States Seek Higher 'Incidental Take'by Barry Espenson
An official request sent Feb. 13 by the states of Oregon and Washington to NOAA Fisheries requests that greater impact or "incidental take" be allowed on protected, wild winter steelhead during the course of commercial fisheries targeting returning hatchery-raised chinook in the lower Columbia River.
The states say that the much-improved populations of those steelhead means that the additional impacts will have negligible effects on the status of the stocks. And it will allow them to meet their statutory responsibility to provide harvests on the unlisted portion of the spring chinook run for that short period in the late winter when they swim alongside the steelhead.
Sport fishing interests oppose the idea, saying not all the individual populations that make up the winter steelhead stocks are in better shape and none robust enough to consider them out of jeopardy.
The "biological assessment" submitted Feb. 6 asks that the impact limit on winter steelhead be raised from the current guideline of 2 percent up to a new ceiling of 6 percent. The consultation is required because the affected steelhead are listed by NOAA as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They include the so-called Lower Columbia, Upper Willamette, and Middle Columbia "evolutionarily significant units" of steelhead.
NOAA now must respond with a biological opinion regarding whether or not the proposed activities -- fisheries this year and next -- will jeopardize the survival of the listed ESUs. The BA says the states' intent would be to manage for an impact rate of 5 percent with a 1 percent buffer for management error (e.g. run size forecast errors).
The process has already skipped a bit, making it likely that any change could only be implemented for the tail-end of this year's fishing season. The states initially submitted an assessment in early January. The response was a Jan. 22 letter from NOAA's Peter Dygert asking for clarifications and additional information.
The cover letter sent with last week's resubmittal says the document intends to "answer the concerns and issues raised" in Dygert's letter. That letter was signed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's salmon fishery manager, Steve King, and Cindy LeFleur, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Columbia River policy coordinator.
Winter steelhead are the dominant anadromous life history in the coastal subspecies of Oncorhynchus mykiss and their range includes all tributaries of the Columbia River upstream to Fifteenmile Creek on the Oregon shore and the Klickitat River on the Washington shore. Major spawning areas include the Hood, Sandy, Clackamas, Molalla, Santiam, and Calapooia rivers in Oregon, and the Klickitat, Wind, Lewis, Kalama, Cowlitz, and Grays rivers in Washington.
During a Feb. 5 meeting of the Columbia River Compact, Dygert said that "once we get that information, it will take on the order of four weeks to complete our review" and the necessary documentation of the decision.
That means if the states receive a favorable decision it couldn't likely implement the change until mid-March. The ODFW and WDFW directors have expressed a desire to confine the commercial fisheries to the February-March period to avoid conflicts during the April peak of the spring chinook sport fishing effort. Sport fishers, which must release caught wild steelhead, are not believed to have significant impact on the protected fish.
The Oregon-Washington compact, which sets mainstem commercial fishing seasons, could approve the first 16-hour commercial fishing period for as early as Tuesday. State, federal and tribal biologists have estimated that the mortality rates are 40 percent for unmarked spring chinook and 30 percent for wild steelhead that are caught in large mesh gill nets and released. The mortality rates are estimated to be 18.5 percent for both chinook and steelhead when the fishers deployed the 4 ¼-inch "tangle" nets.
The ODFW's Patrick Frazier told the Compact that the 2004 winter steelhead run is predicted to be about 32,200. The 2003 run was 26,700.
"That's a good return compared to the late 1990s when returns were about 5,000 fish," Frazier. "1995 through 1999 was an especially tough time for winter steelhead." The steelhead stocks that would be impacted were listed in 1998 and 1999.
"Recent information from smolt trapping in the lower Columbia River suggests that at least some streams may be fully seeded," according to the states' document. "It is not the intention of the states to argue whether these populations require listing under the ESA, but to show that the populations are vigorous enough to withstand a modest reduction in escapement numbers due to increased incidental impacts from spring chinook fisheries targeting hatchery produced stocks.
The new biological assessment says that the assessment on which the 2 percent impact was based was completed at a time when "both sport and commercial fisheries targeted either hatchery steelhead or other salmon stocks and various methods were already in place to reduce handling of steelhead in the commercial fishery; therefore, the states estimated that impacts to wild steelhead in all mainstem fisheries combined would be less than 2 percent.
"For the commercial fishery large mesh gear was employed during the winter and spring months to avoid steelhead encounters and direct the fishery towards harvestable spring chinook. The expectation that fisheries impacts would be less than 2 percent was based on how the fisheries were designed rather than the relative health of the stocks or risk analyses that determined acceptable impact rates for wild winter steelhead," according to the new BA. The 8-9-inch mesh nets allow most of the smaller steelhead to swim through unscathed while larger chinook were ensnarled around the gills and body.
Meanwhile, the larger constraint on the mainstem commercial fishery has become the listed upriver spring chinook stocks. So the states, at the encouragement of NOAA, have been testing selective fisheries that allow the live release of unmarked fish and the retention of hatchery stock. The focus on the mainstem has been the use of so-called tangle nets. Their smaller mesh reduces the mortality rate for both steelhead and chinook but, unfortunately, they don't provide the pass through for steelhead like large mesh.
Two years ago, an unexpectedly big steelhead run appeared as the commercial fleet was testing 5 ½-inch mesh nets for the first and last time. The nets greatly increased the steelhead encounter rate and proved to have a surprisingly high mortality rate. More than 28,000 steelhead were handled, and an estimated 5 to 14.5 percent of the wild fish died. That prompted vigorous complaints from sports fishers. Recreationists can catch and keep hatchery steelhead in season. Commercial fishers can't keep steelhead.
Last year, the states tried a new approach to avoid the high steelhead encounter rate, launching the commercial season with large mesh nets. That strategy was intended to allow the targeting of what are usually the earlier arriving Willamette River spring chinook, while letting steelhead through. The managers switched to the less harmful 4 ¼-inch tangle nets later with the intent of increasing overall survival when more upriver chinook had arrived.
The net strategy was foiled last year when an early surge of upriver chinook -- led by a dominant 5-year-old class -- were caught in the nets. That pushed the commercial fishers beyond upriver spring chinook impact limits.
That basic strategy, however, is believed sound and will be employed again this year. Test fisheries with a few boats will be conducted to determine the stock composition in-river before full-fleet fisheries approved.
Sport fishing interests say that the requested increase in steelhead impacts is biologically unjustified.
"The lower Columbia stocks of steelhead listed as 'threatened' by the ESA include those that seem to be experiencing a slight increase in returning spawners, but none have shown enough recovery to be removed from the ESA listing," Terry Turner, president of the Washington Council of Trout Unlimited, told the Compact.
He said that the mortality rates newly assigned to the 4 ¼-inch nets have not been adequately validated. The rate was dropped from 25 to 18.5 percent this year after results from research fisheries conducted last year were added to existing data from previous years.
"Due to last year's short commercial fishery of only one day using 4 ¼-inch tangle nets, there is no data on what the results will be using that size mesh in a full season by the full commercial fleet," Turner said. "Only after analyzing the data obtained over that necessary length of time (he said 4-5 years at minimum) should these kinds of major changes be considered."
He and Liz Hamilton, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association executive director, both said such proposals need a public airing.
"It's all real new and it's something that is important," Hamilton told the Compact.
The states' BA points out that "The NMFS has also stated that they have 'not sought to eliminate harvest and as discussed in this opinion and elsewhere has accepted a certain measure of increased risk to the species to provide limited harvest opportunity...' (NMFS 2002)
"The preservation of these limited fishing opportunities allows the region to move forward in implementation of selective commercial fisheries targeting fin-clipped hatchery fish to improve access to harvestable hatchery surpluses, many of which are mitigation for other habitat impacts including extirpation or depletion of salmon runs from areas blocked by dam construction or otherwise affected by the hydropower system and other habitat uses," the BA says
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