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Ecology and salmon related articles

Testimony of William Stelle, Jr.

Regional Administrator National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Region
7/19/00 - as prepared for delivery before the
Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, Water & Power Subcommittee


(date of original hearing, to be rescheduled to September, 2000)

Introduction

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate the opportunity to be here today, and I commend the Subcommittee for taking the time to examine the complex choices facing the Northwest region regarding salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) is engaged in two efforts at present to address salmon recovery policy as it applies for the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS). One is a new biological opinion covering operations and configuration of the system under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The other is a Basin-wide Recovery Strategy, a conceptual recovery plan for all the listed salmon stocks in the Columbia and Snake River basins.

I testified before this panel in April of this year, and my written statement at that time described the overall approach being taken by NOAA Fisheries in cooperation with affected federal, state and tribal agencies. My testimony today will serve to update you on these efforts.

STOCK STATUS

NOAA Fisheries scientists continue to update and adjust their assessments of the current status of the stocks and the prognosis for those stocks over the short and long term. While we fine-tune those analyses, the basic story remains the same: Stocks throughout the Columbia Basin remain in deep trouble, with the Upper Columbia chinook, Snake River chinook and steelhead stocks throughout the Basin most at peril.

THE BIOLOGICAL OPINION

Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consult with the Secretary of Commerce to ensure that its actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead, or their habitats. To inform this consultation, the so-called "action" agencies must conduct a biological assessment (BA) of their prospective actions to determine the likely impact of such actions on listed species. The BA forms the basis of inter-agency consultation under ESA and the subsequent Biological Opinion (BO) rendered by NOAA Fisheries.

On December 22, 1999, NOAA Fisheries received a BA from Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation outlining proposed operation and configuration of the FCRPS and assessing the likely impacts on listed salmon and other fish and wildlife species. We are now developing a new BO for the system to replace the one completed in 1995.

The scope of the new BO covers the entire FCRPS and all 12 Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESUs) within the Columbia Basin. It will address operation of the system, including flow and spill. It will address system configuration, including a dam drawdown decision, passage improvements at each project and operation of the transportation system. It will evaluate performance standards for the hydro system based upon productivity improvements needed by each listed ESU to avoid extinction and achieve a recovery trajectory.

Our jeopardy standard will be the same as it was in 1995, but will be applied to additional at-risk populations.

NOAA Fisheries and the Action Agencies have been working in an inter-agency group since Fall 1999. That group is composed of senior staff from each agency. In addition, on January 26, 2000, NOAA Fisheries sent a letter to each of the Northwest states and thirteen Native American tribes inviting them to participate in the consultation process. Since then, the work group has been meeting regularly, both by itself and with the states and tribes, to lay the groundwork for, and develop the key elements of, a new BO covering future operations of the FCRPS. Draft materials developed through the federal work group process have been shared with same states and tribes, including hydrologic and biological analyses of the effects of certain flow and spill alternatives, an analysis of the potential effects of those same operations on the transmission system, and an initial description of the information being developed to assist in the evaluation and use of performance standards.

There have been numerous work group meetings for interagency consultation, and there have also been a number of meetings between the work group and the affected states and tribes. These are the meetings during which the key technical elements of the biological opinion are being developed, analyzed, discussed, and refined. In short, this is where the real work is done. We have endeavored to make this process as open as possible by making technical documents and schedule information widely available, and by inviting state and tribal governments to participate.

Our current schedule for finalizing the BO is as follows: NOAA Fisheries expects to submit the draft BO for technical review and comment to the states and tribes in the coming weeks. This is not a formal public review process. The point of the review by states and tribes with technical expertise in this area is to ensure that NOAA Fisheries is including and appropriately applying the best available scientific information. The Opinion will be revised based on this input.

We had hoped to release the BO sooner, but there are several reasons for the delay. First and foremost, we want to be certain our analysis is complete. The biology is a major factor informing our decision, and we want to make sure it can withstand independent review. Secondly, we are applying a new tool in our efforts to rebuild salmon and steelhead populations: performance standards. We think it is critical that we have an effective tool for setting goals and measuring progress. Performance standards have tremendous promise in this regard, but the technical challenge in applying them to the salmon life cycle is extremely rigorous and time consuming. Finally, there have been considerable logistical demands associated with conducting public hearings on the All-H Paper (which we are now calling the Basin-wide Recovery Strategy) and consulting with 13 tribes.

THE BASIN-WIDE RECOVERY STRATEGY

NOAA Fisheries and the other federal agencies continue their work on a comprehensive response to the status of these stocks through the development of a Basin-wide Recovery Strategy a collection of concepts that will guide recovery planning for all the stocks in the Basin that is often referred to as the "All H's Paper." We anticipate releasing the draft Basin-wide Recovery Strategy with the draft biological opinion governing the operation of the Columbia River Federal hydropower system.

The Basin-wide Recovery Strategy will likely emphasize that overhaul of the situation in the Columbia Basin must be comprehensive to be effective and is not limited to hydropower issues alone. The Basin-wide Recovery Strategy will therefore recommend a comprehensive basin-wide program that places a premium on actions that can be implemented quickly, that are likely to provide solid and predictable benefits, and that will benefit the broadest range of species. These will include conservation hatchery interventions, production hatchery reforms, improvements on federal lands, instream flows for de-watered streams, elimination of impediments to passage in the tributaries, continued improvements to passage at the mainstem dams and rebuilding the productivity of the estuary.

The Basin-wide Recovery Strategy is being built on biological considerations, but also recognizes there is a limit to the resources available for the job and to the authority of federal agencies. It also emphasizes federal support for actions that state and local governments are planning or already undertaking, such as the Northwest Power Planning Council's sub-basin planning proposal. In the habitat arena, where some actions can take decades to show benefits, the program emphasizes those measures that can be taken quickly, with longer term actions to be taken later based on sub-basin assessments and plans. It will also seek to establish strong connections between the new habitat features of the Council's fish program and the related state programs in the same subject area, such as water quality protections, instream flows and riparian related activities.

The federal agencies also recognize that, even while the region has devoted considerable resources to restoring Columbia Basin fish, there are limits to those resources. The combination of near-term biological risks and resource limitations led the agencies to focus on actions that give the greatest "bang for the buck" that have predictable benefits, that will benefit the greatest number of species. Getting the biggest bang for the buck can mean focusing on those life stages where improvements will yield the biggest results, or on those actions that are more certain to result in improvements in a short time frame.

For example, scientific analysis suggests that improving survival during the first year of life, when the greatest mortality occurs, will give the greatest benefit. This emphasizes, in particular, the value of improving freshwater habitat. Scientific analysis also suggests improvements in all life stages will have a greater effect on overall productivity than focusing improvements on just one life stage. In other words, a comprehensive approach to improve survival throughout the salmon's life cycle will be a more effective strategy than a singular focus on one life stage (or H). In summary, we believe getting the biggest bang for the buck means making difficult choices on how available resources are allocated, now and into the future, focusing on actions that benefit a large number of ESUs. For example, improvements in dam passage in the lower Columbia benefit all upriver ESUs, and improvements in the estuary benefit all 12 ESUs to varying degrees.

Federal agencies also considered tribal trust responsibilities in developing this package. For some ESUs, such as Snake River fall chinook, eliminating harvest would reduce substantially the risk of extinction. Dramatically reducing hatchery production basin-wide would also benefit all ESUs to some degree, although it is not possible to quantify the benefit with precision. The Basin-wide Recovery Strategy will not recommend these actions, however, because of the importance of maintaining some level of tribal harvest. Instead, we will likely call for a major effort to implement a complete overhaul of the hatchery system in the Basin to reduce the ongoing risks to the weak wild stocks posed by the existing system. The Strategy will likely call for a major effort to monitor and evaluate the success of this overhaul and reduce the uncertainties that now abound.

I would like to take a moment to speak to the general issue of uncertainty and the NOAA Fisheries response to it. We must understand that we face unavoidable uncertainties as we craft this next phase of the recovery effort. Uncertainty pervades our ability to count wild fish and estimate the size and trends in the populations because we have not distinquished between wild spawners and their hatchery counterparts when counting fish in the past. Hence our current projections of the size of those populations must be caveated. Uncertainty pervades the ability to estimate the scope and degree of impacts both positive and negative associated with the Columbia Basin industrial-scale hatchery system for the simple reason that we have not bothered to make a priority to invest in the research to characterize those impacts. Uncertainty pervades our ability to estimate the existing habitat base and its potential to improve salmon productivity. And while we have made some progress in understanding the basic ecology of freshwater systems, we remain ignorant of the ecology of the estuarine or marine environments which are so vital to the long-term health of these very salmon populations we are endeavoring to recover.

We must squarely confront these uncertainties as we work to identify the best opportunities to secure survival improvements, quantify how much improvement is enough, and assess whether a particular menu of actions will likely produce the desired amount. In the Basin-wide Recovery Strategy we will place a significant emphasis on a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation program to generate better information about what will work best so that we will be able to make adjustments in the days and years to come. This work will cover the key uncertainties enumerated above, and we will commit to its peer review as we proceed. In short, uncertainty becomes a call to action and not an excuse for inaction or capitulation.

Much of the regional debate has focused on removal of Snake River dams.

The option of Snake River drawdown therefore appears to rank as a lower priority at this time than other available options because of the long time to implement, narrow benefits, biological uncertainties and high costs.

Instead, the current analysis indicates that an aggressive and comprehensive approach will provide immediate benefits and lay the foundation for salmon and steelhead recovery. We expect to challenge hydropower system operators now to meet rigorous survival goals over the next ten years, using continued improvements in flow and spill management and structural improvements at dams. Progress would be reviewed in five years, and system performance would be evaluated against performance standards in five, eight, and ten years. Dam removal would again be addressed if progress toward these goals is inadequate or if called for by new scientific information about the Snake River stocks.

NOAA Fisheries and the federal agencies are working to develop a program that commits the region to implement habitat, harvest and hatchery actions to further enhance fish survival beyond that achieved with their investments in the hydropower system.

Such a program would call for a major effort at improving the health of the stream systems, the mainstem habitats and the estuary, all of which are important building blocks for recovery. The program would ground the restoration strategies on a combination of scientific assessments through the Council's program and sensible "early actions" to jumpstart rebuilding. Putting water back into de-watered streams and opening up access to healthy habitat may be a good place start.

Finally, the program would call for the development and implementation of an aggressive, unprecedented monitoring and evaluation program that will enable the agencies to assess program results as well as to resolve critical uncertainties. Further, this contemplates rigorous independent peer review of its scientific foundation and the implications of the monitoring and evaluation activities.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my statement. I would welcome the opportunity to respond to questions.


Regional Administrator National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Region
Testimony of William Stelle, Jr.
Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, Water & Power Subcommittee - July 19, 2000

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