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Commentaries and editorials

Alaska Fishing Interests ask Bush
to Halt Less Spill Proposal

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 19, 2003

Commercial troll fishers from Alaska's southeast coast have gone straight to the top -- President George W. Bush -- to discourage consideration of any reduction in summer spill at Columbia River federal hydro projects or attempts to further clamp down on fishing opportunities.

And the state's fish and game commissioner has also cautioned the administration, saying the state is "gravely concerned over Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) proposals to reduce summer spills at Federal Columbia River Power Dams." Kevin C. Duffy, in a Dec. 12 letter to Bob Lohn and Brig. Gen. William Grisoli, also said that any reduction in salmon harvest to mitigate for fish losses stemming from spill alterations would be in "direct contravention" of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Lohn is NOAA Fisheries regional administrator; Grisoli commands the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwest Division.

The letters, as well as one to Bush from a coalition of businesses, conservation groups and sport and commercial fishing organizations, take to task an initiative to test the impact of reduced summer spill levels on migrating juvenile salmon.

The current spill regimes at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake and Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day dams on the lower Columbia outlined in NOAA Fisheries' 2000 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion. The spill is considered the most benign mode of passage through the dams. But it is costly. The summer spill (in July and August) was estimated by BPA to cost as much as $1 million per day last year during August.

It was proposed last year, by the state of Montana, to cut back spill at midsummer and end spill in mid-August when the vast majority of migrating fish have passed through the system. BPA favored a scaling back but went along with other federal agencies, including NOAA, to allow BiOp spill run to its course through Aug. 31.

The bulk of the migrating juveniles in late summer are fall chinook, which has a Snake River component that is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Analysis done by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council indicates that the impact of reduced summer spill on listed fish would be relatively light -- 15 fewer Snake River and 6,800 fewer Upper Columbia fall chinook adults would return if summer spill were ended. Others such as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission weigh in with much higher mortality estimates.

Changes in the BiOp summer spill regime are being mulled by the administration and regional chiefs of the involved state agencies, including NOAA, BPA, the Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Bureau of Reclamation.

"There is continued interest in this issue at the policy level," said Dana Perino, a spokeswoman from the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The regional federal executives as well as a representative of the CEQ, met Thursday but Perino said she was not at liberty to discuss the details other than to say the spill issue and other topics related to a federal court remand of the FCRPS BiOp were on the table.

Lohn said Tuesday that a federal decision is not imminent on whether to implement an evaluation of reduced spill levels in 2004. The issues outlined in the letters would be input into the consideration process. He said last week that discussions of the issues would continue amongst the federal agencies, with other regional entities such as the NPCC and with the tribes. Lohn and other federal executives were to meet with CRITFC's board Wednesday.

The Alaskan fishing interests are concerned because Columbia River fall chinook stocks make up a large portion of the southeast Alaskan catch. They are also concerned because ongoing talks include take fish away -- reducing spill and survival and then balancing the fish ledger by improving survivals through reductions in harvest, intensifying efforts to reduce other species' predation on salmon, and other measures.

Susan Aspelund of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Tuesday that Columbia basin fall chinook salmon, largely the stock from the Hanford reach, have in recent history made up from 25 to 40 percent of the state's commercial salmon catch. The state opposes any measures that would either increases hydrosystem mortality of those fish, or suggest their harvest be further limited.

"It is our understanding that apart from the general success achieved in 2002, the BPA has not met the levels of summer spill identified as necessary to improve juvenile fish passage and survival in recent years," Duffy wrote. "The present request for reduced summer spill is a poor indicator of progress in meeting the standards set forth in the December 21, 2000 Biological Opinion (2000 Biop). A request for reduced spill should not be routinely granted. Absent compelling justification, the request should be denied."

"Because we were not directly noticed of the request or served with a copy of the BPA proposal, the details are unclear. But Alaska has been informed that BPA may justify its request to reduce summer spill by relying on a reduction in the harvest exploitation rate," Duffy wrote. The head of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said that would be premature.

"To our knowledge, the standards for any off-site mitigation credit have not been set. Nor have the Action Agencies established performance measures for any harvest measures that may benefit ESA-listed fish," Duffy said.

"Moreover, we consider the use of off-site mitigation as compensation for the normal operation of the Federal Columbia River Power Dams, at the flow and spill levels specified in the Biop. The BPA request to reduce spills lowers the bar," Duffy wrote.

Both he and the Alaska Trollers Association said that proposals now being discussed could greatly impact the local economy, and break promises made in 1999 through the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

"The Treaty adopts an abundance-based harvest management approach for chinook stocks. This new harvest management approach was adopted specifically to address concerns over the preservation and conservation of stocks that a reduced spill would put at increased risk," Duffy wrote.

The letter from the trollers association notes that the negotiations that brought that agreement were hard-fought, and all made sacrifices.

"Through these efforts, we have successfully contributed to the strong chinook abundance we are now seeing. I urge you not to undo years of hard work and cooperation through the stroke of a pen," Dale Kelley, association executive director, wrote in a Dec. 12 letter.

The trollers emphasized that their impact is slight.

"It is estimated that 95 percent of Snake River fall chinook mortality occurs at the dams. The other 5 percent is attributed to fishing; Alaska makes up about 5 percent of that, or a mere 0.025 percent," Kelley wrote. "By eliminating spill requirements and placing the burden squarely on Alaska fishermen to reduce harvest or leave the fishery, you will disrupt our entire region and provide little to no net benefit for conservation of Columbia River Basin salmon."

"Since the late 1970s, trollers in Southeast have been actively managed to protect salmon stocks in the Columbia River Basin. This has come at a substantial loss of income and markets," Kelley wrote. "However, we are doing our share to ensure that the coastwide salmon resource reaches and maintains sustainable levels for the benefit of the citizens of the U.S., as well as preserving the many intrinsic values inherent to fish and wildlife. This commitment has come at a high cost to our fishermen and communities, particularly when allocation of this precious resource has become contentious due to declines caused primarily by the habitat destruction brought by hydropower and development.

"Considering our strong reliance on the coastwide salmon resource, and the disruption we have suffered to protect it, we are concerned that reducing in spill is suggested to improve the economic condition of the energy ratepayers in the Pacific Northwest," Kelley wrote. "I wonder if these folks would support completely devastating the livelihoods of Alaskan fishermen and communities for an estimated fifty cents off their monthly electric bill?"

The Pacific Northwest coalition, in a Dec. 15 letter, urged the president to kill the reduced spill initiative.

"This decision will have serious and real impacts on fishermen and the larger economy in the Northwest," said Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "We have already lost more than 25,000 jobs due to the decline of salmon populations and it is simply unfair to ask fishing communities that offer real, family wage jobs to cut back even further. It is time for the Bush administration to support our working families, not step on our backs for political gain."

"The bottom line is that spill is the safest way for salmon to get past the dams," said Rob Masonis, American Rivers.

The coalition cites tribal estimates that suggest at least 10,000 adults would be impacted by this decision.

"These fish get a rare opportunity from Mother Nature to rebound a bit and the administration reacts by searching for ways to squander it," said Alan Moore of Trout Unlimited. Many feel that robust returns to the Basin in recent years are in large part the product of favorable ocean cycles.

" they won't come back if they die on the way out. Taking away summer spill is one of the surest ways to give back much of the ground we've gained the last few years."


Barry Espenson
Alaska Fishing Interests ask Bush to Halt Less Spill Proposal
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 19, 2003

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