Editor’s Notebook: Draft EIS Alternatives Show Breadth, Scope Of Salmon Recovery; Yes, The Pike Are Coming; Barbed, Barbless

Restoring native salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River basin is the largest ecological restoration effort in the United States. Yet, after nearly 30 years and the spending of billions in public dollars, salmon and steelhead that spawn in the drainage of the nation’s second largest river remain in peril.

And now efforts intended to protect and recover these iconic fish are fast approaching a critical juncture. At stake is the fate of thirteen species of native Columbia River salmon and steelhead listed in the 1990s as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Trump Administration is now preparing a new environmental impact statement and “biological opinion” for the Federal Columbia River Power System intended to guide recovery of these fish. The Administration is required to identify major sources of wild fish mortality caused by the federal hydrosystem and offer management alternatives to reduce these losses. Due date is December 2020.

We got a glimpse recently of just how complicated this effort is going to be, and how crucial for the future of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River basin. Federal agencies have made public five alternatives for the draft FCRPS EIS, including a no-action or status quo alternative and an alternative that includes breaching lower Snake River dams.

The no-action draft alternative is a non-starter, of course.

But if you read through our story “Details Of Five Draft Alternatives For Columbia River Power System EIS For Salmon/Steelhead: Status Quo To Dam Breaching, Much In-Between” https://www.cbbulletin.com/details-of-five-draft-alternatives-for-columbia-river-power-system-eis-for-salmon-steelhead-status-quo-to-dam-breaching-much-in-between-2/ you will be presented with the breadth and scope of this undertaking.

For each of the five draft alternatives, the agencies are “evaluating the costs, benefits and tradeoffs, including how the alternatives affect congressionally authorized purposes of the federal projects, and resources such as fish and wildlife.” In other words, they are evaluating nearly everything related to how 14 federal dams and reservoirs impact basin salmon and steelhead from the Columbia River estuary east to Idaho and north to Canada.

The four draft alternatives offer various strategies and combinations of strategies that hit such topics as: spill for juvenile fish, flood control, irrigation water supply, surface fish passage structures at some dams, uprading spillway weirs, adding lamprey passage, improving fish ladders, a pumping system for cooling water at Lower Snake fish ladders, modifying drafting at some upstream projects, more flexibility shaping water during fish passage season, juvenile fish transportation, flow augmentation, low carbon power generation, navigation, and, of course, breaching the Lower Snake dams.

The preferred alternative could turn out to be any one of these alternatives or it could be a combination of features from multiple alternatives.

To get to that final alternative will require the federal agencies to maneuver through a minefield of competing interests. The time frame is very tight for such an undertaking.

Folks – stakeholders, taxpayers — who want a voice in fast approaching decisions that could direct Columbia River basin salmon recovery and its costs for many years would be advised to pay attention to these processes right now. We are halfway through 2019 and as soon as late 2020 new Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead recovery plans and implementation will be in place.

That’s a blink of the eye for an effort that has worked at great cost to be successful for 30 years.

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— Here Come The Pike

The recent Independent Scientific Advisory Board report “A Review of Predation Impacts and Management Effectiveness for the Columbia River Basin” is definitely a “yikes” moment.

And a very important report that surely policymakers will take to heart.

The ISAB says it is inevitable that northern pike will move downstream of Grand Coulee and into what biologists are calling the anadromous zone of the Columbia River basin, threatening endangered salmon and steelhead. It’s only a matter of time.

See “Salmon Predation Questions: Scientists Say Inevitable Voracious, Invasive Pike Will Move Downstream Of Grand Coulee”  https://www.cbbulletin.com/salmon-predation-questions-scientists-say-inevitable-voracious-invasive-pike-will-move-downstream-of-grand-coulee/

This nasty fish, from a salmonid perspective, was first noticed around 2004 in the Pend Oreille River. By 2009 they were moving downstream into the Pend Oreille’s Boundary Reservoir near British Columbia. By 2011, a high water year, anglers were catching pike in the Columbia River just upstream of Kettle Falls., the head of Lake Roosevelt.

And now they are in Lake Roosevelt. When the pike move past Grand Coulee Dam and then Chief Joseph Dam – the predators will find themselves in salmon territory.

Over the years, there have been admirable efforts such as extensive gillnetting to reduce pike numbers in Lake Roosevelt and up river.  

Yet, salmon recovery policymakers now understand that the highly destructive pike are coming.

“There could be value in delaying it with suppression efforts, but even with these efforts there is no way to prevent them (northern pike) from entering the anadromous zone,” Dr. Stan Gregory, Oregon State University and lead of the ISAB, told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council at its meeting May 8. “When they do invade, they will likely reduce salmonid abundance.”

And so now we have the official wake-up call from the scientists. In crafting upcoming salmon recovery plans – the Council’s amended Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, the federal agencies’ new Biological Opinion for salmon and steelhead – pike, the new predator, will surely get the attention it deserves.

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— Barbed And Barbless

I must admit, I was somewhat surprised to see the return of barbed hooks to Columbia River salmon and steelhead fishing. If, as Washington says, the catch and release mortality rates for barbed versus barbless is about the same than I suppose it makes sense.  

(See our story “After 6-Year Ban, Barbed Hooks Return For Columbia River Salmon, Steelhead Fishing, Harvest Managers Say Catch/Release Mortality Rates Unchanged With Barbless; Dismal Returns Make Summer Chinook Season Unlikely”

During fishing season, I’ll run up from Bend to the Columbia every now and then and try my hand circling at the mouth the Klickitat or the Deschutes. Sometimes we’ll do the John Day arm and reservoir. When the barbed ban went into effect six years ago, I really didn’t bat an eye.

Neither did my fishing comrades. Seemed okay to us. Maybe that’s because we really don’t catch a lot of fish (another way of saying getting skunked is common) so whether the hook was barbed or barbless was not a big issue. I can’t say that I ever lost a fish because the hook lacked barbs.

Also, while targeting chinook by boat in the mainstem, we have never hooked a steelhead — wild or hatchery — barbed or barbless. I am sure it happens and it’s those few encounters with wild steelhead that has some worried.

I guess for those who do a lot of mainstem fishing, the law of averages will show that a barbed hook makes a difference in hooking and landing a salmon. But for a more casual, fair-weather fisherman like me, I will stick with the barbless that I have purchased or pinched. If I need to catch and release, I’d rather put as little stress on the fish as possible.

Meanwhile, I will assume there is continued monitoring of this issue to bring more data to the table as we move forward.

— Bill Crampton

Comments, disagreements, objections? Send them to me at billcrampton@bendcable.com

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