Fish Survival Rates Plunge
by Jonathan Brinckman
Survival rates of the young salmon and steelhead that rode the Columbia River to the sea this spring and summer were among the lowest ever recorded, preliminary state and federal data show.
What that will mean in two to four years, when those fish return to spawn as adults, is unknown. That's because more than half the young fish that migrated to the ocean this year did not remain in the river but instead were trucked or barged past federal dams.
Because of the drought and the regional energy shortage earlier this year, the federal government sharply reduced the amount of water it allowed to spill through the dams.
On Wednesday, tribal officials and conservationists criticized federal officials for that decision, which they said led to lower survival rates for fish that remained in the river. They also said the Bonneville Power Administration failed to release enough water from storage dams to carry young fish safely downstream.
"It was even worse then we feared," said Bob Heinith, hydrosystem coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "There was no water released for fish, and when there was spill, it was too little, too late."
The federal salmon recovery plan normally requires that billions of gallons of water be diverted each spring and summer from the dams' turbines and instead sent over spillways, giving young salmon a safer way past the dams. This year, after power prices soared, the BPA said it would risk bankruptcy if it was forced to buy electricity on the open market. As a result, it spilled only 10 percent of the amount called for in the recovery plan.
Fish suffered because a regionwide drought reduced flows to the second-lowest level since record keeping began in 1929. That slowed the river and raised temperatures, which can kill young migrating salmon.
Federal biologists said they could not determine whether fish were hurt more by the drought or the ramped-up power generation.
State and federal biologists track the survival of young salmon with tiny microchips implanted in about 1 million young fish each year. The Fish Passage Center, a BPA-funded organization that monitors juvenile and adult salmon, reported that:
"We hurt fish in a lot of ways this year," said Margaret Filardo of the Fish Passage Center.
The odds of a young salmon being transported by barge or truck varied widely depending on where it came from.
From 80 percent to 90 percent of the Snake River fish were transported this year, because no water was spilled in 2001 through any of the four federal dams on the lower Snake River. The federal recovery plan requires that as many Snake River fish as possible be transported when river flows are low.
From 50 percent to 75 percent of the upper Columbia fish were transported because McNary Dam has a collection system. But none of the lower Columbia fish were transported because the dams on the lower river have no system to load fish into trucks or barges.
"If the fish were lucky enough to make it to one of the collector projects and they ended up in a barge, they probably fared better than the fish in the rivers," said Jim Ruff of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We'll know that in two, three and four years."
Survival of Downstream Migration 2000 FCRPS Biological Opinion by NMFS
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