Puget Sound Orcas' Plight Linked To Snake River Dam Removal
Some orca proponents say recovering Chinook runs in the Snake and Columbia rivers through increased spill and removal of the four lower Snake River dams is a vital component to saving southern resident killer whales from extinction.
However, NOAA Fisheries scientists maintain that recovering salmon stocks throughout the killer whale's entire range, from Northern California to Canada, is important and that no single basin will save the whales.
The agency also says hatcheries produce more than enough Chinook--the pod's main prey--in the Columbia and Snake rivers to offset any losses caused by dams.
The focus on Columbia River Basin dams comes as the population of 75 killer whales that summer in Puget Sound attracted international attention when a mother whale gave birth to a calf, which died in less than an hour.
For more than two weeks, the mother was seen pushing her baby to the surface in what some observers have interpreted as a demonstration of her grief. During that time, biologists noticed a 3-year-old female in the pod was emaciated, and attempted to feed her, provide her with medicine and observe her condition continue.
Efforts to recover this population of killer whales have been underway for several years. Southern residents were initially listed as endangered in 2005, and NOAA Fisheries completed a recovery plan in 2008.
This year, in March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order forming a task force to develop an action plan to recover the whales and ensure a sustained population into the future.
Both NOAA Fisheries and the governor's proclamation identify three primary causes of the orca's decline: prey availability, toxic contaminants, and disturbance from noise and vessel traffic.
NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said none of the three problems are considered a leading cause of the orca's decline.
"We think they're all essentially important in different ways," Milstein said. In some cases, the problems compound one another. For example, he said, "When there's a lot of ship noise, whales can't use their echolocation to find fish," so in that case, the availability of prey is secondary.However, a July 31 news release from the Orca Salmon Alliance claims, "An extreme shortage of prey--primarily Chinook salmon--is the leading cause for their decline in recent years."
Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, which is part of the Alliance, said food is a daily need, and if the whales had enough prey, impacts of vessel noise and toxins wouldn't be as severe.
"The fact that there aren't many fish means the vessel issue is worsened," Bogaard said. Toxins, too, are more of a problem for the whales because they don't have enough to eat, since whales store toxins in their blubber, and when they don't have enough food, they start burning up the blubber." If we were able to get those guys a lot more food, in the near term, then those other issues would not go away, but they're lessened," he said.
The Alliance news release said the whales should now be foraging on Fraser River salmon, and that research has shown a direct correlation between the size of the Fraser River salmon runs and the presence of southern residents in their core summer habitat, the San Juan Islands and surrounding waters and the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver, British Columbia.
The news release also says southern residents have, at best, five more years of reproductive potential, and that urgent actions are needed to improve Chinook salmon stocks throughout their range, from central California to British Columbia, and "especially the Columbia-Snake River system."
"The Columbia basin was once the most productive salmon basin on the planet. It produced upwards of 20 million fish returning as adults every year," Bogaard said. He said in the populous Salish Sea basin, it will take a complicated approach to restore salmon habitat. But in the Columbia and Snake rivers, he said, "The restoration potential is really high," he added. "Upstream, it doesn't need to be restored. It needs to be effectively reconnected to provide salmon access."
While the Alliance's news release does not mention removing dams or spilling more water, the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition is pushing for Inslee's task force to include both measures in its recommendations.
In an Aug. 7 statement, the Coalition said Washington state should work with Oregon and federal dam managers to increase spill to 125 percent of total dissolved gas at the lower Snake and lower Columbia river dams, beginning in 2019.
And, the statement said, Inslee should support removal of the four lower Snake River dams to provide better access to thousands of miles of prime salmon habitat.
The push for more spill and dam removal on the Snake River doesn't sit well with Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners. "If people are genuinely serious about helping orcas--which I hope we all are--using spill or dam removal is not helpful to the orcas," she said. "We are in complete agreement that this iconic species should not go extinct on our watch, or anyone's watch. And what that means is, you really need to focus and [home] in on those things that have some scientific basis, and can be accomplished quickly," she said.
Flores said that there's no scientific basis for claiming that additional spill or removing lower Snake River dams will improve Chinook runs. And, removing the dams would take far too long to make a difference. She said some groups with a long-held agenda to remove the Snake River dams appear to be using this emotional issue to advance their goals. "I find that disheartening because it simply doesn't help the orca situation, and if anything, it undermines it. It distracts from potential solutions that could be implemented in the short term," she said.
Bogaard said historically, the Snake River produced roughly half of the basin's spring Chinook. He said removing the lower Snake River dams would allow more adults and juveniles to pass the dams and survive, and help cool water temperatures. He acknowledged removing the dams would take years, but a decision now would put the whales on a path to recovery. "It's not a decision for the governor to make," he said, "but he's in a position to bring stakeholders together and say, 'This is what we need to do.'"
But scientists at NOAA Fisheries say that, while Snake River Chinook are part of the whale's diet, they are not the only or most important part. Milstein said scientists don't know what percentage of the orca's diet consists of Snake River Chinook. He said a recent study rating 31 Chinook stocks that southern resident orcas consume highlights the importance of all the stocks, because they rely on different runs at different times of the year.
Milstein said the Fraser River in British Columbia and rivers emptying into Puget Sound have long provided orcas with a major source of Chinook, especially because the whales have access to those areas much of the year. But, he added, "It's not about any one river, it's about the diversity of rivers and stocks over the course of any year. It's not intended to show that one stock is more important. It's about how much of a role each one plays in their food supply and survival."
More importantly, Milstein said, the Snake River is a bright spot in terms of production of Chinook salmon, when hatchery fish are included. Numbers of returning adults--both wild and hatchery--passing Lower Granite Dam hovered around 50,000 fish in the 1960s and early 1970s, and then suffered declines until about 2000, when hatchery fish began to fill in the losses. Average returns from 2005 through 2015 totaled more than 92,000 adults. Similarly, fall Chinook passing Lower Granite Dam have increased dramatically since the 1970s, and in recent years have numbered between 30,000 and 60,000 adults. The numbers represent escapement after harvest and losses to predators.
Milstein added there's no indication the orcas prefer wild Chinook over hatchery fish. "Essentially, the whales have access to as many or more fish from the Columbia River Basin as they would have otherwise," he said. "And hatchery fish have been documented in their diet. They prey on both," he said.
This isn't the first time groups have eyed the lower Snake River dams in relation to orca recovery. A 2016 NOAA Fisheries fact sheet outlines the issue, and Milstein said his agency's position hasn't changed since then.
"We think all of these stocks are important, and we're moving with a lot of different partners to recover them, through a lot of different means, whether it's managing hatchery production in a way that protects wild fish, managing harvest to the extent that we can make a difference, and dam passage, which is much improved," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 BPA Proposes Smaller Annual Budget For Fish Accords Extension Through 2022
The Bonneville Power Administration has renegotiated an extension of the Columbia Basin Fish Accords for four years with all its partners except the State of Washington, and has released the proposed agreements with states and tribes for public comment.
The draft agreements uphold Bonneville's determination to keep all its program costs--including fish and wildlife projects--at or below inflation rates, including any new costs from litigation or future Biological Opinion requirements, a BPA official said.
"Part of the challenge, and what I really like about the [new] Accords is, it recognizes the challenging situation Bonneville faces economically," Bryan Mercier, executive manager of BPA's fish and wildlife division, told NW Fishletter. "These agreements help us get to the cost-management goals we have in the strategic plan," he said.
Although figures in the agreements add up to more than $448 million over four years--averaging more than $112 million a year--Mercier said when subtracting Idaho and Montana programs now being funded through BPA's Fish and Wildlife Program but proposed to move to the Accords, the average yearly cost would be $96.5 million, including inflation. The current Accords, with inflation added, cost an average of $109 million per year, he said.
"All of the partners are taking a reduction," Mercier added.
Initially signed in May 2008, the original Accords provided more than $1 billion over the last decade "to improve fish survival and habitat, and to advance fish recovery in the Columbia River Basin."
Designed to supplement biological opinions for listed salmon and steelhead and BPA's Fish and Wildlife Program, the Accords provided firm and long-term funding commitments from Bonneville for fish projects related to hydro, habitat and hatchery actions.
It also provided some assurances that signatory tribes and states would not sue the federal action agencies over operation of the federal hydro system. Specifically, they agreed not to "initiate, join in, or support in any manner, ESA, Northwest Power Act, Clean Water Act or Administrative Procedure Act suits against the Action Agencies or NOAA regarding the legal sufficiency of the FCRPS and Upper Snake BiOps."
When it was signed, then-BPA Administrator Steve Wright announced, "These Accords move the focus away from gavel-to-gavel management and toward gravel-to-gravel management. By putting litigation behind us and putting actions to help fish in front of us, we will better ensure that Columbia Basin fish will benefit."
Mercier said the new Accords provide similar assurances among the signatories, although in a much friendlier and more trusting way.
"I think back then, we didn't know what to expect," he said. "It was a leap of faith that really worked, in my opinion."
Mercier said focusing on the work needing instead of whether fish projects would hold up in court as mitigation for impacts of hydroelectric dams benefits everyone.
"I don't think we are intending to win in court with these agreements. We're measuring our results by how we are doing with fish," he said.
The original agreement was among BPA; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC); the Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama and Colville tribes; and the states of Idaho and Montana.
Over the following three years, the State of Washington, and the Shoshone-Bannock and Kalispel tribes also signed.
Most of the Accords, including what Mercier called a "mini-Accord" with Washington, will expire in September, unless extended. He said BPA and the other federal agencies continue to negotiate with Washington on a new memorandum of understanding that will not include the same commitments, and will not require public review, as it will not be legally binding.
He said the Accords are being renewed for only four years--until September 2022 or when action agencies release a new Environmental Impact Statement for the Columbia River hydro system, whichever comes first--because the new Biological Opinion will have a major impact on BPA's financial situation, and on legal requirements surrounding operation of the federal dams.
"That's a major milestone for the hydro system" that will include an honest look at removing the four lower Snake River dams, and a host of other potential mitigation measures, Mercier said. He also said BPA does not want to influence the EIS process by entering into agreements that could impact the outcome.
Jaime Pinkham, CRITFC's executive director, said he understands BPA's need to cut costs in the new Accords and to limit the extension to four years. "You've got to be partners in good times and bad," he said, adding, "Bonneville is looking at their revenue flow, and we understand the challenges they face."
The Accords, he said, have not only provided long-term funding certainty for important fish recovery projects, but also long-term relationships with new on-the-ground partners. CRITFC recently released a 10-year report on accomplishments of the Accords from projects initiated by the tribes it represents.
"When you look at that 10-year report, you've got to be amazed at what is accomplished when you enter into these agreements," he said. "To me, it was a stroke of good business."
Bonneville has said that, altogether, the Accords have helped restore more than 8,000 acres of estuary flood plain and reopen nearly 4,000 miles of spawning grounds throughout the Columbia and Snake river basins.
Northwest organizations tracking BPA and its funding issues and cuts had different reactions to Bonneville's announcement on extending the Accords.
Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, said via email: "We will review these extensions closely and with at least two filters: do they move the ball forward for effective fish mitigation, and are they consistent with the critical need to control costs and stabilize budgets and power rates? If BPA is not a competitive supplier in the future and loses too much of its customer base, its program funding in this and many other areas could be threatened."
Sean O'Leary, spokesman for the NW Energy Coalition, said Bonneville is failing to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act, so its intention to hold spending at or below the rate of inflation, including any new legal obligations, such as spilling more water, doesn't offer much hope.
"While the Accords have provided valuable, dedicated, multi-year funding to tribes and the states, they have done so as part of a broader approach that has been inadequate to meet the legal requirements for fish protection and recovery," he wrote in an email. "And decreasing total expenditures is a step in the wrong direction."
Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said her group supports the spirit of collaboration among the federal agencies, states and tribes. "As we review the Accords we will be looking for projects and measures that are scientifically based to ensure that the investment being asked of BPA's customers will provide real benefits for endangered species," she wrote in an email, adding, "We are understandably concerned with how the Accords might affect BPA's financial situation especially given the uncertainties surrounding future federal hydrosystem operations and costs."
 Council OKs Hatchery Test For Pacific Lamprey Recovery
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) voted Aug. 15 to approve the next step in a long-term plan to recover Pacific lamprey in the Columbia River Basin, but will leave the question of funding to the Bonneville Power Administration.
However, with funds and additional approvals, the Umatilla and Yakama tribes and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission will--for the first time--begin releasing lamprey larvae into a handful of rivers to study whether hatchery programs can help recover this ancient jawless fish whose population has greatly diminished from historical numbers.
The fish provide an important source of food for tribes, and play a significant role in the Northwest's ecosystem, bringing back marine-derived nutrients to the freshwater environment, and offering a high-calorie source of prey for marine and freshwater predators, such as sea lions and cormorants.
The Council's support for the next five years--which includes Phase 2 and part of Phase 3 of the "Master Plan: Pacific Lamprey Artificial Propagation, Translocation, Restoration, and Research"--means that after years of laboratory research, tribes can begin to study whether young lamprey reared in a hatchery will survive in a natural setting, migrate to the ocean and return as adults.
If funding and environmental approvals come through, work to recover lamprey will include planting larvae in the Yakima, Naches, Tucannon and Walla Walla rivers, and relocating adults to the Methow, Yakima, Umatilla and Grand Ronde rivers.
Mindful of funding issues at BPA, the Council's blessing also came with a "request" that Bonneville and the tribes assess whether adequate funding is available. That caveat marks a new era in how the Council approves fish and wildlife projects, said Mark Fritsch, the Council's project implementation manager.
Fritsch noted Bonneville is still negotiating with contractors across the region on its fiscal year 2019 budget, and the Council is not part of those negotiations. He said the Council's action makes it clear that funding the Pacific lamprey master plan is a priority, but leaves funding specifics up to Bonneville and the tribes.
In a decision memo to the Council, Fritsch said the costs will likely range from about $100,000 to $350,000 annually, with costs for the Umatilla project at $670,848, and the Yakama project at $304,601.
NWPCC spokesman John Harrison said he believes the Pacific lamprey master plan is the first major fish and wildlife project the Council has approved since BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer came to the Council in both April and June to explain the need for cost cuts across the agency, including some $30 million from its fish and wildlife program.
He said BPA's concern over F&W costs is not new, but this time, the flood of cheap renewable energy on the market and questions about Bonneville's future competitiveness will likely mean the Council will put similar conditions on future fish and wildlife project requests.
Brian McIlraith, Pacific lamprey project leader for CRITFC, said while BPA's financial outlook is a concern, the tribes are motivated to accomplish objectives in its Pacific lamprey master plan, and have already worked to keep costs down, including using existing facilities at salmon hatcheries to rear lamprey.
Council approval also came with a favorable review by the Independent Scientific Review Panel, and a condition that ISRP review the program again in 2022.
Aaron Jackson, lamprey project leader for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said he hopes funding issues don't break the momentum in Pacific lamprey recovery, boosted through the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, which provided $5 million a year from 2008 through 2018 to help mainstem passage. Those funds disappear after this year, unless renewed, and do not address juvenile passage, Jackson noted.
Still, there has been much improvement in Pacific lamprey populations.
In the Umatilla River, the fish were functionally extinct from the 1960s to the 2000s, and just 10 years ago only a handful of adults returned to the river each year.
Now, after decades of work, record numbers of adults are returning to the Umatilla. Jackson said this year's return is expected to hit 3,300 adults.
According to the master plan, the Umatilla tribe began its lamprey restoration efforts in 1995, and has since translocated over 4,700 adult lamprey into the Umatilla River basin, monitored the distribution of larval lamprey and out-migration of juveniles, identified and monitored adult passage barriers, and developed artificial propagation and rearing techniques.
A similar story can be told in other parts of the lower Columbia River, although numbers remain low in many parts of the basin. According to the master plan, daytime counts at Bonneville Dam declined from about 400,000 in the 1950s and 1960s to fewer than 10,000 in 2009 and 2010. But Jackson said in recent years, about 200,000 adults have been counted at Bonneville Dam.
Jackson noted that for decades, these ancient fish that have occupied Pacific Northwest rivers for 350 million years were seen as "trash" fish. In some places, like the Umatilla River, fish managers used rotenone to try to eradicate them, he said. An invasion of Atlantic lamprey into the Great Lakes left a stigma on Pacific lamprey, which are native to the Columbia River and an important part of the basin's ecology.
However, he noted, "Lamprey still has that stigma. The poor things are not winning any beauty contests. But once you work with them, you can see their beauty." He added, "There's been a lot of excitement, and a lot of mainstem improvements, but there are still a lot of things to accomplish."
The master plan's goal is to re-establish Pacific lamprey throughout its historical range, especially in the Columbia River Basin. That recovery should be widely distributed, and provide for ecological, cultural and harvestable levels. Currently, harvest is minimal and limited to traditional and cultural needs, with almost all lamprey harvest occurring at Willamette Falls in Oregon.
McIlraith said artificial propagation and adult translocation are just pieces of the lamprey's overall needs for recovery. He said the Umatilla and Yakama tribes have become world leaders in efforts to develop artificial propagation methods, and told the Council they are the "brains and the brawn" behind restoring lamprey through supplementation.
The Yakamas raised a handful of lamprey larvae from eggs to the juvenile stage, which only Japanese scientists had previously accomplished, he noted. Those efforts may help in attempts to release different age classes.
McIlraith said developing a hatchery program for lamprey is more difficult than it is for salmon. "We're talking about fish that, in the wild, are spending anywhere from three to 14 years as larval fish before they go out to the ocean. We don't know what dictates that variation," he said. Salmon spend two or three years as freshwater juveniles.
Another issue, he said, is that lamprey larvae live in sediment, so fish managers need significantly more room to expand production. In addition, because their life cycle is significantly longer, scientists studying lamprey will have to wait several years for results.
But for Jackson, the wait has been worth it. "Seeing it from inception to what I would call success is really gratifying," he said. "These fish aren't even ESA-listed. I think we're proving it doesn't take a listing to really improve a species, and be just as successful, if not more successful." -K.C. Mehaffey
 More Small Fish Led To Undercount Of Idaho's Prized Steelhead Last Year
Biologists say last year's wild B-run steelhead count appeared exceptionally low because the return to Snake River upper tributaries included a large fraction of unexpectedly small fish.
Only 452 were thought to have passed Lower Granite Dam, the lowest number since counting of these fish began in 1987. But now it seems the numbers of these prized steelhead returning home to spawn were actually two-to-four times higher.
For fishing advocates and salmon recovery groups, last year's reported low returns were devastating.
"Extinction is alive and much too well in central Idaho," Save Our wild Salmon wrote. Idaho Rivers United published a guest article headlined, "On the Edge: wild Clearwater B-run steelhead teeter on the precipice."
The Conservation Angler wrote, "Idaho, still famous for potatoes, used to be famous for big wild steelhead. How big? The biggest in the lower 48 states." The article noted that last year's return, compared to the early 1960s, declined by 99.9 percent.
Some called for a ban on steelhead fishing, while others concluded that breaching the four lower Snake River dams is the only solution--Lower Granite, one of the four, is in southeastern Washington.
Now, Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists say that while the numbers are still low, between 1,000 and 2,000 actually returned. The reason needs explanation about B-run fish and how they're counted.
One of the main characteristics of a B-run fish is size. Generally, they're 30.5 inches or larger, and that's how fish-counters at the dams distinguish them from A-run steelhead. They usually spend two years in the ocean instead of one.
But the real distinguishing feature, according to IDFG fisheries biologist Brett Bowersox, is that they return to the Clearwater basin, and to the Middle Fork or South Fork of the Salmon River.
Last year, the B-run stocks were vastly undercounted. Bowersox told NW Fishletter that's because the return included unusually small fish, which he said is part of a trend in Snake River steelhead. Biologists are documenting smaller-sized steelhead in hatchery stocks, for which they have collected data for many years.
He noted "there's a similar trend with steelhead in the Lochsa River," which are also B-run fish, although that's based on "a shorter data set." This smaller size "seems to be a part of the equation of what's going on."
It's not only steelhead in the Snake River that are getting smaller.
Michael Milstein, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, said researchers have also documented that the average size of Chinook--known as the "king of salmon"--is shrinking, all the way from California to Alaska.
Based on data from wild and hatchery populations of Chinook over the last four decades across the northeast Pacific Ocean, a study published Feb. 27 in the journal Fish and Fisheries found both are becoming smaller and younger throughout most of the Pacific coast.
"While it remains to be explored whether these trends are caused by changes in climate, fishing practices or species interaction such as predation, our qualitative review of the potential causes of demographic change suggests that selective removal of large fish has likely contributed to the apparent widespread declines in average body sizes," the study stated.
"The trend of smaller fish is important, and disconcerting," Milstein said in an email.
In interviews with NW Fishletter, Gregory Ruggerone, a research scientist at Natural Resources Consultants, Inc., and a member of the Independent Scientific Review Panel, has also suggested that increasing numbers of wild and hatchery pink salmon throughout the Pacific could be significantly affecting other salmon species, including the growth and survival of steelhead; and on sockeye, Chinook, coho and chum salmon.
Another study, published in the May 2012 issue of Fisheries Oceanography, looked at the summer diets of steelhead in the north Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Alaska and concluded that "interannual variations in climate, abundance of squid, and density-dependent interactions with highly-abundant stocks of pink salmon were identified as potential key drivers of steelhead productivity in these ecosystems."
Regardless of the reasons for the smaller B-run steelhead, Bowersox said, while last year's B-run steelhead return of between 1,000 and 2,000 fish wasn't great, it wasn't catastrophic either.
The error at counting windows happened because fish-counters determine those they believe to be Idaho's wild B-run by size. A-run steelhead are generally smaller than 30.5 inches long, and B-run fish are generally larger. But not last year.
Bowersox said the window counts are preliminary, and final numbers are still awaiting analysis from DNA collected this spring. When steelhead make their way through Lower Granite Dam's fish ladders, biologists trap some of the wild fish, measure them, scrape off a few scales for DNA analysis, and tag them before releasing them. Those fish are then detected when swimming into their tributaries. In-stream detectors this spring showed that between 1,000 and 2,000 wild steelhead spawned in Idaho's B-run streams, he said.
Although much attention is paid to the B-run fish, IDFG does not manage the wild A-run and B-run steelhead differently, Bowersox said. Both are threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and the B-run's longer length is a general characteristic.
"The fact of the matter is, there are fish that return to the Lochsa and Selway [rivers] that in general are a little older and larger than the fish that return to the lower Clearwater or lower Salmon," Bowersox said. "But there's a lot of diversity and variation in these populations that makes the terms A-run and B-run misleading."
That diversity means some B-run fish are smaller than 30.5 inches and spend only one year in the ocean, and some that spent two years in the ocean didn't grow to 30.5 inches because they didn't find enough food. Last year, in particular, there were more small B-run steelhead than usual--only 18 percent of the steelhead detected entering the B-run streams were larger than 30.5 inches, Bowersox said.
Biologists will have a more specific number for last year's B-run when genetic analysis is complete, he said. "We're very confident that it's better than what the window counts showed us. And that's good, but there's no way getting around that last year was a bad year."
This year's B-run steelhead are starting to show up at Bonneville Dam, Bowersox said, and it's too early to predict either the size or the numbers in Idaho's still-famous steelhead run. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Task Force Releases Draft Goals For Salmon, Steelhead; Members Get Feedback
After two and a half years of work, a task force consisting of diverse interest groups, tribes and government agencies has agreed to a vision and released a draft of its provisional long-term goals for recovering salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.
The 28 members of the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force are sharing those draft recommendations with their groups and constituencies, and gathering comments, which will be reviewed at the task force's Oct. 2-3 meeting in Portland before goals are finalized.
A handful of task force members, contacted by NW Fishletter, agreed the process has been worthwhile both in developing common goals and in understanding other perspectives on the issues and needs for salmon recovery.
"I think a lot of us were unsure what the purpose was, and that perhaps remains a question for myself and others," said Joe Lukas, general manager of the Western Montana Electric Generating and Transmission Cooperative. But, he added, "Overall, it has been quite helpful to get a sense of direction. Like one of the age-old quips: If you don't have a target, you'll never hit it."
The partnership group began meeting in January 2017 to develop comprehensive recommendations on qualitative and quantitative goals to protect, restore and manage salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia and Snake river basins. It was organized under the NOAA Fisheries' Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee (MAFAC), and receives technical support from the agency.
Once finalized, recommendations will be given to MAFAC, and can be used to guide management decisions.
The task force vision, finalized in June, is: "A healthy Columbia River Basin ecosystem with thriving salmon and steelhead that are indicators of clean and abundant water, reliable and clean energy, a robust regional economy, and vibrant cultural and spiritual traditions, all interdependent and existing in harmony."
Tony Grover, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and an ex-officio member of the task force, told the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee July 10 that the process is perhaps unprecedented for bringing together such a wide range of views, and expecting consensus. It's been touted as the region's first attempt to bring all interests together to agree on comprehensive numerical and qualitative goals for different populations of fish, both wild and hatchery, and ESA-listed and unlisted species.
"And no one--no one--has run away from the process," Grover told the committee. "That's the most astonishing part."
Grover answered questions from the committee, along with two of its members--Jennifer Anders and Bill Bradbury--who are also members of the task force. NOAA Fisheries and some task force members are expected to present the goals and ask for feedback from the full Council at its Aug. 15 meeting.
The goals focus on 24 stocks, which include 13 listed under the ESA. The stocks represent groupings of the 327 recognized salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin, made up of 210 current and 117 extirpated populations. The latter populations include 18 that have been reintroduced. Each goal is defined for the short-term--within 25 years; mid-term--within 50 years; and long-term--within 100 years.
Qualitative goals include values such as restoring salmon and steelhead to harvestable levels, and hatchery production that supports conservation and aligns with natural production recovery goals.
Quantitative or numerical goals also define short-, mid- and long-term goals for each of the 24 stocks. The high-end, or long-term, goals are typically about three times greater than low-end goals, and about half of the historic average, or less.
Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and a member of the task force, said she's excited to have a shared vision of how many fish the Columbia basin can and should have.
Hamilton said the task force's recommended high-end goals for each of the returning adult stocks make sense, and in aggregate roughly match the Council's goal of 5 million returning adults by 2025, identified in 2014 by its Fish and Wildlife Program.
"I think the most important part of this entire story is, this diverse group of people did listen to each other, did support each other's goals, and came up with numbers that are ironically close to the 5 million fish identified by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council as being real and obtainable and desirable in today's world," she said, adding, "I hope we get there, and I hope to be a part of it."
Ben Enticknap, Pacific campaign manager for Oceana and also a task force member, agreed.
"I think what we have here is a lot of diverse people coming together and recognizing that it's essential to recover salmon populations in the Columbia basin."
He said from his perspective, it's essential for these fish stocks, but also for wildlife dependent on them, such as orcas. What's important is that the goals reflect what the group, and what NOAA Fisheries scientists agree, can be realized, he noted.
It may be far less than the 16 million salmon and steelhead that historically came back to these rivers and streams, but to get to even one-third of past abundances will require difficult decisions by people throughout the basin, he said.
"Everybody seems to be taking this really seriously," he said. "That's why I'm still at the table. I believe people are willing to work hard and begin to recover salmon, for their many benefits. What we're doing right now is not working."
Lukas said while he was initially unsure of the task force's purpose, he now believes giving the region something to shoot for is quite valuable.
"The region will have to judge the value and the future use [of the goals], but I think there was a spirit of collaboration here that developed over the two years that, hopefully, made this a more valuable exercise," he said.
One of his hopes, he said, is that the goals will bring at least some understanding that salmon recovery cannot focus solely on the hydropower system, and "nonstop litigation." He said he hopes that the entire life cycle of anadromous fish will be under consideration, including their freshwater journey as well as their time in the ocean and estuaries. He also said he hopes the task force can begin to develop strategies to carry out these goals.
Katherine Cheney, with NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region, said the task force now has permission from MAFAC to continue the work to further refine its goals, and begin to lay out strategies for achieving them.
Cheney said NOAA's effort has been to bring together representatives of many interests for a comprehensive approach to setting goals for long-term salmon recovery, in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise. "I think everyone has really made a concerted effort to listen respectfully," she said. "And really understanding makes people realize they each have a place in the basin."
Cheney said it's natural to focus on one's own geographic area, or efforts to recover salmon based on one's interests, whether it involves habitat, hydroelectric dams, hatcheries or harvest.
"So how would someone who fishes in southeast Alaska interact with and learn from people who work on Idaho's habitat restoration efforts?" she asked "Their paths would not normally cross."
By sitting at the table together, task force members have not only come to understand each other's interests, but are less likely to blame a single aspect--like hydropower or hatcheries--for the issues facing salmon, she said.
The task force met by conference call Aug. 22 to talk about their constituents' reactions to the draft recommendations. Members reported generally positive feedback, but some also heard skepticism over whether the goals will result in any real action, and concerns that the goals will prompt new regulations.
The partnership--which includes four members of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council--reported their outreach efforts that included an Aug. 15 presentation to the NWPCC, and meetings with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's office, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission and several special interest groups.
More meetings and presentations are being scheduled before the task force's Oct. 2-3 meeting in Portland. Jim Yost, the Council's chairman and an Idaho representative, said the Idaho Fish and Game Commission intends to include some of the partnership's goals and objectives in its five-year plan.
Bill Bradbury, a former NWPCC member who still represents Oregon in the Partnership, told other members, "I think the feedback is that people are pleased to see the progress that's being made, and they're pleased to see the involvement of so many stakeholders in this effort.
"I guess I'd say they have their fingers crossed that it will result in some real progress on salmon [recovery] in the Columbia Basin," he added.
Similar sentiments were echoed by other partnership members, who also reported some skepticism that the goals will result in meaningful recovery for fish, along with other specific concerns, ranging from the timeline for recovery to whether PUDs and regional groups will continue to set hatchery production levels.
Marla Harrison, from the Port of Portland, said in general, people have been impressed with the work, and the divergent interests represented.
"There are the skeptics that wonder if we can make a difference," she said. "They just wonder what this means. So we have these goals. What does that mean?"
Harrison said others were skeptical of the historical numbers of fish that are quantified in the goals, and concerned that regulations could become more onerous. Fishing ports reported concerns about future management of hatcheries. "They really want more fish to sustain their industries and their livelihood," she said.
Jeff Grizzel, Grant County PUD natural resources director, said public-power utilities are fairly comfortable with the provisional goals, and he's received a lot of positive feedback. But, he said, "Like you heard from other folks, the lingering question is, how does NOAA intend to use this information?"
Grizzel said there is also some concern around hatchery production numbers, specifically for blocked areas, and whether NOAA Fisheries will try to influence the local decision-making process that now determines hatchery production levels to meet mitigation needs for the Mid-Columbia dams.
Liza Jane McAlister, a fourth-generation rancher in Oregon's Wallowa Valley, said she, too, heard concerns about where the goals will lead.
"There's a sense of bewilderment of why creating goals is important," she said. She said people in agriculture today face so many pressures she's unsure whether salmon issues rise to the same level of interest as so many other matters. And, she said, while she's impressed with the collaboration it took to agree on provisional goals, she didn't get the same admiration in her feedback--partly because people in rural areas are forced into collaboration to resolve many things.
Enticknap said his constituents are concerned that the timeline for achieving the goals may not be aggressive enough--particularly when it comes to helping southern resident killer whales, which favor Chinook salmon as its main prey. "People are waiting on actions to really gauge whether or not people are serious about achieving the goals we're setting up now," he said. Some specific comments included appreciating the goal of reducing hatchery production as wild populations recover, but felt that aspiration needed a link to quantitative goals. "There are some positive things in there . . . but we'd like to see more effort on the timeline, and maybe a little more ambition for some of these Chinook populations that southern resident killer whales depend on," he said.
Partnership members also noted that feedback from the NWPCC included the question of whether the group's goals should undergo a review by the Independent Scientific Review Panel. Bob Austin, of the Snake River Tribes Foundation, said he thinks an ISRP review would be better suited to the partnership's next phase, when the group will develop actions that can be taken to achieve the goals.
This fall, the task force will provide its recommendations to the NOAA Fisheries' Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee for consideration. The partnership is authorized to continue its work refining its goals, and laying out strategies for achieving them. -K.C. Mehaffey
 BPA, Idaho Reach $24 Million Settlement For Albeni Falls Dam Impacts
The Bonneville Power Administration has agreed to pay the State of Idaho $24 million to compensate for the operational impacts of Albeni Falls Dam on fish and wildlife habitat, permanently resolving any interests by the state for at least 30 years.
BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter met in Sandpoint, Idaho, Aug. 30 to announce the settlement, under which Bonneville agrees to offset construction and inundation impacts of the 1955 dam resulting from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations.
The dam is among the 31 in the Federal Columbia River Power System that generate power for sale through BPA, which is obligated to mitigate for impacts under the Northwest Power Act of 1980.
Details of the deal were presented in February to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. In a presentation, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game noted Bonneville has been paying about $600,000 annually to offset damages caused by the dam, mostly from erosion in the shoreline on Lake Pend Oreille.
The agreement provides that $7 million of the $24 million will be invested by the Idaho Endowment Fund Investment Board, and interest from the fund will be used for future care of the lake's shoreline. The state has already purchased more than 4,200 acres in northern Idaho with BPA funding.
Another $13 million will be used to restore wildlife habitat at the delta of the Clark Fork and Priest rivers to complement prior restoration efforts. Those projects will restore more than 2,000 acres of wildlife habitat.
In a joint news release, Otter said the agreement was good for Idaho and for BPA customers throughout the Northwest. "That is because with this agreement, BPA's payments to Idaho for wildlife mitigation are on schedule to stop in just 10 years, and once that happens, wildlife mitigation with the State of Idaho will no longer add to people's power bills," he said.
Mainzer, calling it an "historic agreement," added, "The habitat protected in this agreement will have long-lasting benefits for wildlife, Idaho residents and the citizens of the Northwest." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Steelhead Fishing Closed On Large Section Of Columbia River
Washington and Oregon closed a large section of the Columbia River and the lower John Day River to steelhead fishing on Aug. 27 due to poor returns.
The emergency rule was prompted by new estimates of this year's upriver returns of summer steelhead. A revised estimate of total steelhead expected to go past Bonneville Dam went from 182,400--made before the season began--to a new projection of 110,300 fish. That's lower than last year, when steelhead fishing was closed in the Columbia River and many of its tributaries and the run totaled about 113,000 steelhead.
As of Aug. 29, 60,635 total steelhead had crossed Bonneville Dam, including 24,126 wild or unclipped steelhead. Hundreds of fish continue to cross daily.
Anglers must now release any steelhead they catch from Buoy 10 at the mouth of the Columbia River to U.S. Highway 395 in Pasco, and are urged to treat any steelhead they catch with best fishing practices on release.
In addition to the requirement to release steelhead in the lower Columbia, a cool-water sanctuary for steelhead at the mouth of the Deschutes River is still in place, as are closures for night fishing for all salmon and steelhead from Buoy 10 to Pasco, and at the Wind River and Drano Lake, two tributaries of the Columbia River.
Warm water in the Columbia River and some tributaries in August also spurred fishing closures and other restrictions in both Washington and Oregon to protect adult steelhead, sockeye and summer Chinook.
The fish, which may be remaining in cooler waters at the confluence of some tributaries to avoid the warmer-than-normal water temperatures, can suffer when water temperatures exceed 68 degrees.
At its Aug. 3 meeting, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission directed its Department of Fish and Wildlife to close the lower Deschutes River, from its mouth upstream, to all fishing, including catch-and-release, until temperatures drop below 68 degrees, an ODFW news release said. The action was taken to protect summer steelhead. Fishing won't likely resume until late September.
"Concerns about the vulnerability of fish to fishing pressure in the mouths of some tributaries of the Columbia River were sparked by the historically low returns of the Snake River-bound summer steelhead in 2017. At that time, the states of Oregon and Washington adopted unprecedented restrictions to several fisheries to reduce mortality on these fish," the release said.
"Many factors are clearly taking a toll on our steelhead populations right now, including difficult ocean conditions," Ryan Lathrop, Columbia River fishery coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a news release. "We need to do what's necessary to protect these runs."
Washington's news release said the closure will be in effect until further notice, and tributaries may also be closed to steelhead fishing in coming weeks.
A news release from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said the closure is scheduled to continue through the end of 2018, although the states will monitor returns and could lift some restrictions if numbers improve. -K.C. Mehaffey
 USGS Finds Fish Surface Collectors Performance Varies Widely
U.S. Geological Survey research has found that performance varies widely for floating surface collectors used in Washington and Oregon to capture juvenile salmon and steelhead at high-end dams on their migration downstream.
These results, detailed in a new study of seven such systems, were shared with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Set up in dam forebays, the collectors have been successful in some locations, and perform poorly in others, said Toby Kock, a research fish biologist at the USGS Western Fisheries Research Center.
Collectors are being used at dams throughout the region, and the study can help dam managers better understand how to increase fish collection goals, Kock told the Council in his Aug. 15 presentation.
For this study, funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency reviewed operating characteristics and river conditions at Washington's Upper Baker and Lower Baker dams on the Baker River, Cushman Dam on the Skokomish River and Swift Dam on the Lewis River; and Oregon's North Fork and River Mill dams on the Clackamas River, and Round Butte Dam on the Deschutes River.
Kock said surface collectors at Upper Baker, Lower Baker, North Fork and River Mill showed 87- to 99-percent efficiency in collecting juvenile sockeye, steelhead, coho and Chinook, while the Cushman, Swift and Round Butte collectors had efficiencies ranging from 2 to 32 percent.
The study found success rates were better when higher flows went through the collectors; when collectors had lead nets to help direct juvenile fish to the facilities; when the entrance area was deep and wide; and when the effective forebay area was not too large.
Temperature can also play a role, as juvenile fish will go deeper and may pass under nets during high-temperature conditions, Kock said.
He noted modifications have already been made to some collectors, resulting in increased collection of juvenile coho at Cushman Dam, from 19 to 31 percent. Swift Dam also had an increase in coho collection, from 8 to 20 percent, and in Chinook, from 0 to 7 percent. -K.C. Mehaffey
 BPA Outlines 2018 Spill Surcharge For NWPCC
Bonneville Power Administration officials outlined the methods and reasoning behind the agency's 2018 spill surcharge, in a presentation to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Aug. 15.
The $10.2 million surcharge was finalized June 21, with no changes made to the agency's May 8 preliminary estimate.
Daniel Fisher, BPA power rates manager, said the surcharge is based on modeling 80 years of water runoff conditions, and an analysis of monthly forecast generation and market prices. He said a forecast was used instead of actual costs to provide consistency from year to year, and to avoid making changes in the middle of a rate case.
Fisher also outlined in his presentation how BPA reduced the estimated $38.6 million average cost of lost generation using program spending reductions applied at the BPA administrator's discretion.
This year, these reductions amounted to $28.4 million, lowering the customer surcharge to $10.2 million by applying savings from reduced fish and wildlife program costs, additional secondary sales expected during spill and adjustments made to apply the surcharge to non-Slice sales only. (Slice customers are directly affected by increased spill and assume the associated cost risk independent of Bonneville, Fisher said.)
Bryan Mercier, executive manager of BPA's Fish and Wildlife Division, told the Council most BPA customers seemed to recognize the agency is in a difficult position, and appreciated how it handled the surcharge. He said by using modeling, Bonneville will rely on its reserves to absorb any costs above those expected from spill in a low water year, and will enjoy higher reserves in above-average water years.
"The volatility is reflected in our reserves," he said. "That's one of the values of our product. The energy market is very volatile; Bonneville's is not." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Late Intervenor Approved By FERC, Another Applies In Klamath Dam Removal Case
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a request by the Klamath River Outfitters Association to become a late intervenor, and is being asked to grant another late intervenor request, by the city of Yreka, Calif., in commission proceedings that would split PacifiCorp's Klamath Project license in half and transfer the lower four projects to the Klamath River Renewal Corp. for removal [P-2082, P-14803].
The city's motion, filed Aug. 14, says Yreka and its 7,840 residents get their water supply exclusively from Fall Creek through a water right allowing up to 15 cfs, and 6,300 acre feet annually.
The water comes from diversions near PacifiCorp's Fall Creek hydroelectric facility, through a pipe that crosses the Klamath River at the Iron Gate Dam, one of the four dams slated for removal under the FERC application.
"Because the proposed decommissioning of the Iron Gate Dam would eliminate Iron Gate Reservoir, returning the river into a much smaller water course, the City's water line would then be exposed to vandals, terrorists and water scouring," the motion states.
According to the city's motion, the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement protects the city's water rights, and provides funding to relocate the city's diversion pipes. However, the motion says, additional information about decommissioning plans--filed by the Klamath River Renewal Corp. on June 28--reveals other actions that may impact the city's water supply, prompting the city to seek to intervene.
Yreka's motion also says that, and that the city is working with KRRC and PacifiCorp to address its water-supply concerns and is optimistic the issues will be resolved. It says PacifiCorp. and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife do not oppose the city's motion to intervene
The request follows FERC's Aug. 1 decision allowing the outfitters association to intervene, even though the Nov. 6, 2017, deadline to file motions to intervene had passed. The group is concerned the process of removing the dams without mitigation and proper planning could harm the Klamath River's Class IV-plus whitewater rafting.
Over the course of a year, whitewater rafting guides serve between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors and bring in about $500,000, the group says. -K.C. Mehaffey
THE ARCHIVE :: Previous NW Fishletter issues and supporting documents.
NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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