Dual Strategy Ramps Up
by Kevin McCullen
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LOWER GRANITE DAM -- Suzette Frazier extracted a temperature gauge from a barge tank to ensure her thousands of passengers were comfortable as the towboat Invader pulled out into the Snake River.
Bright silver chinook and green steelhead smolts, which had been flushed hours earlier into the tank from pipes at the dam's juvenile fish handling facility, swirled in the 9-foot-deep water as the towboat pushed the 196-foot-long barge into the river channel to start a two-day-plus trip downstream -- a voyage of freedom for the fish.
Periodically, a smolt leapt into the air. A pump circulated river water in the tank to imprint the fish. Biologists, fishermen, Indian tribes, utilities, businesses, federal agencies, state governments, conservation groups and myriad others hope that will help lead the fish back one day from the Pacific Ocean to their native watersheds upstream to spawn.
Frazier, who is pursuing a fish biology degree at the University of Idaho, slipped the temperature gauge back into the tank and hustled to a second of six tanks carrying a cargo of more than 35,000 juvenile fish, including clipped and unclipped yearling or sub-yearling chinook, clipped and unclipped steelhead and a scattering of sockeye and coho.
For four years, Frazier has worked as a barge rider for the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Snake and Columbia River dams. On this trip, the towboat would pick up another barge loaded with fish at Little Goose Lock and Dam, then take on more at Lower Monumental Dam that were piped into the big barge's other four tanks.
Frazier is a biological technician assigned to eight barges the Corps uses annually from late April to mid-August. The barges hauled 400.5 million fish between 1981 and 2008 from Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams on the Snake and McNary Lock and Dam on the Columbia River to below Bonneville Dam on the Columbia. Another 28 million juveniles were captured at the four dams and loaded into trucks for the same trip during those years.
Waves were breaking over the barge's bow last week as it moved away from the dam, where spillways -- including a newer fish-friendly removable spillway weir -- pushed thousands more salmon and steelhead smolts downstream.
The dual strategy of spilling water, barging and trucking smolts this year is part of an intensively researched, closely scrutinized, highly litigated and multimillion-dollar effort to preserve and restore endangered salmon and steelhead. In all, 13 species of fish in the Columbia River Basin are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
In Portland last week, federal managers filed with U.S. District Court in Portland -- where Judge James Redden is overseeing operations of Snake and Columbia River dams while deciding a lawsuit over salmon recovery -- a supplemental plan for salmon recovery mandated by the Endangered Species Act.
As an assortment of the vested parties in salmon recovery scrutinized the latest "Bi-Op" by NOAA Fisheries, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps, Frazier smiled when asked about her role in the Byzantine process.
"Helping endangered salmon survive and increase their numbers," she said. "To me, that's worth it."
Through May 17, about 1.8 million smolts were estimated to have been transported from Lower Granite this year. That's down from previous years, likely attributable in part to lower runoff this year because of a mild winter, said Tim Dykstra, lead fish biologist for the Corps' Walla Walla District.
On Tuesday, the Corps increased by 10,000 cubic feet per second the release of water from Idaho's Dworshak Dam in hopes of coaxing more juveniles to start their migration. Barging smolts to below Bonneville in May gives them an optimum benefit from good food supplies in the lower part of the Columbia estuary, said Rock Peters, fish program manager for the Corps' Northwest region.
Some smolts poured over the removable spillway weir at Lower Granite, which lets fish slide over a dam instead of forcing them to dive up to 50 feet to pass a conventional weir. Still others passed through spillways, while a much smaller percentage swam through the dam's turbines.
Others went through a bypass system that carried some back into the river below the dam or into a holding and loading area for barging. A team of researchers and technicians awaited some of those smolts Tuesday morning.
The barges are loaded based on a sample rate of fish that have been weighed and measured in the handling facility. The sample rate was about 1 percent for the bargeload Tuesday.
Tracking every fish
"We try to keep track of every fish that comes in here, so that by the time we're done, we are able to tell the Corps biologist the total pounds of fish, the total number of fish and the fish per pound to load on the barge," said Fred Mensik, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist assigned to the facility.
Some juveniles are set aside for research, such as a scattering of spring chinook smolts that were anesthetized and fitted with tiny transmitters by biologists from Kintama, a British Columbia company studying their migration from Dworshak to the ocean for BPA.
Kintama has over 350 acoustical listening sensors in the Columbia and in the ocean that measure passage of the smolts.
Some have been detected in waters off southeast Alaska about three months after starting their migration, said Melinda Jacobs, Kintama's tagging operations manager.
In another building, NOAA Fisheries researcher Doug Marsh supervised a team of technicians who sorted, tagged and noted conditions of smolts for a study that's aimed at timing the transportation of fish with optimum ocean conditions to improve their survival.
Scientists have learned smolts tolerate barging, estimating that at least 98 percent of those barged downstream survive the trip. In comparison, the survival rate of yearling chinook and steelhead that migrated in-river between 1996 and 2008 was about 48 percent for chinook and 38 percent for steelhead, according to the Corps.
Some smolts barged to below Bonneville are lost to predators soon after their release, although the percentage is not known, said Greg Graham, chief of the planning branch for the Walla Walla District.
Barging from the Snake River system also can lead to steelhead straying into Columbia River tributaries at higher rates as adults than the smolts that migrate in-river, according to the Northwest Fish Passage Center, which provides technical services to fish agencies and Indian tribes.
Fish managers are refining procedures and practices for transporting fish and in the operations of dams based on the continuing research, Dykstra said.
"We let the fish tell us what works," Dykstra said. "We think the efforts we're making are making a difference."
A $6 million program
Rain pelted Frazier as she peered into the tanks. Each tank also has two aerators, and Frazier regularly inspects temperature and oxygen levels.
"I'll check them every two hours after we get under way, then at four-hour intervals until we (release) them," she said. Two captains on the Invader, Jeff Baecker and Cory Cothren, worked in six-hour shifts, while deckhands Joe Vance and John Hill tended to assignments. Up to four towboats are on the river during the height of barging, which will be scaled back from daily to every-other-day trips from Lower Granite when the run starts to decrease.
After mid-August, smolts are trucked every few days until migration winds down in October. In all, the Corps spends about $6 million annually to transport salmon, Graham said.
Within four hours after leaving Lower Granite, the Invader reached the lock at Little Goose and was lowered 100 feet. Waiting just outside the lock was another barge, its four tanks loaded with about 26,000 smolts.
Hill and Vance tied the smaller barge onto the front, then the Invader pulled back to push an unloaded barge into place at the dam's juvenile fish loading facility. Within a half-hour, the crew was under way again.
The success of the salmon recovery program ultimately is measured by adults returning upriver. In 2009, 168,032 chinook were counted at Lower Granite, the best run since 210,381 in 2001 and second-highest ever. And the steelhead run last year was a record 323,697 at Lower Granite.
On this day, Dykstra pointed to a weir that had been shut down for the day and was not spilling water. A week earlier, another weir was taken out of service for a day for repair, and biologists counted 10,000 adults that went upriver during that time.
"So we're repeating that to see if we get a similar response," Dykstra said.
George Melanson, lead biologist at Little Goose, led Dykstra down a stairway to a viewing room of the dam's fish ladder.
More than 7,000 adults had passed the dam by mid-day, Melanson said.
Dykstra smiled as he watched adult chinook and steelhead swim past the windows.
"This is what it's all about," Dykstra said. "Lots of adults coming home."
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