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NW Fishletter #388, Dec. 3, 2018

[2] Orca Task Force Recommends More Spill But Punts On Dam Removal

A final report by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's Southern Resident Orca Task Force does not call for removal of lower Snake River dams, and instead recommends establishing a stakeholder group to discuss whether removing the dams would benefit orcas in Puget Sound.

The report, released Nov. 16, includes three dozen recommendations that, "if implemented, would collectively have the impact needed to achieve the vision of a thriving and resilient Southern Resident orca population."

With lack of prey identified as a major reason for the orca's decline, nearly half the proposals are aimed at improving salmon runs--especially Chinook, which comprise 80 percent of the orcas' diet--in the Columbia Basin and throughout the orca's range. And while removing dams got significant attention, the report and its recommendations reflect the complexity and magnitude of actions needed to increase salmon numbers and help the struggling killer whales.

Recommendations for increasing prey availability include increasing spill; increasing hatchery production; re-establishing salmon runs above Chief Joseph, Grand Coulee and other dams; acquiring and restoring habitat that would most benefit Chinook; reducing Chinook bycatch by commercial fishermen; reducing nonnative predatory fish; and supporting actions to more effectively manage sea lion predation in the Columbia River.

In addition to tackling the orca's lack of prey through habitat, hatcheries, hydroelectric dams and harvest, many of the other recommendations attempt to help the killer whales by reducing impacts from contaminants and vessel traffic and noise, and include placing a 3- to 5-year moratorium on whale watching.

After Inslee formed the task force by executive order in March, the push to remove the Snake River's four lower dams quickly became the most publicized and controversial proposal for recovering the whales. But a working group on prey availability did not include that in its potential recommendations, and instead left the decision to the task force, which held a webinar to inform its members.

While the task force stopped short of recommending dam removal, it requested creation of a collaborative process with Washington, Oregon and Idaho to engage interested stakeholders, governments and tribes "to begin developing a regional understanding and potential recommendations for the lower Snake River dams. The process should include consideration of services provided by the dams, potential biological benefits/impacts to Chinook and Southern Resident orcas, as well as other costs and uncertainties related to the question of breaching or retaining the lower Snake River dams."

The task force wants an update on progress by summer 2019, when it expects to be working on its second report that will conclude its work by outlining progress made, lessons learned and outstanding needs by Oct. 1, 2019.

NOAA Fisheries commended the task force "for creating a broad package of recovery recommendations for this signature Washington species." In a news release, the agency responsible for the orca's recovery said the task force "has helped focus public attention and energy on Southern Resident recovery when it is so urgently needed," and pledged to continue the collaboration and help implement the recommendations as soon as possible.

Both pro- and anti-dam groups also applauded the report, but for different reasons.

Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said her group is pleased the task force did not recommend removing the dams. "Clearly, task force members were not persuaded by the faulty arguments and emotional appeals made by anti-dam activists. The activists' myopic focus on breaching dams hundreds of miles away from the Salish Sea is a distraction from what the whales really need closer to home," Flores said in a news release, mentioning recommendations for a moratorium on whale watching, reductions in stormwater runoff, cleanup of toxic chemicals, and restoring habitat in and around Puget Sound.

However, the news release also objected to using funds on another stakeholder process when a thorough examination of Snake River dam removal is already underway by federal action agencies working to develop a biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System.

Joseph Bogaard, spokesman for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, called on the governor and state Legislature to quickly fund and implement the recommendations--especially the recommendation to modify water-quality standards to allow for increased spill at eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to help deliver juvenile salmon more quickly and safely to the Pacific Ocean. In a news release, he noted that conservationists and fishing advocates have been calling for a regional discussion about the impacts of removing the Snake River dams.

"Restoring the lower Snake River would re-connect endangered salmon and steelhead populations to more than 5,000 river and stream miles of protected, high-quality habitat in southeast Washington State, central Idaho and northeast Oregon," the news release said. "Removing these four federal dams [has] been identified by scientists as our best opportunity anywhere on the West Coast to re-build the chinook populations that the orcas need," the release adds.

Members of groups pushing for dam removal commented abundantly on proposed recommendations--sometimes hundreds of times apiece. The task force report notes that of 12,720 responses to an Oct. 24 survey on work group proposals, only 3,898 had unique IP addresses; three addresses had more than 400 responses and 21 other addresses had more than 100 responses. And while habitat, hatcheries and harvest topics garnered a few hundred comments each, there were 8,687 comments on hydropower. "Of the 800 randomly reviewed comments, over 99 percent were comprised of one of two comments repeated verbatim," the report said. "Both comments were to request a forum to convene and develop a transition plan to remove the dams combined with increasing total dissolved gas to 125 percent."

While the task force did not recommend removing the dams, it did recommend increasing spill "to benefit Chinook for Southern Residents by adjusting total dissolved gas allowances at the Snake and Columbia River dams." It suggests directing the Washington Department of Ecology to increase the standard for dissolved gas from 115 percent in the forebay of eight dams on the lower Columbia and lower Snake rivers to 125 percent, and allowing use of best available science to determine the spill levels over the dams.

The recommendation would also involve coordinating with Oregon to align standards, monitoring impacts to juvenile Chinook and resident fish to ensure no negative impacts, and working with tribal, in-state regional and state entities "to minimize revenue losses and impacts to other fish and wildlife program funds."

The final package was approved by 33 members of the task force. One member--Brian Goodremont, representing the Pacific Whale Watch Association--did not consent. Six members abstained, and seven were absent from the Nov. 6 meeting when voting occurred.

Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research who is a task force member and vocal proponent of dam removal, was not present for the vote. He wrote in a minority report to Inslee of his dismay that the discussion on bypassing Snake River dams "did not get more traction, given that action would offer the most immediate and dramatic increase in returning adult Chinook salmon to the mouth of the Columbia River and Washington coast (prime [southern resident killer whale] foraging areas) in the shortest time (2-3 years)."

Balcomb added, "I kept hoping that you would simply initiate a phone call to ... [leadership of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] to get the facts about who has the authority to order bypass of these dams, but it seems that the consensus of the Task Force was to establish a time-consuming several year stakeholder process to address issues associated with possible breaching or removal of the four lower Snake River dams, rather than get the facts now and/or make a bold recommendation."

Corps representatives have stated that congressional authorization is required to breach the dams.

As for the spill recommendation, Balcomb added, "My discussions with career salmon biologists who studied the spill option (#8) and NOAA's own reports conclude that following that recommendation will not lead to salmon recovery, either."

Another minority report was submitted by Kathy Pittis, representing the Port of Anacortes, and Gary Chandler, who represents the Association of Washington Businesses. In addition to their concerns about lack of identified funding to implement the recommendations, Pettis and Chandler specifically disagree with increasing spill by adjusting total dissolved gas. "Waivers must be sought for high levels of dissolved gas, because it causes gas bubble trauma and kills migrating juvenile salmon," they wrote. They also state that the recommendation ignores important improvements that have been made at the dams, and suggest that the issue of spill "is more appropriate for analysis and recommendations by federal and state fish managers." -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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