Fish Policy Prognosticators Predict Recovery will stay a Big Businessby Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, November 10, 2003
Salmon recovery efforts in the Northwest may be something most citizens in the region take for granted. But when measured on a larger scale, they likely comprise the "biggest conservation program in the world." Salmon recovery is also likely to stay that way for years to come, maintaining its status as a "full employment act" for attorneys.
That was the message Bonneville Power Administration Senior Policy Advisor Lorri Bodi delivered to a group of attorneys meeting in Seattle Oct. 24 for a continuing legal education seminar that focused on future power and fish issues in the Columbia Basin. She predicted stable funding levels for fish recovery, along with more wrangling over flow issues and general litigation.
In the last three years, Bodi said BPA has funded 17 major improvements at federal dams, along with 250 habitat projects in 20 tributaries. Bodi also made some pointed remarks about the big BPA budgets, which she pegged at around $400 million a year. "To be honest, we're hooked on the money," she said. Without naming names, Bodi said some agencies were more dependent than others on the steady flow of BPA's salmon recovery dollars.
Bodi brought in NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Bob Lohn, who offered some tantalizing hints about his agency's thinking as it crafts a new biological opinion to guide hydro operations to satisfy a federal judge.
Lohn said his agency agrees with the Oregon judge who ruled that NOAA Fisheries did not properly apply the Endangered Species Act in the 2000 BiOp because the document called for many non-federal actions that weren't reasonably certain to occur.
"What does that mean?" Lohn asked. "It means on the mitigation side, we need to go back and look at those good things that we were counting on happening. But it also means in terms of the adverse future events that we included in our last biological opinion, we need to go back and look at whether or not those are reasonably certain to occur, as the judge ruled."
Lohn said that analysis is likely to exclude actions on both sides. Elements of the old BiOp that might have been considered to have future adverse effects on fish may not be properly considered at this time, he said.
Lohn said his agency has two choices. It could patch up the current BiOp with its 199 salmon recovery activities, redo the stock analysis and see what that brings. Or it could restructure the document with fish recovery measures set up in another way.
"Those are the sorts of discussions that are underway in the federal family," Lohn said. "I don't want to presume on the outcome, but I can say to those following the case, if it were to become a serious possibility that we were doing something more than revising the current opinion, the court would be advised early if that decision were made or underway."
Lohn strongly hinted that the new BiOp might contain a few surprises--namely, that some stocks may not warrant listing for ESA protection under the criteria now being developed.
He pointed to "an extraordinary confluence of events" that has allowed so many opportunities "to bring things together" at one time, backed by good ocean conditions for fish survival that the agency hopes may last for another 15 years.
The big question, Lohn said, is whether the region can develop priorities for each 'H' (harvest, hydro, habitat, hatcheries)--whether performance-based or outcome-based--and integrate them within the current framework. "The opportunity is there," he said. "We'll have to see what time brings."
On the harvest front, Lohn said a long-term agreement on harvest is being developed, but he wasn't at liberty to share details. It is still uncertain whether the agency can get more regional buy-in for a new harvest regime that will offer more support for weak runs while allowing more harvest of abundant stocks.
Hatchery operations are being reviewed to reduce adverse effects on wild stocks, Lohn said, but he acknowledged that major questions still exist over whether supplementing wild runs with hatchery fish really works. He said it would take decades to get the answer.
As for habitat improvement throughout the basin, Lohn said major uncertainties exist there as well, as sub-basin planning efforts begin to gauge potential productivity gains for fish populations. He said the feds want local constituencies to develop locally acceptable improvements.
"This has never been done before in the world on this kind of scale--a huge task," Lohn said, noting the area in question is about the size of France.
Subbasin Planning Panned
Consultant Curt Smitch, who recently retired from a position as Washington Gov. Gary Locke's point man on salmon recovery, crossed swords with Lohn over the sub-basin planning effort now underway. He cited the effort's lack of statutory backbone as a main factor for its probable failure and waste of money, since his state has already completed most of the analyses.
"When NMFS determines what salmon recovery plans are in the lower and upper Columbia Basin, that will be the blueprint that we will all push state, local and other federal processes into," Smitch said. As long as the current process continues, running planning through BPA and the Northwest Power Council, "the more you just have process," he said.
Smitch called the federal efforts to curb harvests of ESA-listed salmon and steelhead mere "tweaks" that waste many of the fish returning to his state's hatcheries--facilities that cost $50 million annually to run.
Smitch supported marking all hatchery fish and re-allocating harvests to give more of a share of the salmon pie to recreational fishers and any other group that practiced selective harvest methods by keeping only marked fish that are caught and releasing others.
But a spokesman for tribal interests, Rob Lothrop of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said member tribes do not support mass marking of hatchery fish.
Nor did the tribes seem very interested in having BPA buy out some of their potential harvest as a "conservation easement," Lothrop indicated. BPA's Bodi said such a partial buyout had been discussed with tribal interests.
Lothrop said the tribes see a role for marking many salmon "primarily for research purposes," and they are working very closely with other co-managers to find ways to use hatcheries for rebuilding salmon populations to "access more of the harvestable component without impacting our long-term rebuilding effort."
Lothrop said the tribes want a more aggressive use of fish propagation with certain salmon stocks and support a new memorandum of understanding with BPA that would assure adequate funding to achieve these ends.
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