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NW Fishletter #378, February 5, 2018

[1] NOAA Fisheries Releases Snake River Basin Recovery Plan

NOAA Fisheries released in late November its final recovery plan for three species of salmon and steelhead in the 107,000-square-mile Snake River Basin.

Eight years in the making, the recovery plan is a comprehensive strategy aimed at boosting survival throughout each species' life cycle, from reduced predation on juvenile fish to repair of degraded habitat to updated hatchery practices. It also specifies strategies to address the impacts of climate change.

The plan covers the fall Chinook run, the spring/summer Chinook run, and the "A" and "B" steelheads runs in summer and fall. Each species spawns in a different area and at different elevations in the basin.

The release of the Snake River plan completes NOAA Fisheries' blueprint for recovery of all ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin. A recovery plan for Snake River sockeye was adopted in June 2015.

Access to the species' historic spawning grounds in the basin has been blocked by hydroelectric dam development; approximately 2,500 miles of historical habitat has been lost to dams and storage ponds. Biologists estimate that only 20 to 30 percent of historically occupied Snake River subwatersheds are currently occupied by Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead, according to the plan.

NMFS estimates that recovery of the Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead, like recovery for most ESA-listed Northwest salmon and steelhead, could take 50 to 100 years. The total estimated cost of recovery actions for ESA-listed Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead is $347 million over the next 25 years. Recovery costs for fall Chinook over the next 25 years are projected to be $5.2 million.

"This recovery plan contains an extensive list of actions to move the [evolutionarily significant unit] and [distinct population segment] towards viable status; however, the actions will not get us to recovery," the plan says. "There will still be gaps, and our recovery efforts will need to be broadened and adapted as we progress towards the time when the species are self-sustaining in the wild and can be delisted under the ESA."

While total recovery of salmon and steelhead in the basin may be decades away, distinct populations of each species are trending toward viability.

Fall Chinook are in relatively good shape and not far from viability, Rosemary Furfey, salmon recovery coordinator at NOAA Fisheries, told NW Fishletter.

The fish have rebounded from a low of 78 returning fish in 1990 to near 50,000 in recent years, a total that includes hatchery and wild fish. The new plan estimates the species is within decades of full recovery.

While numbers of returning Snake River spring/summer Chinook and steelhead have risen in recent years, many populations remain at high risk, the plans says.

Steelhead depend more on small tributaries to spawn and raise their young, which makes them more vulnerable to habitat degradation and climate change.

But several populations of steelhead and Chinook are either trending toward viability or have reached their target populations, Furfey said.

Currently, naturally spawned populations of Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead inhabit streams in the Grande Ronde River and Imnaha River region in northeast Oregon, and the Tucannon River and lower Snake River in southeast Washington. Steelhead are doing well in the Salmon River and parts of the Clearwater River Basin in Idaho, according to the plan.

NOAA Fisheries' Snake River basin plan is just one mechanism that will guide the recovery of the species. In March 2017, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered federal agencies to spill more water at Columbia and Snake river dams to protect juvenile salmon and steelhead, in the ongoing litigation over the 2014 Federal Columbia River Power System BiOp that governs salmon recovery.

In May, Simon also directed federal agencies to begin working on an EIS to evaluate alternatives for operating federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, which will include the possibility of breaching one or more dams on the lower Snake River. That EIS is expected to be ready in 2021.

The recovery plans summarize earlier scientific analyses of dam breaching and increased spill, but defers any recommendations on breaching to the EIS process.

"Many people are focused on dam breaching, but the recovery plans look beyond that for recovery opportunities at all stages of the salmon and steelhead life cycle," Michael Tehan, assistant regional administrator, NOAA Fisheries' Interior Columbia Basin Office, said in a release. "Right now we know the ocean is not favorable for salmon, but that's largely beyond our control. We're focused on improving survival at those stages where we know we can make a difference." -Steve Ernst

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NW Fishletter is produced by Energy NewsData.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Contributing Editor: Steve Ernst
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