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Report Addresses Benefits Of Marine Ecology Research For Columbia Basin Salmon Recovery
Posted on Friday, February 03, 2012 (PST)

Researchers from NOAA’s Fisheries Service, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the private Kintama Research Services, Ltd., and Oregon State University have teamed up to explain why their ocean research benefits a program aimed at mitigating effects on fish and wildlife in freshwater.


The result is the “The Marine Ecology of Juvenile Columbia River Basin Salmonids: A Synthesis of Research 1998-2011,” a 95-page report completed in January at the request of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and its Independent Scientific Review Panel. The new report is now under review by the ISRP.


The report can be found at:


Three ocean research projects led by NOAA Fisheries, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Kintama have been funded through the NPCC’s Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Program, the first beginning in the 1990s. The Council program is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration with funds from ratepayers as mitigation for impacts to salmon and other species caused by the federal hydro system. BPA markets power generated at dams in the Federal Columbia River Power System.


The three ocean projects, aimed at determining the impacts of variable ocean conditions on Columbia River salmon, came up for review last year as a part of the Council’s regular process for evaluating the merit of projects. The three projects have in recent years been funded, in total, at about $5 million per year.


In its June funding recommendation following the “Review of Research, Monitoring and Evaluation and Artificial Production Projects,” the Council called for “the project sponsors involved to complete jointly a comprehensive synthesis report on the ocean research. The synthesis report should be “responsive to the program’s strategies, the ISRP’s comments, and the points” noted in an accompanying programmatic issue description.


The description said that the ISRP report and recommendations on the projects and staff review “have raised broader issues about the ocean research, including the lack of any overarching plan for the ocean research and a lack of coordination among the projects, and a lack of coordination with the projects in the estuary also attempting to estimate juvenile salmon mortality.


“It is also not clear how the projects collectively are addressing the ocean strategies in the 2009 Fish and Wildlife Program and thus how the information to be gained will help us distinguish the effects of ocean conditions from other effects and help us manage in freshwater for variable ocean conditions,” according to the programmatic issue described in the Council decision paper


The ISRP review of the projects said they met scientific criteria but said that a synthesis report for the ocean projects should be produced to “develop a strategic plan that prioritizes project hypotheses and management objectives….”


So the project sponsors launched into the task, producing the report posted online by the Council early this week.


Two of the studies, the “Ocean Survival of Juvenile Salmonids” and the “Canada-USA Salmon Shelf Survival,” are research partnerships established between BPA, NOAA Fisheries and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. They study juvenile salmon as they enter the ocean and during their first few months of marine residence, as well as monitor the ocean conditions experienced by the fish. The primary focus of both projects is to determine the physical, biological and ecological mechanisms that control survival of salmon during their early marine life, according to the synthesis report.


The third study (the Coastal Ocean Acoustic Salmon Tracking project) was initiated in 2005 by Kintama in order to better quantify where juvenile salmon mortality occurs. Acoustic tags were used to track juvenile salmon migration and mortality through the Columbia River hydropower system and into the coastal ocean.


The researchers say their work has provided numerous valuable insights, including the facts that:


-- Different species and stocks occupy different habitats in the coastal ocean.


-- Results suggest that juvenile salmon survival is set within the first year of marine residency and is partially related to food-web structure and growth conditions in the plume and coastal ocean.


-- Food-web structure is set by large-scale atmospheric forcing associated with the PDO, which appears to control the types of water which feed the northern California Current.


-- In some years, a larger Columbia River plume (characteristics of which can be predicted from a combination of river discharge and winds over the continental shelf) was associated with higher survival of some salmonid stocks. Acoustic telemetry demonstrates that river and ocean survival rates through the Columbia River hydropower corridor and coastal ocean are similar, supporting the hypothesis that early ocean mortality can be substantial.


That growing knowledge has management implications, the researchers say.


“The ocean projects have produced information that can inform management within the

Columbia River Basin in three main areas, the report says.


“First, because of the role of ocean conditions in affecting adult returns, periods of high or low ocean productivity can mask underlying trends in freshwater habitat productivity and could lead to a misinterpretation of the proximate cause of the trend. Knowledge of the response of salmon to ocean conditions is key to providing the proper context for judging the effectiveness of habitat restoration, hatchery reform, harvest management, and hydropower system improvements being implemented to restore listed and wild salmon stocks.


“Second, the combination of physical and biological information collected as part of the ocean projects has led to the development of simple models that now provide outlooks of future salmon returns. With a longer time series these metrics are expected to increase the accuracy of current forecasting.


“Third, the ocean projects have improved our understanding of the responses of stocks with different life-history characteristics to variable ocean conditions. We anticipate that knowing the mechanisms that link ocean conditions with stock-specific salmon survival will be useful to managers as we jointly seek to identify specific 4-H actions that improve salmon returns in the Columbia River.


“Thus, we advocate a dialogue between scientists, managers, and policy makers initiated through several workshops to discuss the implications of the results obtained as part of the ocean projects for the management of Columbia River salmon with regards to the 4-H issues,” the report says.


In its June decision, the Council recommended “that the funding for the ocean research projects through FY 2012 are to include the completion of the synthesis report and to allow for subsequent ISRP review and a Council recommendation on future implementation and funding.


“The Council and Bonneville will decide on additional funding for these projects in out years depending on the production and review of the synthesis report, and then on how the project sponsors propose to re-shape the research projects consistent with the recommendation here and the outcome of the synthesis report review,” the Council said.


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