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Connecting Ocean Research To Columbia Basin Salmon Mitigation: Evaluations Continue
Posted on Friday, March 09, 2012 (PST)

Between now and May the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and staff will mull independent scientific assessments and testimony from an international group of proponents and others regarding the potential value Pacific Ocean research might provide in efforts to recover imperiled Columbia River basin salmon stocks.


A trio of research projects have in recent years been funded at about $5 million annually to evaluate salmon once they emerge from the Columbia River as juvenile fish, and identify factors that might affect survival in saltwater.


As the result of a process to review research, monitoring and evaluation projects that was completed late last year, the Council and the Independent Scientific Review Panel asked the ocean project sponsors to develop a synthesis report to explain how the knowledge gained through the individual ocean research projects was being shared and/or coordinated.


They also wanted to know how it might aid ongoing work to mitigate for negative effects on fish and wildlife caused by the Columbia-Snake river hydro system, and to help revive 13 basin salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.


The Council is expected during its May meeting make recommendations regarding the funding fate of two of the three ocean research projects beyond the current (2012) fiscal year.


The Council developed its Columbia River basin fish and wildlife program at the direction of the Northwest Power Act to mitigate for those hydro impacts. The program is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal power marketing entity that also has an obligation to assure the federal dams avoid jeopardizing ESA-listed stocks.


While acknowledging that the ocean research projects involve “pioneering work,” Bill Maslen, director of BPA’s Integrated Fish and Wildlife Program, told the Council Tuesday that further linkages are needed to confirm theories that the ongoing ocean research can benefit management actions aimed at countering the effects of the freshwater hydro system.


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 (company’s full name?) 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 Council in June recommended that the Kintama project be funded in FY2012 only to participate with other ocean research projects in preparing a synthesis report on the state of the ocean research, and that no further research be conducted.


The “Ocean Survival of Juvenile Salmonids” study conducted by NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center has been funded through the Council-BPA program since 1998.


NOAA Fisheries’ Kym Jacobson told the Council that her agency, which is charged with protecting listed salmon stocks, recognized following a slew of new listings in the 1990s that freshwater and estuarine work such as improved dam operation and passage improvements and habitat restoration was helping, but the populations obviously were being affected by another, variable source.


“We realized we needed to look at the ocean,” which was largely a “black box” of unknowns, Jacobson said.


NOAA Fisheries’ Bruce Suzumoto told the Council that his agency feels “the work being done should continue,” and/ or be expanded. Suzumoto, assistant regional administrator – hydro system, said the research is shining light into that black box by learning how changing ocean conditions might affect the river system’s output and returns.


“It provides a context for what we’re dealing with in freshwater,” he said.


The synthesis report completed in January said the ocean projects inform freshwater management in three main areas.


“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.”


The ISRP’s Feb. 29 “Review of the Ocean Synthesis Report: The Marine Ecology of Juvenile Columbia River Basin Salmonids: A Synthesis of Research 1998-2011,” offers an it’s-good-but it-could-be-better summation of the synthesis, and the ocean work.


“The ocean science synthesized in this report demonstrates order-of-magnitude advances in our knowledge of the role of the ocean on the early marine life history of Columbia River Basin salmon, since the pioneering marine research on the topic in the 1980s,” the ISRP report says. “Nevertheless, the ISRP concludes that there needs to be a stronger link between studies of marine ecological processes and salmon survival estimates.”


The science panel said the synthesis report is an important step toward establishing those linkages, and is an effort worth continuing.


“The process encourages and enhances cooperation and coordination among projects, and provides a mechanism for demonstrating collective progress toward addressing the ocean strategies in the 2009 Fish and Wildlife Program. The ISRP recommends continuation of the synthesis-reporting process,” the ISRP review says.


“In conclusion, the ISRP recommends that the Council maintain an ongoing dialog with the ocean research projects and projects in other realms to ensure that (1) the Council understands what these projects can and cannot contribute to Columbia River Basin salmon restoration and management, and (2) project proponents understand the questions and issues facing the Council and regional co-managers.


“The ISRP's view is that information provided by the ocean projects' process studies on what, when, where, and how ocean mortality occurs will lead to improved hatchery, hydrosystem, harvest, and habitat management practices needed to help restore Columbia River Basin salmon.”


The ISRP review can be found at:


Comments on the new ISRP paper are being accepted by the Council through April 6.

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