Task Force Releases Draft Goals for
by K.C. Mehaffey
"There's a sense of bewilderment of why creating goals is important."
After two and a half years of work, a task force consisting of diverse interest groups, tribes and government agencies has agreed to a vision and released a draft of its provisional long-term goals for recovering salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.
The 28 members of the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force are sharing those draft recommendations with their groups and constituencies, and gathering comments, which will be reviewed at the task force's Oct. 2-3 meeting in Portland before goals are finalized.
A handful of task force members, contacted by NW Fishletter, agreed the process has been worthwhile both in developing common goals and in understanding other perspectives on the issues and needs for salmon recovery.
"I think a lot of us were unsure what the purpose was, and that perhaps remains a question for myself and others," said Joe Lukas, general manager of the Western Montana Electric Generating and Transmission Cooperative. But, he added, "Overall, it has been quite helpful to get a sense of direction. Like one of the age-old quips: If you don't have a target, you'll never hit it."
The partnership group began meeting in January 2017 to develop comprehensive recommendations on qualitative and quantitative goals to protect, restore and manage salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia and Snake river basins. It was organized under the NOAA Fisheries' Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee (MAFAC), and receives technical support from the agency.
Once finalized, recommendations will be given to MAFAC, and can be used to guide management decisions.
The task force vision, finalized in June, is: "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."
Tony Grover, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and an ex-officio member of the task force, told the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee July 10 that the process is perhaps unprecedented for bringing together such a wide range of views, and expecting consensus. It's been touted as the region's first attempt to bring all interests together to agree on comprehensive numerical and qualitative goals for different populations of fish, both wild and hatchery, and ESA-listed and unlisted species.
"And no one--no one--has run away from the process," Grover told the committee. "That's the most astonishing part."
Grover answered questions from the committee, along with two of its members--Jennifer Anders and Bill Bradbury--who are also members of the task force. NOAA Fisheries and some task force members are expected to present the goals and ask for feedback from the full Council at its Aug. 15 meeting.
The goals focus on 24 stocks, which include 13 listed under the ESA. The stocks represent groupings of the 327 recognized salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin, made up of 210 current and 117 extirpated populations. The latter populations include 18 that have been reintroduced. Each goal is defined for the short-term--within 25 years; mid-term--within 50 years; and long-term--within 100 years.
Qualitative goals include values such as restoring salmon and steelhead to harvestable levels, and hatchery production that supports conservation and aligns with natural production recovery goals.
Quantitative or numerical goals also define short-, mid- and long-term goals for each of the 24 stocks. The high-end, or long-term, goals are typically about three times greater than low-end goals, and about half of the historic average, or less.
Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and a member of the task force, said she's excited to have a shared vision of how many fish the Columbia basin can and should have.
Hamilton said the task force's recommended high-end goals for each of the returning adult stocks make sense, and in aggregate roughly match the Council's goal of 5 million returning adults by 2025, identified in 2014 by its Fish and Wildlife Program.
"I think the most important part of this entire story is, this diverse group of people did listen to each other, did support each other's goals, and came up with numbers that are ironically close to the 5 million fish identified by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council as being real and obtainable and desirable in today's world," she said, adding, "I hope we get there, and I hope to be a part of it."
Ben Enticknap, Pacific campaign manager for Oceana and also a task force member, agreed.
"I think what we have here is a lot of diverse people coming together and recognizing that it's essential to recover salmon populations in the Columbia basin."
He said from his perspective, it's essential for these fish stocks, but also for wildlife dependent on them, such as orcas. What's important is that the goals reflect what the group, and what NOAA Fisheries scientists agree, can be realized, he noted.
It may be far less than the 16 million salmon and steelhead that historically came back to these rivers and streams, but to get to even one-third of past abundances will require difficult decisions by people throughout the basin, he said.
"Everybody seems to be taking this really seriously," he said. "That's why I'm still at the table. I believe people are willing to work hard and begin to recover salmon, for their many benefits. What we're doing right now is not working."
Lukas said while he was initially unsure of the task force's purpose, he now believes giving the region something to shoot for is quite valuable.
"The region will have to judge the value and the future use [of the goals], but I think there was a spirit of collaboration here that developed over the two years that, hopefully, made this a more valuable exercise," he said.
One of his hopes, he said, is that the goals will bring at least some understanding that salmon recovery cannot focus solely on the hydropower system, and "nonstop litigation." He said he hopes that the entire life cycle of anadromous fish will be under consideration, including their freshwater journey as well as their time in the ocean and estuaries. He also said he hopes the task force can begin to develop strategies to carry out these goals.
Katherine Cheney, with NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region, said the task force now has permission from MAFAC to continue the work to further refine its goals, and begin to lay out strategies for achieving them.
Cheney said NOAA's effort has been to bring together representatives of many interests for a comprehensive approach to setting goals for long-term salmon recovery, in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise. "I think everyone has really made a concerted effort to listen respectfully," she said. "And really understanding makes people realize they each have a place in the basin."
Cheney said it's natural to focus on one's own geographic area, or efforts to recover salmon based on one's interests, whether it involves habitat, hydroelectric dams, hatcheries or harvest.
"So how would someone who fishes in southeast Alaska interact with and learn from people who work on Idaho's habitat restoration efforts?" she asked "Their paths would not normally cross."
By sitting at the table together, task force members have not only come to understand each other's interests, but are less likely to blame a single aspect--like hydropower or hatcheries--for the issues facing salmon, she said.
The task force met by conference call Aug. 22 to talk about their constituents' reactions to the draft recommendations. Members reported generally positive feedback, but some also heard skepticism over whether the goals will result in any real action, and concerns that the goals will prompt new regulations.
The partnership--which includes four members of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council--reported their outreach efforts that included an Aug. 15 presentation to the NWPCC, and meetings with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's office, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission and several special interest groups.
More meetings and presentations are being scheduled before the task force's Oct. 2-3 meeting in Portland. Jim Yost, the Council's chairman and an Idaho representative, said the Idaho Fish and Game Commission intends to include some of the partnership's goals and objectives in its five-year plan.
Bill Bradbury, a former NWPCC member who still represents Oregon in the Partnership, told other members, "I think the feedback is that people are pleased to see the progress that's being made, and they're pleased to see the involvement of so many stakeholders in this effort.
"I guess I'd say they have their fingers crossed that it will result in some real progress on salmon [recovery] in the Columbia Basin," he added.
Similar sentiments were echoed by other partnership members, who also reported some skepticism that the goals will result in meaningful recovery for fish, along with other specific concerns, ranging from the timeline for recovery to whether PUDs and regional groups will continue to set hatchery production levels.
Marla Harrison, from the Port of Portland, said in general, people have been impressed with the work, and the divergent interests represented.
"There are the skeptics that wonder if we can make a difference," she said. "They just wonder what this means. So we have these goals. What does that mean?"
Harrison said others were skeptical of the historical numbers of fish that are quantified in the goals, and concerned that regulations could become more onerous. Fishing ports reported concerns about future management of hatcheries. "They really want more fish to sustain their industries and their livelihood," she said.
Jeff Grizzel, Grant County PUD natural resources director, said public-power utilities are fairly comfortable with the provisional goals, and he's received a lot of positive feedback. But, he said, "Like you heard from other folks, the lingering question is, how does NOAA intend to use this information?"
Grizzel said there is also some concern around hatchery production numbers, specifically for blocked areas, and whether NOAA Fisheries will try to influence the local decision-making process that now determines hatchery production levels to meet mitigation needs for the Mid-Columbia dams.
Liza Jane McAlister, a fourth-generation rancher in Oregon's Wallowa Valley, said she, too, heard concerns about where the goals will lead.
"There's a sense of bewilderment of why creating goals is important," she said. She said people in agriculture today face so many pressures she's unsure whether salmon issues rise to the same level of interest as so many other matters. And, she said, while she's impressed with the collaboration it took to agree on provisional goals, she didn't get the same admiration in her feedback--partly because people in rural areas are forced into collaboration to resolve many things.
Enticknap said his constituents are concerned that the timeline for achieving the goals may not be aggressive enough--particularly when it comes to helping southern resident killer whales, which favor Chinook salmon as its main prey. "People are waiting on actions to really gauge whether or not people are serious about achieving the goals we're setting up now," he said. Some specific comments included appreciating the goal of reducing hatchery production as wild populations recover, but felt that aspiration needed a link to quantitative goals. "There are some positive things in there . . . but we'd like to see more effort on the timeline, and maybe a little more ambition for some of these Chinook populations that southern resident killer whales depend on," he said.
Partnership members also noted that feedback from the NWPCC included the question of whether the group's goals should undergo a review by the Independent Scientific Review Panel. Bob Austin, of the Snake River Tribes Foundation, said he thinks an ISRP review would be better suited to the partnership's next phase, when the group will develop actions that can be taken to achieve the goals.
This fall, the task force will provide its recommendations to the NOAA Fisheries' Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee for consideration. The partnership is authorized to continue its work refining its goals, and laying out strategies for achieving them.
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