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NOAA Fisheries Releases Draft 2013 Salmon/Steelhead BiOp, Says 2008 Biological Analysis ‘Still Valid
Posted on Friday, September 13, 2013 (PST)

NOAA Fisheries has decided that it will largely stay the course with its plan to assure Columbia/Snake River salmon and steelhead stocks are not jeopardized by the existence and operation of the federal Columbia River Power system.

A habitat-based approach will do the trick, the federal agency says. Dam removal, as some critics would suggest, is not necessary.

“What we found was that the analysis we conducted in 2008 is still valid,” NOAA hydro system chief for its Northwest region, Bruce Suzumoto, said Monday during a preview of the agency’s draft “2013 Supplemental Biological Opinion.”

For more information and documents go to http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/hydropower/fcrps_opinion/federal_columbia_river_power_system.html

The draft comes in response to a 2011 edict that declared NOAA Fisheries 2008/2010 biological opinion illegal. U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden at the time said that he continued “to have serious reservations about NOAA Fisheries’ habitat mitigation plans for the remainder of this BiOp.” He said that “the lack of scientific support for NOAA Fisheries’ specific survival predictions is troubling.”

Redden, who has since retired, ordered a legal remand which has involved federal agencies that are expected to produce a new or improved BiOp that specifically linked planned habitat improvements to survival improvements that would be expected to mitigate for negative impacts caused by the operation and existence of the hydro system.

A final BiOp is due for delivery to the court by the end of the year.

The new document includes a long list of habitat improvement that are scheduled from fiscal year 2014-2018, the second half of the 10-year term of the 2008 strategy.

“What we found was that the (biological) analysis we conducted in 2008 is still valid,” Suzumoto said.

Hydrosystem improvements planned from the original 2008 BiOp largely continue as planned, as do initiatives to reduce impacts to wild, listed fish from harvest operations, harvest management and predation.

The judge said the 2009/2010 plan “lacked specificity” both in terms of naming specific habitat improvement projects that would be carried out for the final 5 years of the 10-year BiOp, and for describing specific benefits from those projects. The draft BiOp provides that detail, the hydro chief says.

“We are giving greater specificity to habitat actions for 2014 through 2018,” Suzumoto said, and continuing an adaptive management strategy that allows fine-tuning of efforts to improve fish survival.

The draft BiOp does not include consideration of increased spilling at dams, or dam removal. Reconsideration of fish population status and trends indicated that the habitat approach is working.

“We feel comfortable that things are moving ahead OK,” Suzumoto said. “We felt it was not necessary to look at additional actions, including spill and dam breaching.”

Spilling water to provide fish passage is a costly venture, drawing water away from power generating units. Taking out dams likewise would take a big bite out of generating capabilities.

An effort largely focused on improving habitat conditions – and as a result fish conditions – would appear to satisfy requirements of the Endangered Species Act that require federal actions avoid jeopardizing 13 salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act, the federal agency says.

The draft “supplemental” BiOp released Monday by the federal agency says that planned improvements to dam operations, better predator control and better managed hatcheries and harvests will assure survival of fish stocks listed under the ESA.

The operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) affects 13 species of Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead listed for protection under the ESA.

The ESA requires the agencies that operate the FCRPS ensure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species, nor that they result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat designated as critical to its conservation.

The three FCRPS “action agencies” are the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The BiOp guides the agencies in operating the FCRPS and requires a series of mitigation measures, called a “Reasonable and Prudent Alternative.”

The actions in the 2008 FCRPS BiOp are, in general, a 10-year operations and configuration plan for the FCRPS facilities, as well as the mainstem effects for various other hydro projects on Columbia River tributaries operated for irrigation purposes.

The BiOp sets performance standards of 96 percent average per-dam survival for spring migrants and 93 percent for summer migrating fish.

Additional actions includes habitat, hatchery, predation management, and harvest actions to mitigate for the adverse effects of the hydrosystem, as well as numerous research, monitoring and evaluation actions to support and inform adaptive management decisions.

The 2008 BiOp was updated with the Adaptive Management Implementation Plan in 2009 and the Supplemental Biological Opinion in 2010.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that won Redden’s remand order say that the draft still “fails to address the issues that triggered federal-court rejection of the three previous plans. If finalized as is, this plan risks continued legal battles just as momentum is building for a broadly supported solutions process,” according to a press release from Save Our Wild Salmon. Many of the conservation group’s members are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, the latest blueprint barely changes the plan rejected by the district court in 2011, despite that court’s clear direction that federal agencies must do more to safeguard imperiled salmon and steelhead,” said Save Our Wild Salmon executive director Joseph Bogaard.

Conservation and fishing groups, along with the state of Oregon and Nez Perce Tribe, have successfully challenged previous NOAA salmon protection plans.

The groups expressed disappointment with the new draft plan, calling it a missed opportunity to change course for salmon in the Columbia Basin.

“Today’s plan squanders three big opportunities: to help salmon, to boost salmon jobs, and to lay the foundation for a broadly-supported collaboration among fishermen, farmers, energy users, and others who want to work toward shared solutions,” said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “This latest draft threatens to continue the deadlock over Columbia and Snake salmon by failing to include the stronger protections that our salmon need and that the law requires. The federal agencies really fall short here, but they still have a chance to get it right in the final plan.”

The opportunity for progress centers on salmon spill – water sent over the dams to help migrating young salmon reach the Pacific Ocean more safely, the groups say.

A basic level of spill has been in place under court order since 2006. But the draft plan actually reduces spill volumes, particularly in the late summer season, the groups say.

“A 16-year study indicates that spill is the most effective immediate measure to increase salmon survival across their life-cycle,” said Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association executive director Liz Hamilton. “The court-ordered spill in place since 2006 has been good for juvenile salmon on their way to the ocean, producing more adult fish back to the river, which has in turn helped salmon businesses and the jobs they support.

“Based upon extensive analyses, we are convinced that salmon managers need to test higher levels of spill to further increase adult returns. Testing expanded spill is consistent with implementation of adaptive management and should be the centerpiece of any credible salmon plan. Instead, NOAA appears to be ignoring this important information and allowing for less spill during a critical time for Endangered Species Act-listed fish,” Hamilton said.

Bill Arthur, deputy national field director for the Sierra Club, said the government’s “Groundhog Day” approach to Columbia salmon restoration is getting old.

“Rather than repackaging a failed and illegal plan and hoping for a different outcome, NOAA Fisheries should rethink and redo its approach in the final plan,” Arthur said. “Expanding spill and employing other effective measures will help salmon, help salmon economies, and give regional collaboration a running start – all of which will help the Northwest move away from gridlock and toward real solutions that work.”

Northwest RiverPartners, a coalition of utility and river user groups, says that the federal salmon protection effort is working, as evidenced by a record fall chinook salmon run this year. The fall chinook run includes a Snake River stock that is listed under the ESA.

“The massive run comes as NOAA Fisheries, the agency responsible for ensuring protection of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, and the federal Action Agencies – Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation – issued a 750-plus page supplement to their 2008-2010 salmon plan, or biological opinion,” the press release says. “NOAA concludes that the plan’s actions are achieving and in some areas exceeding expected survival improvements and that operation of the federal hydropower system on the Columbia and Snake rivers will not jeopardize listed salmon species.

“The fish returns bear this out,” said RiverPartners executive director, Terry Flores.

“This incredible return of Fall Chinook adds credence to the agency’s science analysis and conclusion that the plan’s actions are benefitting salmon in a big way” Flores said.

For more information, see:

-- CBB, Aug. 5, 2011, “Redden Orders New Salmon BiOp By 2014; Says Post-2013 Mitigation, Benefits Unidentified” http://www.cbbulletin.com/411336.aspx

-- CBB, Aug. 23, 2013, “Federal Agencies Release Draft Plan Detailing 2014-2018 Actions To Meet BiOP Salmon Survival Targets” http://www.cbbulletin.com/428028.aspx

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