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NW Fishletter #222, October 31, 2006

Council Boosts Funding For Controversial Fish Survival Study, Questions Others

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has offered more financial support to an ambitious Canadian project that tracks young salmon sporting $300 acoustic tags down rivers and up the coast to Alaska in an attempt to find out where they die.

At the same time, it questioned the continuation of another group's 10-year study that compares upriver/downriver survival of hatchery chinook, and has been trying to prove that Snake River fish die off at higher rates than downriver fish because they pass more dams.

To bolster his case, Canadian researcher David Welch (Kintama Research) even presented preliminary results of his 2006 research in comments sent to the Council earlier this month to answer questions from the science panel that reviewed this year's spate of fish and wildlife proposals. His results aren't going to be officially released until November, at a Corps of Engineers' research review in Portland.

Welch had asked for $1.5 million annually over the next three years. However, a group of fish and wildlife managers tasked with reviewing mainstem proposals rejected the project, saying it didn't address primary management questions related to Columbia Basin hydro operations, and that knowing more about fish movement in the ocean wouldn't contribute much to life cycle studies necessary for hydro operations. Other critics don't buy Welch's assumption that all the migrating smolts travel along the continental shelf, where his receiver arrays are strung east to west. They say there's no guarantee that all tagged fish will be detected, but that some could easily swim around the arrays.

The Power Council originally recommended funding at half the requested level, but Welch said the money wouldn't be enough to answer two basic questions--whether barging improves the survival of Snake River spring chinook, and whether the Snake fish show evidence of delayed mortality once they are out of the hydro system.

In comments posted on the council's website on Oct. 6, Welch said, "the answer to both questions appears to be 'no'." But he added the caveat that his data seem to show that while barged fish from the Snake initially do as well as inriver migrants, an additional month in the ocean kills them off faster than if they had migrated inriver.

Welch also said his research has found no difference in mortality between fish migrating from the Snake and the Yakima rivers, when tracked all the way to the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Fish from the Yakima deal with four fewer dams than the Snake migrants.

For many years, most state and tribal fish managers supported the notion that the Snake fish died off at a higher rate than downstream stocks because they suffered more stress from passing more dams--especially from systems built to bypass fish around turbines. But there was no way to prove it since the fish didn't die until they left the hydro system.

It's been impossible to tackle such an assumption until recently, but with the advent of new technologies such as pit-tags and acoustic-tag research, some folks are getting closer to an answer. But pit-tag researchers, who can't detect the fish in the open ocean without a net, must wait until salmon return as adults to estimate overall survival of each group, and have no way of pinpointing mortality in the deep. Acoustic tags, on the other hand, have the ability to show survival in nearly real time because receiver arrays are stretched across the width of the continental shelf at several sites up the coast.

Another important element of Welch's research goes to the heart of an assumption held by many state and tribal fish managers, that the dams themselves have an adverse effect on all fish that must deal with them. Welch's group also tracks inriver survivals of different chinook, coho sockeye and steelhead stocks in other rivers like B.C.'s Fraser, where no dams hinder fish passage.

The Canadian researchers have now begun to estimate juvenile survivals of a spring chinook stock to the mouth of the Fraser. In 2005, they estimated chinook survival through the 250 km stretch at about 40 percent, similar to survival of Snake River migrants that transit a much longer stretch and pass eight mainstem dams as well before they reach the estuary.

But not everyone is keen on Welch's work. The state of Oregon weighed in recently with its own recommendations on mainstem proposals, and supported funding his proposal at only half the original request, per an earlier recommendation by the council's own staff. But Washington's two council members, Tom Karier and Larry Cassidy, along with Idaho council member Judi Danielson, expressed strong support for boosting Welch's budget at their October 17 meeting in Helena. Montana.

Cassidy said at the meeting that Welch's work is "very important." Karier later told NW Fishletter that it was the council's duty to support this type of work, which compared Columbia/Snake fish survivals with the survival of salmon that migrated down rivers without any dams, such as the Fraser.

Welch did not beat around the bush. He told the council that his preliminary results show no evidence that the hydro system causes any less survival of the Snake fish than the Yakima fish, which according to some reports, have shown five times better smolt-to-adult return rates. NMFS, for example, has questioned the high SARs for the Yakima fish. In a 2005 technical memo on dam effects, the agency suggested that recent pit tag research showed similar SARs to wild Snake River fish.

"While we caution that our first-year results should be viewed as tentative," said Welch, "they strongly suggest that the ocean plays the critical role in the management and conservation of Columbia River salmon stocks, and that ignoring these issues leads to more blame being ascribed to the hydro system than is, in fact, appropriate. This has consequences for both the science and management--in terms of time and money lost on, in some cases, answering the wrong questions."

Welch's 2006 data show that each group of Snake fish, whether inriver or barged, exhibited "substantially less" survival in the 560-km stretch between Willapa Bay (southern Washington coast) and Vancouver Island than in the entire 960-km distance out to the Willapa receiver array from the Snake. It also showed significantly higher survivals for Snake River barged fish than for inriver migrating Snake smolts.

Survival of the two Yakima groups (199 fish each) to the north end of Vancouver Island was miniscule--two fish were detected from one group and none from the other.

That result was similar to the detections for Snake inriver migrants. Of two 198-fish groups released in early May, only one smolt was detected from the first group and three from the second.

Barged fish from the Snake fared better, with eight detections in one group that was barged downriver June 7, adding up to an 8-percent survival rate to Vancouver Island, with a 3-percent survival rate from the second group, barged June 15.

In another controversial move, the council tabled a proposal to continue funding the years-long tagging and survival study of hatchery fish (Comparative Survival Study) overseen all this time by the Fish Passage Center.

Idaho's Danielson led the charge for more accountability from that project, and said only enough funding would be given to the sponsors to complete a report that covers the last 10 years of the study, as was requested earlier this year by the council's own scientific review board. The council will then give the report to the scientific board for review and recommendations.

Danielson said later that the hatchery fish would be tagged one way or another, because other entities like NOAA Fisheries rely on some of the pit-tagged hatchery fish in their own survival studies, but just who analyzes the data from these efforts may change to satisfy a need for an unbiased perspective.

Oregon members had objected to the holdup, and called for full funding ($1.757 million in 2007) of the controversial study, with added monies for tagging more lower river hatchery fish, as recommended by the science review panel. But the rest of the council felt otherwise, and wants the report within 90 days before any more money is doled out to sponsors.

Members also OK'd spending for another project that involved Canadians--nearly $600,000 over the next three years to investigate marine survival issues by collecting coded wire tags from Columbia River juvenile salmon off the B.C. coast. The council's science panel gave the project high marks, but neither the mainstem review team nor Oregon had supported it.

The council also gave the thumbs-up to a proposal by the Colville Tribes to evaluate different types of net traps and a floating fish wheel that would be used to develop live-capture methods for selective fisheries. The proposed study would also evaluate how well such gear can cull out hatchery fish from wild ones on spawning grounds. The council supported a $130,000 expenditure for next year, with more to come in future years if certain conditions are satisfied. That proposal was also not supported by the mainstem review team, which said its own tribal members had concerns about selective fisheries.

It's no secret that lower Columbia tribes do not support mass-marking hatchery fish so commercial and recreational harvesters can release wild, ESA-listed fish back to rivers. However, supporters say a fish wheel could help reduce the number of hatchery steelhead that return to spawning grounds above Wells Dam and dilute the fitness of wild ESA-listed fish. -Bill Rudolph


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