A team of independent scientists offered a positive review of a tribal organization's analysis for reintroducing salmon and steelhead above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, but recommended that tribes and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council proceed with caution due to continuing uncertainties.
The Independent Scientific Advisory Board completed its review of the Upper Columbia United Tribes' "Fish Passage and Reintroduction Phase 1 Report" and presented its findings to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Nov. 13.
"There were no fatal flaws in anything we read in this report," ISAB chairman Stan Gregory told the Council. "The science and application were very thorough. We found this report to be scientifically credible."
The review concluded, "Though it is reasonable to expect that reintroduction could be successful to some extent, there is great uncertainty about the numbers of adults that will return and the management that will be required to maintain them."
It's been 80 years since Grand Coulee Dam was built, followed by Chief Joseph Dam, both of which now block salmon and steelhead from migrating up the Columbia River past Bridgeport, Wash. UCUT—including the Coeur d'Alene, Colville, Kalispel, Kootenai and Spokane tribes—is leading an effort to reintroduce naturally spawning and hatchery runs of sockeye and Chinook salmon above the dams.
The ISAB review notes that a strategic plan outlining future steps using an adaptive management process is still needed. "The ISAB encourages the UCUT and the Council to make decisions with caution because the estimates of capacity and habitat availability are very imprecise," the report says.
Gregory elaborated for the Council, saying that while UCUT's report estimates that about 10,000 summer/fall Chinook, and potentially more sockeye could return, "We encourage the Council and the Tribe, using this information, to be precautionary. We encourage you to explore the lower end of distribution and see what the implications are rather than the high end, given the wide range of uncertainty."
After the ISAB presentation, Randy Friedlander, director of the Colville Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department, told the Council that numbers are a matter of perspective. He said he, too, wants to be "a little cautious" about the feasibility of reintroducing salmon to the upper Columbia River. But he pointed out that while the potential returns may seem small to those catching salmon on the lower Columbia, there's a different perspective on the upper Columbia. "When people talk about fish numbers and harvest numbers—this year, our tribes' allocation was about 500 fish," he said. "That's something people would scoff at in the lower area. It's not a lot of fish." Meanwhile, the allocations for Spokane, Kalispel and Kootenai tribes were zero, he said.
Gregory said that UCUT's report addressed all of the key elements that were identified in the 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program except for costs. He said the ISAB thinks a cost analysis should be done soon, but it will require narrowing down the alternatives so the analysis can be done efficiently. Among the options to be considered are the donor stocks and the adult passage system to be used.
UCUT's report identified five adult passage alternatives, including trap and haul; fish ladders and collectors; fish elevators and locks; a natural fishway channel; and a Whooshh salmon cannon. Juvenile passage could be accomplished by trap and haul or floating surface collectors.
The report also identified preferred donor stocks, including summer/fall Chinook salmon from the upper Columbia River stocks, and Kokanee from Lake Roosevelt or sockeye salmon from the Okanogan River.
"We understood why the report did not include a cost estimate at this point. It's really one of the challenges," Gregory told the Council. He said since reintroduction likely will be incremental, the initial costs will be different from future costs, adding to the challenge.
UCUT's report evaluates passage information for Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams, assesses habitat availability, suitability and salmon survival potential in the blocked area, and investigates the scientific feasibility of passage options, as called for in the 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program.
It also evaluates donor stocks, disease risks, predation and climate change. The ISAB commended the tribes for considering potential effects of climate change, but noted that it largely looked at positive impacts—such as the ability to provide colder habitat for salmon as river temperatures increase in the lower river. The ISAB noted that climate change could also negatively affect survival of the reintroduced salmon due to interactions with other stocks of salmon, pathogens, low survival while migrating through the lower river, and increased impacts from predators throughout the system. It notes that "[o]cean survival of anadromous salmonids in the face of climate change is one of the most critical uncertainties facing reintroduction efforts" and was not addressed in the report.
The ISAB included other recommendations, including the need for an analysis of total dissolved gas at the dams, which may reduce survival and limit passage alternatives. Predators also pose a major threat to a newly
reintroduced stock, Gregory said. While the overall risk is generally high but varies from year to year, a string of bad predator years could be devastating to a reintroduction effort if it occurs early in the process.
Gregory commended the report's life cycle model as simple to use and easy to update, and said it will be a useful tool for exploring the uncertainties. He stressed that the tribes put a lot of thought and effort into their report, explored many of the fundamental issues and made their information accessible to all.