For 28 years the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been responsible for counting adult salmon, steelhead and other fish that pass upstream through Columbia and Snake River hydro projects each year. But a change could be in the offing.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, has launched a process aimed at assessing whether there are “small business” interests willing and able to take over the counting activities, which peak during the spring, summer and fall when chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink salmon, steelhead, shad, lamprey and anything else that passes by fish ladder viewing windows is identified and enumerated.
The counters also differentiate between marked and unmarked fish, and so-called jacks -- early maturing salmon that return after only one year in the ocean and fully mature adults. Most hatchery produced fish are now marked with a clipped adipose fish. Naturally produced fish have their adipose fin.
The Corps operates eight mainstem dams – four on the lower Columbia and four on the lower Snake -- where daily counts are taken. The counts are taken by eye from April 1 through Oct. 31 by seasonal employees hired by WDFW. Fall and winter tallies come from reviews of video monitoring of the fish ladders.
The counts, by all accounts, are critical in evaluating what sort of progress is being made toward reviving wild Columbia-Snake salmon and steelhead stocks, 13 in all, that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The counts are also crucial for fishery managers, who decide how many fish can be harvested by sport and tribal and non-Indian commercial fishers.
The Corps’ exploration – called “market research” at this point – was not prompted by any inadequacy on WDFW’s part.
“They’ve done a good job,” Lt. Col. David Caldwell said of what have been consistently high marks given by evaluators of the WDFW work.
“We have to go through the process,” said the commander of the Corps’ Walla Walla District. Five of the eight hydro projects where counts are taken – McNary on the Columbia and Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Lower Granite – are in the Walla Walla District. Three on the lower Columbia – Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day – are in the Portland District.
The Corps realized prior to 2007 that they had not been in compliance with federal competitive procurement requirements as regards the fish counting contract. So they issued a “sources sought” notice requesting qualified businesses to notify the USACE of their ability of accomplish the work. The agency got two responses, one from a business categorized as small and one from the WDFW. The state of Washington and its agencies are considered a big business.
The Federal Acquisition Regulation says that “should two or more small businesses respond to a federal agency’s request for sources sought, and those businesses adequately demonstrate that they are capable of performing the work, the federal agency is required to set the requirement aside for small business participation.”
With no set aside in 2007, the WDFW was selected to continue the adult fish counting services under a five-year contract, which was extended by six months to the end of August, 2012.
This year the sources-sought notice produced two small business responses, and one from WDFW.
“All three responses to the sources sought notice have been deemed technically capable by the responsible fish biologist; therefore, in accordance with the FAR, the contract for adult fish counting services on the Snake and Columbia rivers has been set aside for small business participation,” according to a March 9 letter from the Corps’ Northwest Division commander, Brig. Gen. John R. McMahon to Phil Anderson, WDFW director. Copies of the letter were also sent to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries Service.
“Let me assure you that the USACE understands the importance of adult fish counting in the Federal Columbia River Power System to the tribes, states and public,” McMahon’s letter says. “The federal acquisition process is designed to insure fairness and the best use of federal funds. We will follow that process and I am confident the results will provide the fish managers throughout the region with continued accurate and timely fish counts, regardless of the entity selected for the pending contract award.
“I encourage your agency to explore partnering or teaming opportunities with any small business capable of performing this requirement, as a means to continue involvement and share your department’s established skills in accomplishing this work.”
The process now moves into a second phase where more detailed information will be required, and assessed, about the interested parties’ technical capabilities, and financial requirements.
The initial phase “doesn’t guarantee that either of these two small businesses will get the contract,” Caldwell said. If the interested parties’ implementation plans are found wanting, or their financial requirements out of line, then the next step would be an open bidding process, as was done in 2007.
The Corps hopes to issue a contract by late July.
Regardless of the outcome, “nothing changes about how the data goes out to the agencies and the tribes,” Caldwell said. “We will make sure there aren’t any speed bumps.” Just as the WDFW has long experience insuring that the job gets done right, the Corps has tenured experts trained to assess the quality of the work and data dissemination, he said.
Anderson has in turn sent a letter to the colonel stressing his agency’s “interest in maintaining this contract,” according to Guy Norman, head of WDFW’s Southwest Region.
“There’s a certain element of trust that’s been developed through the years” with other fishery managers that rely on the accuracy, consistency and timeliness of the fish count data, Norman said.
Integral is the “experience of the counters themselves, particularly at the peak passage times when you have thousands of fish going through” on a daily basis, Norman said.
“The quality and the consistency of the information is the most important thing,” said CRITFC’s Mike Matylewich.
“WDFW has done a fine job,” said Matylewich. “I don’t think they should mess with a good thing.”
“It’s a critical piece of information for a lot of management actions,” said Michele DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, which posts the counts and uses the data for a variety of analyses produced for fish managers. She too stressed that accuracy and timeliness is a key.
“You really want people to be well trained. It is a critical job,” she said.
Bruce Suzumoto, NOAA Fisheries assistant regional administrator for the Hydropower Division, said his agency too wants “consistent, accurate counts.” The process does not preclude long-experienced counters being used by WDFW, or someone else.
“I think the Corps will figure it out,” Suzumoto said.
The WDFW hopes to stay in the game.
“We just hope to compete for the job that we’ve been doing for 29 years” with strong positive ratings, said the WDFW’s Steve Richards.
The WDFW hires about 50 people in season to work two shifts, seven days a week at the five dams in the Walla Walla District. That total includes on-call substitutes.
“Most of our staff has been doing it for over 10 years,” said Richards, who heads the counting program in the Walla Walla District. Experience is a key.
“It takes about a year with an employee before I don’t lose sleep,” he said.
There are 18 full-time seasonal employees hired to do the counting at the three Portland District dams, again covering seven days per week, 16 hours per day.
“People that do the work are tested to see if they are accurate,” said the WDFW’s John Weinheimer, Southeast Region fish biologist. “It’s not something you just walk in and start doing and are accurate.”
Some of the lower river counters have as much as 25-30 years’ experience.
“Ten is not unusual,” said the WDFW’s Ann Stephenson, who guides the lower river counting. “A lot of it is just time and experience,” particularly at the lowermost dam in the system, Bonneville, where all of the spawners from the Columbia-Snake basin must pass.
At the peak of the run there can be “a thousand steelhead passing within an hour,” she said.
The two companies that responded to the sources-sought notice were FISHBIO and Normandeau Associates.
FISHBIO is a California-based company that employs research scientists, engineers and technicians that specialize in counting, tracking, and analyzing trends in fish and wildlife populations throughout the world.
Normandeau Associates, Inc. says it is one of the largest science-based environmental consulting firms in the United States serving both the private and public sectors. Normaneau employs field scientists, analysts, researchers, and permitting specialists to deliver technical information to help achieve project goals, meet regulatory requirements, and promotes sustainable economic development while protecting and restoring natural resources. The company, headquartered in Bedford, New Hampshire with offices nationwide, is 100 percent employee owned.