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Fish Managers Request End to Summer Salmon Transport
from McNary; Cite System Improvements

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 26, 2013

The long-held practice of sweeping in migrating subyearling fall chinook salmon at McNary Dam and barging and/or trucking them downstream past three other lower Columbia River dams during the heat of summer should be discontinued, according to a "system operational request" offered this week by federal, state and tribal "salmon managers."

The request to Columbia River hydro system action agencies says that mechanical and operational improvements made in recent years have made transportation from McNary unnecessary because the young fish likely do just as well migrating toward the Pacific Ocean in-river.

The action agencies are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, which operate dams in the Federal Columbia River Power System, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power generated in the system.

The Corps' Karl Kanbergs said Wednesday that the action agencies would discuss the proposal and potentially make a decision within two weeks. The McNary summer transport season is not scheduled to begin until July 1 at the earliest.

"We'd like to have some time to talk about it from a policy standpoint," Kanbergs said.

The action agencies are obliged to run the Columbia/Snake hydro system in a manner that promotes higher survival of salmon and steelhead that migrate up and down the system, and to mitigate for impacts the dams and reservoirs might have on fish. That responsibility gained more strength in law with the beginning of Endangered Species Act listings of salmon and steelhead species in the early 1990s by NOAA Fisheries.

Experimentation with fish transportation began in the 1960s. And "mass transportation of subyearling chinook salmon began at McNary Dam in 1979," according to "A Review of Two Decades of Research on Transportation of Juvenile Salmonids Around Dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers," a 1992 paper prepared by Gene M. Mathews of NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

The Corps now directs spring and summer season transportation programs from Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams on the lower Snake River and from McNary.

NOAA Fisheries' 2008 biological opinion for the FCRPS calls for the Corps and BPA to "continue the juvenile fish transportation program toward meeting system survival performance metrics of Snake and Columbia River salmon and steelhead. . . ," but allows for adaptive management over the course of the 10-year prescription for avoiding jeopardy to ESA listed fish. Snake River fall chinook are listed.

The BiOp's transportation section notes that "Juvenile fish transportation has been used as an FCRPS survival enhancement measure for over 30 years.

"Fish which have been guided away from entering the turbine intakes at selected mainstem dams are collected and placed into barges or trucks and ferried past the remaining dams in the system, thus avoiding the mortality that would be incurred by passing through additional dams in the system."

The fish managers participating in the SOR discussed Tuesday by the Technical Management Team say that greatly improved subyearling fall chinook salmon survival through McNary Dam's juvenile bypass system, as well as survival increases on down the line, justify putting an end to the practice of collecting as many of the young fish as possible from McNary in summer.

TMT's federal, state and tribal fish and hydro managers meet to discuss hydro operations that might be implemented to improve fish survival.

"The fish managers felt it's time to call it quits," said NOAA Fisheries' Paul Wagner said. The salmon managers signing the SOR represent NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oregon and Washington departments of Fish and Wildlife, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Colville Tribes, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Jim Litchfield, representing the Montana, said his state did not object to the request.

The "fish operations plan" for McNary calls for summer transportation to begin between July 15 and July 30 "per the 2010 Supplemental BiOp" via the collection and barging of fish that have eschewed turbine, spill gate and mechanical bypass routes downriver. The FOP says fish will be transported from McNary by barge through August, and trucked thereafter when outmigrant numbers have dwindled. It also notes adaptive management can be used when appropriate.

The SOR says that in 2001 and 2002 researchers calculated that the transport "benefit" was 1.2 to 1.5 - smolt-to-adult returns for transported fish were 1.2 to 1.5 as compared to 1 for in-river subyearling fall chinook migrants during the mid-July to mid-August timeframe.

"We'd like to think there is a larger benefit to this," Wagner said of putting an end to McNary summer transportation of fish.

"Substantial improvements have been made to the McNary project and the projects down river which has resulted in increased survival at the projects as well as likely increases in reach survivals for in-river migrants which would reduce the transport benefit observed in those years," the SOR says.

Those improvements include increased spill and the addition of surface bypass spill mechanisms, both of which aid fish passing in-river. Other improvements at McNary and three downstream hydro projects include construction of wire arrays to discourage avian predation below dams, installation of more fish friendly turbines and other structural improvements.

Those improvements include the relocation of the McNary bypass outfall to a point downstream where the young fish were expected to be less vulnerable to predators.

"In past years, the Region has maintained summer transport at McNary Dam primarily because of poor bypass performance at this project," the SOR says. "However, in 2012, a new juvenile outfall was constructed at the McNary project that has improved survival at this project.

The SOR says that 2012 subyearling chinook bypass survival was estimated at 96.2 percent in a single release study, which is a significant improvement over past years' bypass survival (which ranged from 84.5 percent to 92.1 percent).

"The 2012 estimate was achieved despite high avian presence early in the subyearling migration season," the SOR says.

"From a project safety perspective, there is a risk to the outfall if there is a problem with a barge operating in the relatively high flow and velocity conditions below this project. Eliminating summer transport would eliminate this risk. Current interruptions in spill and changes in the spill pattern required for the barge to dock at the juvenile facility (that do not favor fish passage) would also be eliminated.

"The signatories to this SOR believe that, based on the improvements at McNary, John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville, the 96.2 percent survival estimate for sub yearling chinook through the new McNary outfall, and the ongoing intensive sport reward harvest for northern Pikeminnow, that neither barge nor truck transport from McNary should be initiated in 2013."

Related Sites:
Helping Salmon Downstream, Emotional by Staff, KMVT, 2/26/9

Fish Managers Request End to Summer Salmon Transport from McNary; Cite System Improvements
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 26, 2013

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