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The next 10 big issues for Columbia River salmon

On a tributary of the Columbia River, a coho salmon makes its way to the Sandy fish hatchery.

On a tributary of the Columbia River, a coho salmon makes its way to the Sandy fish hatchery.

I spent some time at the Future of Our Salmon conference in Portland this week. The conference was the first ever hosted by tribal leaders with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, and there were fish biologists and salmon managers from all walks at the event.

It was a big deal. Event host Paul Lumley, director of CRTFC, summed up the importance of the occasion: “I believe this is the first time in a long time – maybe ever – that we’ve gotten together without some major crisis at hand: a judge’s decision, a major loss of funding or a major loss of fish. It’s the first time we’ve all gotten together to look at the full salmon life cycle.”

More than 250 people showed up to talk about how state, federal and tribal agencies can work together to restore salmon in the Columbia River Basin. And they were actually talking about full restoration – as in removing species from the endangered list and planning for how to make sure the next seven generations of people can go fishing. Those were two of 10 big issues I noted as the conference was wrapping up:

    1. Helping fish over dams

Yes, mitigating the environmental impacts of dams on salmon is still a big issue – especially as we’re waiting on a decision from Judge Redden on whether the biological opinion (aka BiOp) passes legal muster. The state of Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe are key players among those who say the current dam management plan isn’t good enough.

Ed Bowles, fish division director for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was explicit in noting this at the conference. Bowles said Oregon is watching the big spring runoff this year and wondering whether the amount of water spilling over dams now to avoid over-generation should be the norm to help fish avoid getting sucked into turbines or eaten by predators in dam bypass structures:

“The fish are telling us that this really looks pretty good this year as juveniles. They’re doing just fine, thank you. But yet are we using that information to investigate whether or not perhaps our current spill plans are too constrained? Are we using that information to manage the river in ways that optimizes fish survival? I don’t’ think we are embracing that quite as well as we should be.”

2. Toxic pollutants

Scientists know there are toxins in the Columbia River. Some of them, like the now-banned pesticide DDT, are leftover from earlier eras; others, like flame retardants and pharmaceuticals, are new and still flowing into the river. How helpful is it to restore salmon habitat if that habitat is laced with toxins that have harmful effects on fish?

Kathryn Brigham, a founding member of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, said the tribes started pushing the issue on their own by fighting for a higher fish consumption rate – setting more stringent water quality regulations based on how much pollution is safe for people to eat when it’s absorbed in fish tissue. Federal and state regulators are studying toxics in the Columbia, but they haven’t determined how to clean up the toxins that they’ve found.

I don’t know how you escape a more detailed discussion on toxics and resolve the question of how that issue is going to be addressed,” said Roy Sampsel, director of Portland State University’s Institute for Tribal Government, as he reviewed key issues raised by the conference.

3. Hatcheries and their funding

Lumley says debates over the difference between hatchery and wild fish are leaving their mark in Congress and threatening future funding for hatcheries (a vital lifeline for salmon fisheries throughout the basin and in the ocean).

Lumley, whose organization of tribal groups believes hatchery programs can be used to rebuild wild stocks, said he sees the impact of the media attention on the issue: “We need to temper the chorus of people saying hatchery fish are bad. It gets picked up by the press, Congress hears it, and when I go back to DC, lawmakers ask me, “Why continue to fund a problem? I know hatchery fish are the same, but that’s not what gets picked up in the press.”

4. Catching and keeping wild fish

“Mass marking” is a practice that shapes non-tribal fisheries in the basin. Many state and federal hatcheries mark their fish by removing the adipose fin so that later fishermen can tell which fish they can keep (the hatchery fish) and which ones they should release (the wild ones).

Tribes don’t like the practice, in part because they believe hatchery fish can be subbed in for wild ones. “Is there an end in sight to mass marking?” Lumley asked. “I think the fishermen in this room deserve an answer. I think they’d rather have a catch and keep fishery than catch and release.”

In response, Guy Norman, the southwest region director for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the practice will likely continue until there are enough wild fish for non-tribal fishermen to catch: “We see it as an interim measure. When we stop mark-selective fisheries is dependent on the success of what we’re talking about today – the recovery of wild stocks to healthy and harvestable levels. Ideally, states would want to have directed fisheries on these wild stocks.”

5. Killing the predators

Sea lions, double-crested cormorants and Caspian terns all take a bite out of salmon populations. Many argue they take a bigger bite than they would without human infrastructure in the Columbia. Numerous agency leaders noted their agreement on killing problem sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

But even though federal, state and tribal leaders have agreed to kill some sea lions, their plans have been hung up in court by animal rights activists with the Humane Society. The challengers argue killing the sea lions is a distraction from bigger problems that degrade salmon health.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to kill hundreds of native marine mammals to reduce salmon losses by a couple of percentage points, while simultaneously authorizing much larger  man-made sources of endangered salmon mortality, is both outrageous and patently illegal,” Jonathan R. Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation for the Humane Society said in a recent press release.

6. Climate change

A warmer climate that melts glaciers and reduces snow pack in the mountains would change water flows and stream temperatures for fish that need cold water in the Columbia Basin tributaries to survive. And changes in the ocean, where salmon spend most of their lives, could also impact recovery efforts. How fast are these changes coming, and how can managers adapt?

Here’s how ODFW’s Ed Bowles summed up his concerns on this issue: “In my mind, I”m very optimistic about the future of salmon, but I’ve got to admit I’m largely optimistic because of how remarkable these fish are. If we or nature give them half a chance, they’re going to do their part. … Regrettably, I’m worried that nature is not going to be able to give these fish a fighting chance as much as we would like. Climate change, the loss of snow pack and vital cold waters, changing ocean currents, reduced groceries out there for them to feed on is really going to make it difficult to give them that fighting chance.”

7. Sharing water with Canada

The Columbia River Treaty is a major agreement between the U.S. and Canada was originally struck to help manage water storage for flood control and hydropower generation. Canada provides key storage capacity near the headwaters of the Columbia that allow water and dam managers to control water levels throughout the basin. How much water should be held back?

The treaty is up for renewal in 2014, and Lumley said he thinks the treaty is depriving the river and its fish of vital water supply. By reducing water flow, he said, “we rob the estuary of its health. The kind of conditions you see out there now is what the tribes would like to see as average.”

8. Taking some salmon off the endangered list

Several tribal representatives at the conference and Lori Bodi of Bonneville Power Administration brought this issue up. Can we start talking about removing some runs of salmon from the endangered list? One run in particular, the Snake River fall chinook, seemed to be a top candidate. The population has consistently “bumped up against delisting numbers,” Bodi said. Is it time to delist Snake River fall chinook? “I’d like to know when that conversation is going to start,” said Lumley.

9. Full recovery (200 years from now)

With everyone pitching in, how long will it take to fully recover Columbia River salmon runs? Current estimates say it will be 200 years, or seven generations of people. Lumley noted that significant benchmarks along that route have been reached, including reversing the decline in fish runs and progressing toward the 2020 goal of getting 400 million fish past Bonneville Dam.

Sharon Kiefer, deputy director of Idaho Fish and Game, reflected on the questions that come up once fish are removed from Endangered Species Act protection: “Restoration is more than just getting rid of ESA. Obviously we have that objective, but it’s a grander scale of consideration than making ESA go away. That doesn’t mean fulfilling our visions for salmon. As we collectively think about restoration, it needs to go beyond fish metrics. What does it mean to people? Are those needs being fulfilled?”

10. Who cares?

Along with all the talk of the future of salmon came talk of the future of people. Many asked: Who will be around to take on the long-term salmon recovery plans?

Irene Martin, a member of the Lower Columbia River Fish Recovery Board, said her group has developed a 50-year plan for salmon recovery in the estuary and its tributaries. “I’m not going to live long enough to see that plan fulfilled. Most of the people in this room aren’t going to live long enough to see that plan fulfilled.” Leaving a record of successes and failures in salmon recovery for future generations will be key, she said.

And speaking of future generations, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Deputy Regional Administrator Richard Hannan, will they even care about salmon? “I’ve been a biologist and bureaucrat for 34 years. One of the things I think we all can agree on is we have a crisis in relevance. As my career wanes, what I’m concerned about is the next generation. Are they going to be as committed to keeping this river clean? More and more of our children are becoming disassociated with the environment around them. Their idea of entertainment is to play their wiis, not play outside.”

He suggested all the salmon management agencies should get together to sponsor advertisements encouraging kids to go outside.

Columbia River Basin Salmon

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