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NOAA Releases Preliminary Report
on Species Status

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - February 28, 2003

A draft federal report released this week outlines a good news/bad news scenario for West Coast salmon and steelhead recovery, calling recent years' general increase in the number of returning wild spawners "encouraging," but cautioning that only time will tell if populations are truly rebounding.

The team of scientists that developed the preliminary report concluded that eight stocks of salmon and steelhead were "in danger of extinction" -- the definition of endangered under the Endangered Species Act. That's three more than are now listed as endangered, the most dire ESA listing category.

The document, when released in final form, is one part of the foundation for decisions about how ESA listing decisions should be made. That process includes evaluations of hatchery stocks' relationships with naturally spawning fish and how they might fit into listing decisions.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) is in the process of reviewing the Endangered Species Act status of 27 Pacific salmon and steelhead evolutionarily significant units (ESUs). An ESU is a population, or group of related populations, of salmon or steelhead. Concurrently it is developing a new hatchery policy to guide its deliberations in establishing ESUs and making the "risk analyses" that decide if a fish stock is threatened with extinction and thus worthy of ESA protection.

The document released is billed as "part 1" of the status review process. An expert team of scientists has reviewed the status of the naturally spawning portion of each ESU, and advised how closely related hatchery stocks in that area are to the naturally spawning portion of the run.

As part of the review, NOAA Fisheries' Northwest and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers this week offered the science team's preliminary findings to state, tribal and federal co-managers for their technical review. A revised Part 1 report will be prepared following the technical review. The deadline for comments from the region's fish and wildlife managers is March 20. No public comment is being accepted.

The preliminary findings focus solely on the naturally spawning portion of each ESU, and do not take into account the future effects of on-going salmon conservation and recovery efforts -- the latter being "part 2" of the status review process.

NOAA Fisheries' Brian Gorman stressed that the part 1 findings do not represent any determination by NOAA Fisheries regarding whether particular ESUs should remain listed.

This coast-wide review is part of NOAA Fisheries' response to a U.S. District Court ruling which held that the agency made an improper distinction under the ESA in how it treated artificially propagated fish in its ESA status determinations. Eugene, Ore.-based Judge Michael Hogan said the agency had gone contrary to the ESA by including hatchery stocks in designated ESUs, then leaving many of those hatchery stocks unlisted.

NOAA Fisheries has since accepted several petitions seeking a reconsideration of the ESA status of other salmon and steelhead ESUs, since most include hatchery elements. The Hogan ruling was focused solely on the Oregon coastal coho.

The agency has committed to reviewing the most recent information and analyses on the health of 27 ESUs of Pacific salmon and steelhead, and updating their ESA status consistent with the court's ruling. Those stocks include 12 Columbia River Basin stocks and one basin candidate species.

When the Part 1 and Part 2 reviews are completed, NOAA Fisheries will publish its proposed findings on each ESU and the basis for the findings, and will seek public comment on those proposed findings. NOAA Fisheries anticipates completing its review, publishing those findings in the Federal Register, and seeking public comment on it before the end of 2003.

The updated status assessments included in the preliminary report weigh the wild stocks' abundance, growth rate/productivity, spatial structure and diversity.

The majority conclusion of the scientific panel applied, though preliminarily, an endangered tag to two stocks -- the California Central Valley steelhead and Central California Coast coho -- that are currently listed as threatened. A third stock, the Lower Columbia River coho, is now listed as a candidate species but was also judged in the preliminary report as "in danger of extinction." Snake River sockeye, Upper Columbia spring-run chinook and Upper Columbia steelhead are listed as endangered and were so judged in the preliminary report. None of the report's conclusions shifted a stock from endangered category to the less dire threatened or "likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future" category.

The draft conclusions should be considered preliminary for two reasons, Usha Varanasi said in a letter to the co-managers. Varanasi is science and research director at NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Scientists from the agency's Northwest and Southwest science centers formed the core of the science team, with help from other agency scientists.

"First, the BRT (biological review team) will not finalize its conclusions until co-managers have had a chance to review and comment on the draft report," Varanasi wrote. The federal scientists will then respond to those comments as necessary.

"Second, as discussed in the main body of the report, some policy issues regarding the treatment of hatchery fish and resident fish in ESU determinations and risk analyses are not resolved at this time. If subsequent policy decisions substantially change the working framework used by the BRT in this report, the BRT conclusions could change as well," Varanasi said.

"The next step hasn't happened -- the decision about where to draw the line" regarding what stocks if any would ultimately be included in an ESU/listing, said Robin Waples, senior scientist at the NWFSC. Those policy decisions would likely be made at the regional office level.

The science team, in each draft report, has essentially revisited ESU hatchery determinations for hatchery populations that were made between 1991 and 1999. The report describes the relationship of each of the hatchery populations, genetically and otherwise, to the native, local population.

At the top of the four-category list are hatchery populations derived from that native stock and released within the range of the natural population. That category 1 includes fish are little changed genetically or by other effects such as domestication or non-local introgression.

At the bottom, category 4, are hatchery populations predominantly derived from populations that are not part of the ESU in question.

A draft hatchery policy released for review in August indicated that hatchery populations that have "diverged substantially from the evolutionary lineage represented by the ESU" will not be considered part of the ESU.

"The draft policy is currently under revision, and one issue that remains to be resolved is how 'substantial' the divergence must be before a hatchery population should be no longer be considered part of a salmon or steelhead ESU, even if it was originally derived from the populations within the ESU," according to the preliminary report.

"There's quite a few hatcheries in each of those categories," Waples said.

". it is important to recognize that, even in its final form, the BRT report will not provide recommendations regarding listing determinations for these ESUs," Varanasi wrote. "Instead, as in the past, the BRT report will present conclusions of the team regarding the degree of risk faced by each ESU, based on the best available scientific information."

"It is to be expected that the BRT would not grapple with the thorny issues" related to defining those hatchery/wild relationships, Gorman said. The petitions asking that salmon and steelhead stocks be delisted all follow a similar logic, that if all hatchery stocks in an ESU were counted, the threat to the overall ESU is diminished to the point that the fish should not be listed.

The BRT, in its preliminary assessment of the status of naturally spawning stocks, said returns of the past 1-3 years were "significantly higher than have been observed in the recent past, at least in some populations." It called the returns encouraging while noting they still fell far short of ESA recovery targets.

Some of the scientists have been swayed, however, to some degree. While preliminary conclusions favored downgrading any of the 27 stocks' listing status, some of the science panel's balloting failed to earn consensus.

"In the Upper Columbia River, the majority BRT conclusions for spring chinook salmon and steelhead were still 'in danger of extinction,' but a substantial minority of the votes fell in the 'likely to become endangered' category," according to the report's executive summary. "The votes favoring the less severe risk category reflect the fact that recent increases in escapement have at least temporarily somewhat alleviated the immediate concerns for persistence of individual populations, many of which fell to critically low levels in the mid 1990s."

The summary stressed that those improvements were "uneven across ESUs and, in some cases across populations within ESUs. Furthermore, in most instances in which recent increases have occurred, they have not yet been sustained for even a full salmon/steelhead generation.

"The causes for the increases are not well understood, and in many (perhaps most) cases may be due primarily to unusually favorable conditions in the marine environment rather than more permanent alleviations in the factors that led to widespread declines in abundance over the past century."

Barry Espenson
NOAA Releases Preliminary Report on Species Status
Columbia Basin Bulletin, February 28, 2003

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