In a future vision of the Columbia River, 8 million adult salmon and steelhead will be produced, 2.85 million of them will return to spawn, and three-quarters of those will head to natural spawning grounds in rivers and streams while the rest go to hatcheries across the vast basin.
That's just part of a "high goal" recommended by the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force, which held its last meeting in September and will present its work to NOAA Fisheries' Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, or MAFAC, on Oct. 20. The governors from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana agreed Oct. 9 to pick up the baton and work to achieve those goals through a new regional collaborative effort.
NOAA Fisheries convened the partnership in 2017, bringing representatives from 11 state and tribal governments together with 20 interest groups to develop a common vision and goals for the future of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council—which has three members on the task force—got an overview of the final report from four task force members at the Council's Oct. 14 meeting.
Michael Tehan, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region, told the Council that MAFAC will receive the report with recommendations, and then vote on whether to forward it to NOAA Administrator Chris Oliver. He said the final report should be ready to release electronically in early November, with hard copies to follow.
That report includes a comprehensive look at abundance needs for 27 stocks, and goals for the quality of the Columbia Basin ecosystem. It also provides 10 scenarios with biological and other strategies for achieving those goals. Those scenarios could be used as a starting point for the new regional collaborative effort announced by the governors.
"I think it's going to work a lot better the next decade than it did in the past," Council member Jim Yost, who represented Idaho on the task force, commented after the presentation. Yost said that recovery may take a long time in some watersheds, and may happen sooner than expected in others. But overall, he said, he believes the Columbia Basin will have more fish coming back in the future than there are today.
Tehan said the task force took a basinwide approach to create a vision, and used scientific knowledge to develop detailed qualitative and quantitative goals for salmon and steelhead recovery.
The task force'svision is for 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."
The task force estimated that historically, about 9.45 million naturally spawning salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia Basin. At current levels, about 350,000 natural-origin salmonids return. The task force set a low goal of 440,000 salmon and steelhead on spawning grounds, growing to 1.57 million for a medium goal, and 2.85 million for a high goal.
Another goal is to ensure that about three-quarters of the returning salmonids are natural origin, while one-quarter are returning to hatcheries as broodstock. Currently, about three-quarters of returning salmon and steelhead are hatchery fish.
As part of its high goal, the task force hopes to see a total of 8 million adult salmon and steelhead produced from the Columbia River, including both hatchery and natural spawners, and fish that are harvested. That includes roughly 3 million sockeye, 2.8 million spring, summer and fall Chinook, 1.3 million steelhead, 800,000 coho and 100,000 chum.
Tehan said the low, medium and high goals relate to rough timeframes of 25 years, 50 years and 100 years, but only to provide a sense of progress over time. He said the partnership expressed a strong sense of urgency to take action as soon as practicable.
Mike Edmondson, interim administrator for the Idaho Governor's Office of Species Conservation, told the Council that it may seem like they are close to reaching the low goal, but there are several stocks with strong numbers feeding into current totals. Recovery will require abundance across all stocks, he said, noting, "Adding it up makes it look like it's easier to get to recovery than it's going to be."
Edmondson said the partnership recognized that abundance is not the sole measure of recovery, and that a variety of other metrics must also be met. Those include restoring salmon and steelhead to healthy and harvestable levels; providing diverse, productive and dependable tribal and nontribal fishing opportunities in both fresh and marine waters; and producing hatchery salmon and steelhead in a manner that supports conservation and aligns with natural production.
Recovery will also depend on making decisions with consideration of the full range of social, cultural, economic and ecosystem values, the partnership found.
Zach Penney, fisheries science department manager for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said including the historical and legal context from the tribes' perspective was critical to having a successful outcome. He told the Council that treaty and trust responsibilities were not on the table. "The tribal nations are not willing to accept the normalization of the status quo, and do not concede our long-term goals," he said.
He said that the quantitative goals, which were developed at the subbasin level, are one of the most tangible recommendations from the task force. "I think these were both a challenge to create, but also a huge victory for the task force to get completed," he said. The high goals will only be reached when salmon can access currently blocked areas, he added. More than half of the 8 million fish included in the high goal would originate in the upper Columbia River, much of which is currently blocked by Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.
Penney said everyone has different ideas on the best way to achieve those goals. "There's definitely not one thing that's going to fix everything," he said.
The task force's work provides a common destination, and recognizes that there are multiple ways to get there, he said. Their 10 scenarios offer a range of choices for how to reduce the continuing threats to salmon and achieve recovery, he said. "These scenarios are snap shots of where the task force was at," he said, and the region can use those to move forward.
Robert Masonis, Trout Unlimited's VP for Western conservation, said he appreciates that the partnership included not just government representatives, but also a wide spectrum of stakeholders. "One of the reasons I think we were as successful as we were is we brought together solutions-oriented people who worked respectfully together," he said. "I think that's critically important because there is a lot of hard work ahead of us. Now that we have quantitative and qualitative goals, the key is going to be putting together strategies and actions so we can meet them," he said.
Masonis said in signing a letter of agreement, the states acknowledged the importance of having stakeholders at the table.
Along with Yost, Guy Norman and Jennifer Anders were the other Council members who served on the task force. Anders said she actually felt sad at their last meeting, and believes their work provided the impetus for states to work together.
Norman said one reason for their success is that the task force took into account both the human and salmon needs, concurrently. "The key is the next step," he said, adding, "I'm certainly optimistic about moving forward."