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Effort Underway to Better Link Ocean/Plume Research
to Freshwater Columbia Basin Salmon Recovery

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 1, 2013

Posted on Friday, March 01, 2013 (PST) At its conclusion, Northwest Power and Conservation Council member Phil Rockefeller said a recent daylong discussion "has stretched my thinking" about how information gleaned from the ocean might be used to benefit salmon recovery/management in the freshwater Columbia River system.

The Council-sponsored "Ocean and Plume Workshop" held Feb 14 in Portland was highlighted by both policy discussions and explanations of research strategies and results regarding ocean conditions that affect salmon health and survival and thus, returns to the Columbia.

Likewise discussed was the importance of knowing the influence of the freshwater-to-saltwater transition zones -- the lower river estuary and the "plume" that develops as varying amounts of freshwater gush out of the Columbia's mouth.

The Council wants to know how such knowledge might be used in making freshwater fish management decisions related to restoring habitat, operating hatcheries and the basin's hydro projects and regulating harvests to support fish and wildlife enhancement goals.

The Independent Scientific Advisory Panel, which advises the Council as well as Columbia Basin tribes and NOAA Fisheries, in planned recommendations to the Council said it needs to be emphasized "that productivity of anadromous populations in all CRB sub-basins is affected by physical, biological and ecological conditions in the ocean."

No one at the Feb. 14 workshop disagreed.

More than 80 researchers, fish and wildlife managers and policy makers participated in the conference, with 50-60 attending at the Council's office and nearly 30 online and/or on the phone. Rockefeller, a Washington representative on the Council, led the discussion along with Idaho Council member Bill Booth and Council program implementation coordinator Patty O'Toole and other staff members.

The conversation centered on what the Council needs to know -- what current gaps in knowledge exist and what are future needs from ocean research -- to guide spending through its Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. The talks also were intended to inform decisions on what sort of work should be eligible for funding under the program.

The Council was created as a result of the 1980s Northwest Power Act, which directed the Council to create a strategy "protect, mitigate, and enhance fish and wildlife, and related spawning grounds and habitat, that have been affected by the construction and operation of any hydroelectric project on the Columbia River or its tributaries."

The Power Act directed the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power generated in the hydro system, to fund actions aimed at helping fish and wildlife affected by the dams' construction and operation.

The Act also says ocean conditions should be considered in evaluating freshwater habitat management to understand all stages of the salmon and steelhead life cycle.

Tracking conditions during all salmon life stages, including the ocean, "is important even to upriver managers," said Jay Hesse, director of Biological Services for the Nez Perce Tribe's Department of Fisheries Services Management. "Don't lose sight of that."

Recent research has indeed shined a lot of light on what goes on in the ocean, long considered a vast, black box. But the powers that be must make sure the information can be integrated to help work being done in freshwater, said Pete Hassemer of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The Council decided in making funding recommendations in 2011 on research, monitoring and evaluation projects that the linkage between ocean research and freshwater fish and wildlife management must be tightened.

In its funding recommendations the Council noted that its Independent Scientific Review Panel and Council staff in separate reviews "have raised broader issues about the ocean research, including the lack of any overarching plan for the ocean research and a lack of coordination among the projects, and a lack of coordination with the projects in the estuary also attempting to estimate juvenile salmon mortality.

"It is also not clear how the projects collectively are addressing the ocean strategies in the 2009 Fish and Wildlife Program and thus how the information to be gained will help us distinguish the effects of ocean conditions from other effects and help us manage in freshwater for variable ocean conditions," the Council decision said.

"We're looking for ideas on how to improve that," Rockefeller said of the upcoming process to amend the 2009 programs objectives and strategies.

The Council plans to send out a letter in April soliciting recommendations from fish and wildlife managers and others about what it should include in the updated program, which will likely be finalized in the spring or summer of 2014. The Power Act requires that the Council heed fish and wildlife managers' advice in building its Fish and Wildlife Program.

Also scheduled is an update of the Council's research priority plan.

Collaboration between researchers and fish and wildlife managers is a key, O'Toole said in a followup e-mail to workshop participants.

"It was clear from the discussion that there are two priority needs going forward, one being a forum for ongoing dialogue between scientists and managers, and the second being a list of priority uncertainties to guide future ocean research," she said.

"Council staff is working to pull together some draft materials on these two priority ideas and will get these materials posted as early as next week. We hope to have your feedback on these materials. . .."

Workshop presentations can be found at

The workshop agenda interspersed presentations from researchers regarding ongoing work in the plume and ocean with "interactive" discussions between the researchers and fish and wildlife managers.

During the Feb. 14 workshop, Independent Scientific Advisory Board member Kate Myers outlined that panel's recommendations for updating the Council's ocean and plume strategies.

A first objective, the ISAB says, should be to "understand and isolate effects of ocean conditions on anadromous fish survival and growth to increase the power of analyses to detect the effects of restoration actions in the Basin.

"Second priority, to determine limits to restoration potential or the effectiveness of actions taken in the Basin given the variability of ocean conditions that affect anadromous fishes;

"Third priority, to predict future ocean conditions with a view to adjusting actions in the basin to achieve greater benefits and/or efficiencies," according to the ISAB.

BPA Fish and Wildlife Division Manager Bill Maslen said his agency sees the need for a dividing line in choosing what research project to fund.

"We want research that leads to real management decisions to improve the effectiveness of what we're doing in freshwater," Maslen said.

He said the Council, and Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership, should lead efforts to "help us make better decisions in making investments" on fish and wildlife mitigation work.

Going forward, collaboration is vital, said Kurt Fresh, Estuarine and Ocean Ecology Program manager at NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center. NWFSC scientists have been, and still are, involved in BPA-funded estuary, plume and ocean research projects.

"We need help asking the right questions" in research efforts, Fresh said.

Effort Underway to Better Link Ocean/Plume Research to Freshwater Columbia Basin Salmon Recovery
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 1, 2013

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