a July 13 meeting that high spending on critical uncertainties doesn't guarantee progress.

In his presentation, Karier showed that 186 current projects in the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program have elements of research, monitoring and evaluation (RM&E), with a cumulative budget of $89 million.

For projects with work elements that were less than 100-percent RM&E, the dollar estimate was made by identifying the relevant research-related elements and including 18-percent overhead on these activities.

From 2004 to 2016, RM&E budget totals exceeded $1 billion, he said.

The 2014 F&W program calls for a review of past performance as an initial part of updating the program's current research plan, which dates from 2006.

For more than a decade, the priority area for RM&E funding has been fish propagation.

The next largest recipients of funding have been for tributary habitat restoration and hydro-system flow and passage operations, which continue as priorities in the 2016 budget.

Another charge from the 2014 F&W program is to see how research funds were allocated to the critical uncertainties identified and ranked by the Independent Scientific Advisory Board and the Independent Scientific Review Panel in a report earlier this year.

Analysis by Karier and Council biologists Patty O'Toole and Stacy Horton showed that fish-propagation research projects with the largest budgets are in fact addressing critical uncertainties ranked priority and high.

Karier, however, offered a caveat on the relationship between funding and resolving scientific questions: "High spending on critical uncertainties doesn't guarantee progress."

To make the point, he showed a table that reported only "medium" progress on the four critical uncertainties receiving the most funding. Three are related to fish production research and one to tributary habitat restoration.

CHaMP research
CHaMP research, Catherine Creek, Oregon. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Digging into the details of the ISAB/ISRP report indicates that of the seven fish-propagation theme uncertainties, three have achieved progress rankings of high; three, medium; and one, low.

Only medium progress was made on the two propagation questions to which ISAB and ISRP assigned top priority, which focus on the magnitude of any benefit to natural production from supplementation and the spawning fitness of the supplemented populations.

One of the largest fish-propagation research projects is an arm of the Yakama Nation's Yakima/Klickitat Fisheries Project (YKFP), which addresses six of seven critical uncertainties directly and one indirectly.

YKFP research has made high progress on three scientific uncertainties and medium on another three.

"With three high ratings, three medium ratings, and one not being currently funded, I would assert that substantial progress has been achieved," Dave Fast, Yakama Nation Fisheries research manager, told NW Fishletter.

As to why fish propagation is the most expensive research area, Fast said that it was "the primary means BPA is using to mitigate for the negative effects of hydro-system development."

"The Council's own ISAB and ISRP have identified fish propagation-related questions among the subset of priority and high criticality questions that require relatively extensive RM&E programs before they will recommend a proposal for funding," he said.

The ISAB/ISRP report itself says, "Confirming meaningful changes in ecological outcomes from habitat restoration or supplementation projects takes many years of careful monitoring."

Tributary habitat research projects are also receiving high levels of funding, the Council's analysis shows.

The priority uncertainty question the ISAB and ISRP identified for tributary work concerns the impact of habitat restoration on survival, productivity, distribution and abundance of native fish populations.

The Council presentation showed that research in this area is achieving only medium progress in resolving this critical uncertainty.

Among the biggest habitat research projects addressing this and other scientific questions are two multi-agency efforts led by NOAA Fisheries--the Integrated Status and Evaluation Project (ISEMP) and the Columbia River Habitat Monitoring Program (CHaMP).

Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA, said medium progress is explained by the recent ISAB/ISRP work on critical uncertainties.

What the ISAB/ISRP report says, among other things, is that less is known about the aggregate effects of restoration at the watershed level, because they have to be measured at such large scales of space and time.

"What really makes ISEMP and CHaMP unique is the long-term monitoring," Milstein said. "Given the natural variability of fish returns and the many variables that affect habitat over such a large scale, it may take years to document and attribute trends in habitat quality and in fish populations.

"In short," he added, "you have to tease the signal out of a lot of background noise, and you need time to do that. ISEMP and CHaMP are among the first and most ambitious attempts anywhere to measure the effects of restoration on these landscape scales."

On the other end of the funding spectrum is climate-change research. Although it's a category with high and priority uncertainties that need to be addressed, no dollars have been budgeted to date for research or monitoring.

The Council analysis also drew attention to reporting problems, including in projects with the largest budgets.

However, as of May 2016, the available annual reports show that only nine of the 17 largest research projects stated hypotheses and related them to uncertainties, and none of the 25 largest RM&E projects reported an anticipated end date for their work.

Reporting must be improved if it is to be used for adaptive management, Karier said.

"There is very limited documentation of how findings are applied to adjust or improve future restoration work (location, design and/or implementation)," the ISAB/ISRP report said.

RM&E findings should "serve as a foundation or reference for comparing predicted versus actual results," the report said.

The Council intends to work with BPA to improve compliance, and encourages BPA to separate research contracts and monitoring contracts.

The next step in developing a new research plan is to establish a methodology for determining budget priorities. -Laura Berg

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