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NW Fishletter #386 Oct. 2, 2018
 Advice to Orca Taskforce Includes Raising Dissolved Gas Levels
With more than 50 potential recommendations in hand, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force will try to focus in on actions that can be accomplished in the first year, and that will have the biggest impact on helping to save a dwindling population of orcas.
The Sept. 24 report is the first official release of the recommendations developed by three working groups that were asked to come up with both short-term and long-term solutions for the taskforce to consider.
The working groups could not agree on whether to support removing Snake River dams as part of the orca recovery effort, but did support another controversial measure--asking the Washington State Department of Ecology to immediately adjust water quality standards to allow total dissolved gas (TDG) to reach 125 percent at the tailraces of dams "to create flexibility to adjust spill regimes to benefit Chinook salmon and other salmonids."
The recommendation asks the agency to work with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to align its standards as well. The recommendation does not directly support increasing spill, but would allow for increasing spill levels compared with the 2018 spill regime that pushed water to the water quality limits allowed under Washington laws.
In a separate process, Bonneville Power Administration is negotiating with state, federal and tribal officials on a possible alternative spill regime that would allow for the higher spill, coupled with lower spill levels that would enable more power generation during periods of each day when power is most valuable, said BPA spokesman David Wilson. "A key goal in all of this is that the operations being contemplated would not cost ratepayers, on average, more than the 2018 court-ordered spill operation," he told NW Fishletter.
By increasing spill levels for 16 hours a day, and decreasing them for up to 8 hours a day, Bonneville would plan to hold its costs in the Fish and Wildlife Program at or below the rate of inflation, as called for in the agency's strategic plan, Wilson explained.
Water-quality standards in Washington and Oregon now limit TDG levels to between 110 and 120 percent in order to protect both adult and juvenile fish, which can experience gas bubble trauma with higher levels of dissolved gas--especially nitrogen--in the water. Some scientists believe TDG levels are still safe at 125 percent, and the Fish Passage Center's 2017 Cumulative Survival Study predicts that increasing spill to 125 percent TDG could significantly increase smolt-to-adult returns in the Columbia River basin.
The possible regulatory change allowing for higher TDG levels is just one of dozens of potential recommendations to be considered and prioritized by the task force. Others include a wide variety of actions, such as closing fishing in areas when and where orcas are present, creating a permitting system for whale watchers, and establishing a "go slow" requirement for boats operating within one-half nautical mile of the whales.
Les Purce, co-chair of the task force, said he believes these and other potential recommendations are the kind of bold actions envisioned when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee created the task force this spring.
"There's no silver bullet," Purse told NW Fishletter. "I think what we've tried to do with this very diverse group of people is, everybody has to have a skin in this game. And everybody is going to have to give something up if we're really going to be able to help the orcas, and increase the return of Chinook in these areas."
Southern Residents were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, and now number 74 individuals in three pods. Inslee created the task force in March to try to revive the population, now at its lowest level since the 1970s. No new whales have been born to the three pods that make up the group in three years. This summer, a baby whale died within hours of its birth, and a 3-year-old whale that appeared emaciated is now missing and believed to be dead.
However, a Sept. 25 NOAA Fisheries release said recent aerial photographs indicate that at least three of the orcas are pregnant.
NOAA Fisheries identified three main causes for their decline: a lack of prey, noise and disturbance from vessel traffic, and contaminants in Puget Sound, where the whales spend much of their time. Those are the three key issues that the Prey, Vessels and Contaminants working groups have worked to address in dozens of recommendations that can now be amended, dropped, or added to by the task force, which will also consider public comments before issuing a final report for the governor on Nov. 16.
According to the report, the goal is to "witness evidence of consistently well-nourished whales and the survival of several thriving young orcas" by 2022; and increase the population from 74 to 84 whales in the next decade. "The extinction of these orcas would be an unacceptable loss," it says.
Purce said it's important to realize that the first-year recommendations will be those that can have the timeliest impact on orcas in those three areas. The group will attempt to reach consensus on which recommendations to make, but can call for a vote and agree with a two-thirds majority.
The working group that looked into increasing prey abundance for orcas considered all four Hs--habitat, hatcheries, hydroelectricity and harvest--along with salmon predation by sea lions and seals, birds and other fish, and the low abundance of forage fish for both salmon and their predators.
In the hydro category, the working group agreed to three other potential recommendations.
The first recommendation calls for the governor and Legislature to provide funding in 2019 to coordinate with tribes and other partners to assess and prioritize locations for re-establishing salmon runs above dams.
Specifically, it calls for providing policy support for both the Chinook reintroduction above Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams in a trap-and-haul effort underway by Upper Columbia tribes, and a long-term approach in the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Program, with priority given to projects that produce downstream Chinook.
The second recommendation would compile and prioritize a list of barriers "where removal would yield high benefit to Chinook," with the legislature ensuring funding to remove the high priority barriers in its 2020 budget.
And the third recommendation provides $200,000 a year for the next three years to help a proposed study evaluating predatory fish reductions through McNary Dam reservoir elevation management.
The prey working group also identified numerous other potential recommendations, including increasing hatchery production of Chinook salmon, or developing hatchery pilot projects to study how to increase the Chinooks' marine survival, adjust their return timing to align with orcas' needs, and increasing the size and age of return, all while reducing competition with wild fish.
Its recommendations for salmon predation in the Columbia River basin by seals and sea lions included either supporting an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow for more lethal control, which is currently under consideration in Congress; supporting an application to authorize additional lethal removal; or asking NOAA Fisheries to study salmon survival in the Columbia River estuary to help guide management actions.
Another potential recommendation would seek to reclassify nonnative predatory fish--including walleye, bass and catfish--from game fish to an invasive species to encourage additional fishing.
The public can comment on the taskforce findings at governor.wa.gov/orcareport, with a deadline of midnight on Oct. 7 in order to be considered by the task force. -K.C. Mehaffey
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