Fish in ladder

Salmon in a fish ladder.

State fish and wildlife commissions for Washington and Oregon will consider adopting a higher standard for fish recovery in the Columbia Basin, changing from meeting requirements under the Endangered Species Act to adopting a "healthy and harvestable" goal.

In a joint committee meeting on Columbia River salmon fishery policy on May 26, a group of commissioners from both states agreed it would be beneficial for the state commissions to have a written agreement on shared conservation goals in the basin, and that the conservation goals set by the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force are appropriate.

The group agreed to bring the proposal back to their full commissions and work on the language for the goals to be discussed at the next joint meeting, when the two states will also confer on concurrent fishing regulations.

Mary Wahl, who chairs the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, said Oregon wants to focus on conservation before turning the discussion to issues such as the use of barbless hooks, gillnets, the buy-back of commercial licenses and other differences between the two states in their approach to Columbia River fishing policies.

The discussion was preceded by several presentations, including an update by Guy Norman, a Washington member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, on the Columbia Basin Collaborative, which is being formed to turn the partnership task force's goals into actions.

Norman noted those goals call for boosting production of 27 stocks of natural and wild fish, along with Endangered Species Act-listed and unlisted salmon and steelhead, to reaching healthy and harvestable levels for each stock, with combined returns of 8 million fish to the Columbia Basin.

"The first step, the low-bar low goal, is moving listed fish to that delisting ESA recovery level, and we've still got a long ways to go to get there, for most stocks," he said.

Norman said the task force initially hoped to achieve that low goal within 25 years, but ultimately opted not to attach a timeline to it in order to avoid sending a message that the goal couldn't be met sooner. "We want to get there as fast as possible," he said. "For certain populations, this is a long haul."

He said the Columbia Basin Collaborative—which will have its second organizational meeting June 10—is on track to begin work this fall and will be led by a group with members from the four Northwest states, federal agencies, Columbia Basin tribes, and four stakeholder groups representing environmental groups, utilities, river economies and fisheries.

Those members would make prioritized informational requests to topic-specific work groups, which would provide technical and scientific analyses and propose priority actions or draft recommendations to send back to the leadership group. Norman said the process would include a matrix where stocks in poor shape with high impacts are prioritized for analyzing potential actions that could help.

Once the collaborative members agree on a recommendation—either through consensus or with opportunity for minority opinions—that recommendation would have the weight of the region behind it when it's passed on to state, tribal or federal authorities to implement, Norman noted.

To reach its high goal, the partnership envisioned boosting wild or natural-origin runs so they make up about three-quarters of the 8 million salmon and steelhead returns, but continuing to rely on hatcheries at similar levels of current production, he said.

Staff from both Washington and Oregon's fish and wildlife departments also offered presentations, with information on current wild-run trends and returns, and a summary of how current policies and survival rates relate to the collaborative's goals.

Fish managers from both states said during presentations that there's not a lot that can be done through improvements in harvest to boost wild runs, since harvest is focused on removing excess hatchery fish.

Tucker Jones, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Ocean Salmon and Columbia River Program manager, provided details on smolt-to-adult return rates (SARs) for Snake River spring-summer Chinook salmon, noting a recent analysis by the Nez Perce Tribe that found about 40 percent of the populations currently at or below quasi-extinction.

"Honestly, we're in a substantially better place than we were in the mid-90s, just because of so many of the actions we fought for and have taken to date, especially those hydro actions that have increased not just direct survival at the dams, but increased survival throughout their life cycle," he said, adding, "If we hadn't taken those actions, I would be pretty scared about where we would be right now."

Jones said that the easiest thing for the state fish and wildlife commissions to do is improve Columbia Basin salmon recovery through harvest. However, he said, "Fisheries are actually a pretty small component of the overall mortality that Columbia Basin spring Chinook are going to face. These weak-stock, mixed stock fisheries, those that are listed, we're holding those impacts to 2 percent or less in most places," he said. "Most of the conservation is already baked in."

Jones said the problem for Snake River spring-summer Chinook can be seen in its 10-year average SAR of 0.65 percent. Established goals by the NWPCC call for SARs of between 2 and 6 percent, with an average of 4 percent.

"If we spill to 125 percent [total dissolved gas at the eight lower Snake and Columbia river dams], the maximum we think we can safely do throughout the basin, that can and will help in the near term. But really, options that consider breach are the only pathways that consistently achieve the necessary and long-term SARs and provide a buffer against some of the negative climate effects that I think we're already starting to see," he said.

Those survival rates show why the region needs to continue to push for broad solutions that address hydropower losses, like those outlined by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and supported by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, he said.

Jones added that having fisheries in the river is important to conservation, as fishing provides an important way for people to remain connected to the importance of salmon and steelhead recovery.

Commissioners talked about the opportunities and limitations that state commissions have on helping the collaborative reach its recovery goals.

"It's been pointed out over and over that there's an urgent need and we have to be bold," said Barbara Baker, vice chair of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. "We need to know what we need to be bold on, and that's what we need to agree on."

Baker said the commissioners also need to figure out where their authority begins and ends.

Wahl said, "We've kind of wrung the sponge on harvest. There's still gains to be made there but that's not where we can find our big gains now in terms of clamping down on harvest."

She noted that commissioners do have a role and responsibility to be part of the broader discussion on Columbia Basin salmon recovery, and called for a discussion on raising the bar for policies from avoiding jeopardy of ESA listed fish to reaching healthy and harvestable levels of salmon and steelhead returns.

Washington Commissioner Don McIsaac said Washington's policy already mentions the partnership's goals, and he's in favor of formally lending support to the collaborative's process. He said the state commissions can help by having consistent fishing policies designed to conserve wild salmon and steelhead. "There is room to make things better for fisheries on the Columbia," he said.

"I concur with Commissioner Wahl that we have to raise the bar above just meeting the escapement for ESA species," Oregon Commissioner Jill Zarnowitz added. "And we may have reached all the things we can do without removing the dams, but there are also, I think, minor tweaks that could be done in the meantime, some to improve, or reduce the mortality through fishing, commercial and recreational, and not necessarily to reduce the amount of fishing, but to require the gear that will reduce that mortality. It looks like Oregon probably needs to work harder on getting the alternate methods of commercial harvest," she said.

After discussion, Wahl said, "It sounds to me like we've made great progress on conservation goals. I appreciate how far we got, so I think we can begin to talk about those other goals."

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.