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Salmon Crossroads:
Manage Recovery Based on the Troughs?

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 21, 2003

Reports that record returns of chinook salmon are coincident with a period of cooling in the ocean illustrate that climate matters.

However, scientists at a conference in Portland last week also warned that they don't know how long cool ocean conditions will last and that the time juvenile salmon spend in Northwest watersheds appears to be as important as their time in the ocean.

That leaves policy makers with choices. Should they relax the intensity of salmon recovery efforts? Or, should they continue planning for the "trough," -- that period of time when the ocean will eventually reverse its current cooling trend and salmon returns decline?

"We should be managing for the troughs rather than the peaks," said Rick George of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "We need to prevent those troughs from dipping so far down that we have to call on the ESA for help. Ocean cycles are important, but how in the world would it change what we do? It really wouldn't. All we can do is protect the Columbia Basin."

Scientists and policymakers converged on the conference, titled "Salmon Crossroads: Record Runs and New Directions," Nov. 14. There -- before an audience made up largely of utility representatives -- they debated how to interpret the recent favorable salmon return news and what to do next.

"Just like our watersheds, there is habitat out in the ocean," said John Stein of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. "Fish either like it, or not. Simply put, climate matters, the ocean matters."

Stein said ocean conditions go through cyclical periods due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. "When in a cool condition, salmon thrive, but we don't know much about the mechanism that causes this," he said.

Cool ocean water conditions during the period 1955 to 1975 also had good salmon returns, but ocean water warmed again and returns dropped until about 1997 when water again began to cool. That condition continues today.

Presenting anecdotal evidence of the impact of ocean conditions on salmon returns, Bruce Suzumoto, biologist with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said Weyerhauser purchased Oregon Aqua Foods, consisting of two fish farms on the Oregon Coast, when returns from a cool ocean were as high as 5 percent. That dropped in 1976-77 to less than 1 percent when the ocean warmed, causing the fish farm to go out of business, he said.

Suzumoto worked for Oregon Aqua Foods at the time and he later worked for the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. at a time when the ocean was cool and returns in Alaska were good. He said the return of pink salmon was about 5 percent; coho was about 5-10 percent and the sockeye return was "phenomenal" at 20-30 percent.

However, the change to cooler ocean conditions doesn't result in the same positive returns for all fish. It appears that Snake River chinook respond best to cool ocean conditions, while Upper Columbia River fish respond better to warm conditions, Stein said, although overall returns are better with a cool ocean.

"There is variability in response to climate," he said. "We still need to understand that. Just because ocean conditions change doesn't mean all stocks do well. Not all stocks respond in the same way."

While there has been an increase in salmon returns, hatchery fish returned in a larger proportion than did wild fish. That is likely due to the fact that wild fish spend more time in the watershed, Stein said. "If we improve that habitat, maybe we can begin to turn that around." He added that such effort requires a long-term commitment.

Ed Casillas of NOAA Fisheries supported the notion that each habitat -- watershed and ocean -- is equally important. He said that "mortality of salmon in freshwater is equivalent to what we see in the ocean. Both watershed and ocean are important."

"Climate shifts are dynamic. They change yearly, in decades and longer," Casillas said. "The salmon response is similarly dynamic. Good ocean conditions don't imply we will have good salmon returns in each of these years."

"It seems to me that the best thing we can get a handle on is our freshwater habitat," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "If we don't take care of the basin, populations will go down, regardless of ocean conditions."

"The prevailing wisdom that the survival of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead is tied to the PDO and that we will have 20 more years of good returns is not exactly right," said Tom Karier, NPCC member from Washington. "The PDO index is a gross average. Also important to salmon are local conditions -- in the estuary and the near coast. Those have not been reversed."

"So, is the PDO index useful?" he asked. "With the recent skyrocketing returns, a lot of people are drawing conclusions from just a couple of years." He said returns of salmon in the 1980s were relatively good, while the PDO was bad (in the warm water cycle). "That tells me that the PDO is not the critical measure for salmon conditions. Returns are probably not tied closely to the PDO and so the assurance that we have 20 more years of good returns is much weaker."

He said that the direction of research should be towards identifying the impact of climate and habitat on local conditions and local stocks.

The crisis mentality characterized by salmon recovery in past years seems to have died away, said Mark Plummer, NOAA Fisheries economist. But the region must continue to do the small things that add up to recovery.

"At the same time we see the effects of the ocean and that is humbling," Plummer said. "Putting logs in a stream seems small in comparison, so why bother doing anything? That is the wrong way of thinking."

Policymakers are overly optimistic that all problems have been solved, said Rod Sando, executive director of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. The bulk of the return is hatchery fish and wild stocks are not in good shape, he said.

"Look at the Snake River sockeye," he said. "We got two fish back this year and had released 30,000 smolts. They, indeed, are in trouble and are only hanging on due to artificial propagation. They have a terrible time getting through the hydro system and surviving in the ocean."

Sando said he is still optimistic because things are in place in the watershed that will lead to improvements, but "the job is not over."

"The good response shows that good things are in place and it shows the resilience of the stocks," he added. "But, I think it will take decades of proof. I know that's not what you want to hear, but that's the reality. We need to stay the course to make sure that all plans and responsibilities stay in place."

Sando added that the salmon recovery effort has been spinning its wheels about 40 percent of the time over the past couple of years due to the Bonneville Power Administration's financial crisis. "There don't seem to be adequate funds for all the RPAs," he said. RPAs are reasonable and prudent alternatives, or measures needed for recovery, required by NOAA Fisheries' 2000 biological opinion. "The delivery is not where it needs to be or where it could be."

"Part of the problem is financial constraints," he said. "I'm concerned about your part of the business (speaking directly to the audience). One is the WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply System) debt that is a heavy financial burden on non-fish management."

He said that debt continues to be a drag on financing salmon recovery. "Now Bonneville is contemplating a $200 million transfer to the next rate case and not one fish manager was a part of that decision," Sando said, referring to a recent proposal by BPA and Northwest utilities to settle lawsuits that would lower BPA power rates through 2006, but could result in higher rates in the power marketing agency's next rate case. "Can I assume we will not pay for that?"

Despite the recent large returns of salmon, Rob Walton of NOAA Fisheries said the important issue now is how to manage for the next downturn in the PDO.

"Salmon have a remarkable ability to recover, but we don't know when to expect the next downturn," he said. "How can we assure that we will have adequate habitat when that happens?"

"With all the brain power here, no one can say what recovery is. That makes me think it is never," said Umatilla Electric Cooperative Association general manager Steve Eldrige.

Recovery is when there are sufficient numbers of salmon and sufficient habitat, Sando said. "In some cases that will be darned difficult." Some will be delisted as endangered, but others that are in peril, such as the sockeye in Redfish Lake, will be listed for a very long time, he said.

The region and NOAA Fisheries have a commitment to recovery, said Bob Lohn, Northwest Region director of the fisheries agency. The commitment is "not just to do the minimum to get the steel hands of the ESA from around our neck, but to restore the stocks to a higher level of abundance," he said.

Hamilton said she was encouraged by the tenor of the message that salmon recovery success will be measured by "what we do in the troughs. We all know what we want to do and we just need to continue doing that."

If managing for the troughs, recovery will never occur because the choice of whether to de-list or not would not be able to consider the positive salmon returns, said Cyrus Noe, owner of Energy NewsData.

Sando reminded the crowd that the record runs were of hatchery fish, not wild fish, and that recovery will continue to require "good sound management to plan for the low points. The economic integrity of our environmental system is important and the quicker we do that, the better."

Mike O'Bryant
Salmon Crossroads: Manage Recovery Based on the Troughs?
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 21, 2003

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