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Action Agencies Release
BIOP 'Check-In' Report on Hydro/Salmon

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 3, 2003

A long-anticipated 2003 "check-in" report describes methodical progress toward implementation of the 10-year federal Columbia river salmon and steelhead recovery strategy -- and meteoric, relatively, improvements in the status of the stocks in question.

Implementation of NOAA Fisheries' December 2000 Federal Columbia River Power system biological opinion remains "on track" at a pace of some $400 million per year, according to the "Endangered Species Act 2003 Check-in Report" for the FCRPS released this week by the three federal "action" agencies. The action agencies -- the Bonneville Power Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation -- are those responsible for the operation federal dams in the Columbia-Snake river system.

The check-in is the first of three scheduled over the life of the BiOp, which earlier this year was remanded to NOAA Fisheries by U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden. NOAA is reworking the document and associated jeopardy analysis to correct deficiencies noted by Redden in a May opinion. The revised prescription is due by June 2, 2004.

Meanwhile, the BiOp adopted three years ago remains in place and the action agencies are pushing ahead on implementation of the 199 actions that NOAA says are necessary to avoid jeopardizing the survival of ESA-listed salmon and steelhead. The BiOp said planned FCRPS operations put eight of 12 listed Columbia Basin stocks in jeopardy.

The 2003 "comprehensive and cumulative" check-in is described as a programmatic review -- an evaluation of whether actions or programs called for in the BiOp are being implemented. NOAA Fisheries will follow-up with a "findings" letter before year's end that will tell whether the fishery agency agrees with the action agencies' self-assessment. Check-ins in 2005 and 2008 will judge whether the actions being implemented are improving the survival of the listed stocks.

The check-in concludes that, for the most part, implementation is on schedule and that those actions are adding to earlier efforts by federal agencies, states, tribes and others to improve salmon and steelhead survivals. The document stresses that those human efforts should try to capitalize on natural trends that have allowed a blossoming of fish populations since the BiOp was released.

"In 2001 through 2003, returns of adult salmon and steelhead to the Columbia River basin were at or near historically high levels," according to the check-in's report on fish populations. "Most of the listed ESU's demonstrated substantial gains in both adult steelhead and chinook were several times greater in 2001 ands 2002 than those stocks' 10-year average returns."

Of the eight ESA-listed "evolutionarily significant units" that the BiOp said were jeopardized, seven are showing increased abundance and trend estimates with data added in from the most recent years. Strong returns are also predicted for 2004.

"Nevertheless, the Snake River sockeye continues in a precarious status due to the very small numbers of remaining fish in that ESU," the report says.

In addition, "Abundance of the lower Columbia River steelhead ESU continues to decline and merits further attention," according to the report. The 2000 BiOp did not judge the lower Columbia steelhead to be jeopardized by FCRPS operations.

"All of these ESUs, except Snake River sockeye, are clearly in less jeopardy of extinction today than when they were listed in the 1990s and at the time the 2000 BiOp was implemented," the report say.

"A dominant cause of these increasing returns appears to be a turnaround in ocean productivity. This improved ocean environment can enhance our efforts to improve conditions for salmon and steelhead in freshwater," the check-in says. Efforts to improve freshwater habitat, mainstem hydrosystem passage, and harvest and hatchery practices are contributing to the resurgence.

"We know that favorable ocean conditions have substantially boosted these adult returns," said Witt Anderson, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers fish management office. "But, we also believe that the money and effort the region has invested in salmon recovery have appreciably contributed to these numbers."

"We also know that while most of the fish are hatchery reared, the wild fish also are making a good showing," Anderson added.

And more improvements are on the way, through the BiOp implementation and/or Northwest Power and Conservation Council's fish and wildlife program, and other efforts. Many of the biological benefits from those efforts have yet to manifest themselves.

"As spawning and rearing habitats continue to heal throughout the Columbia basin and more watershed-wide initiatives are undertaken, further gains in natural origin populations should be expected," the report says.

"The action agencies remain optimistic about the improving status of listed ESUs, in terms of the effectiveness of salmon recovery actions taken by the federal agencies, states, tribes and private entities, the continuation of favorable ocean conditions, and at least a temporary reprieve from concerns of population levels that fell to critically low levels in the mid-1990s," the report says.

"The is by no means to be interpreted that the action agencies believe salmon recovery has been achieved, but rather as an opportunity for enhanced regional coordination and implementation of actions to achieve the desired biological results."

The check-in judges that the funds and authorizations necessary to implement BiOp actions has for the most part been available. The report says the federal agencies have been spending $400 annually since the BiOp was adopted, an increase of 28 percent over the previous funding level. BPA, which markets power produced in the federal system, provides a large majority of that amount. That agency's books are also absorbing a $300 million annual revenue hit because BiOp-dictated spill for fish passage takes water away from power generating turbines.

"Where they have occurred, neither funding nor authorization delays are expected to adversely affect near-term survival of listed fish," the report concludes.

Among the report's list of accomplishments during the first three years of the BiOp are:

The action agencies are spending about $70 million annually on studies to help improve their understanding of how various actions affect fish survival. The research, monitoring and evaluation plan will allow the agencies to fine-turn future actions and better measure their results, according to the check-in report.

In a May 2003 findings letter, NOAA Fisheries found that 117 of the 124 key actions identified by the BiOp as crucial for implementation on or before 2003 are being "implemented as expected" or otherwise on track (modified, but still fulfilling BiOp expectations), according to the check-in report.

The check-in report, and a 2004-08 implementation plan, address potential remedies for areas of concern.

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Barry Espenson
Action Agencies Release BIOP 'Check-In' Report on Hydro/Salmon
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 3, 2003

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