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Sockeye Snafu Spoils 2010 Barging Study

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, March 29, 2011

A miscommunication between a Corps of Engineers biologist and the staff that runs the Columbia Basin's PIT-tag database system blew last year's study on the effects of barging on Snake River sockeye.

As a result, most of the PIT-tagged sockeye destined for transportation in 2010 were not channeled into barges at lower Snake dams last year. About 44,700 PIT-tagged sockeye had been coded for transport, according to a technical memo posted on the Fish Passage Center's website. But only 2,053 of those fish slated for barging were detected at the three collector dams on the lower Snake and only 41 fish, less than 2 percent, made it on to a barge.

NMFS biologist Paul Wagner, who authored the memo, told NW Fishletter that the Fish Passage Advisory Committee, which he co-chairs, typically reviews each PIT-tag request to "avoid screwing up other studies" that may be underway. FPAC sent its approval letter back to the requester, but then the OK was never sent over to the PITAGIS staff, who would have entered the information into the system and the thousands of sockeye coded for transport would have been shunted into barges when they reached the bypass systems at the dams. Without the OK, the default code remained in place, said Wagner, and all the fish were returned to the river.

One of the main reasons that feds aren't barging more chinook and steelhead this spring is out of concern for its potential effects on sockeye. Sockeye smolts seem especially fragile and are easily descaled when they pass through bypass systems at dams.

In April 2010, the independent panel that deals with scientific questions about the Basin's salmon recovery effort suggested that barging be dialed back from the levels proposed in the BiOp until more data was gathered about barging and sockeye in low-flow years, though they admitted there was no data to suggest that it was harmful. The panel was concerned that the feds' max-transport strategy for chinook and steelhead would impact the new sockeye barging study.

As the Mar. 16 memo pointed out, NOAA had originally proposed a maximum transportation strategy in 2010 by not spilling water at collector dams in May. "This proposal was primarily due to a forecast of low spring flows for the Snake River and benefits of transportation for steelhead," said the memo, which noted that many fish managers wanted more spill and less barging.

The miscommunication blew a chance for researchers to get more information on the value of spill in a recent low-flow year, "which has occurred one other time, in 2007."

Fish tagged and barged in 2009, the first year of the study, will be returning this year, but the barging snafu means that no adult return data will be available to compare barged/inriver sockeye returns in a low-flow year.

FPAC said it was extremely concerned "that an oversight of this magnitude could happen, particularly with such an important study." They asked the PIT-tag steering committee to review the current policy and work with PITAGIS staff to eliminate these types of mistakes.

Bill Rudolph
Sockeye Snafu Spoils 2010 Barging Study
NW Fishletter, March 29, 2011

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