This article was published on: 10/6/22 12:21 PM

NOAA Fisheries has finalized a report that identifies actions that the agency says have the greatest likelihood of making progress toward rebuilding populations of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River basin to “healthy and harvestable levels.” The agency had released a draft in July for limited comments.

The recommended actions to rebuild Columbia Basin stocks include: increasing habitat restoration, reintroducing salmon into blocked areas, breaching dams, managing predators, reforming fish hatcheries and harvest and reconnecting floodplain habitat.

Public criticism of the final report weighs heavily on the subject of breaching the four lower Snake River dams, which the report says is one of the “centerpiece actions” needed for the recovery of Snake River salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Breaching, the report says, would decrease travel time and reduce fish injuries of juvenile salmon at the dams, as well as providing additional habitat for spawning and rearing of the juveniles.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) said that while the report calls for removal of the dams, it includes “no new science to back up its claim.”

“To say that I’m deeply disappointed by the Biden Administration’s report on ‘Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead’ is an understatement. While the report claims to support efforts to ‘ensure a reliable, affordable, carbon-free energy supply,’ it also explicitly calls for the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams,” he said. “Let me be clear: there is no clean energy future in Washington State and throughout the Pacific Northwest without these hydroelectric dams.”

The Rebuilding Report says that a comprehensive suite of actions that address threats to salmon and steelhead across the basin, including the identified “centerpiece actions,” will provide the greatest potential to make the considerable progress needed for healthy and harvestable abundances of salmon and steelhead.

The suite of “centerpiece actions” outlined in the final report completed Sept. 30 include:

•         Increasing habitat restoration

•         Reintroducing salmon into blocked areas

•         Managing predators

•         Breaching dams

•         Reforming fish hatcheries and harvest,

•         Improving water quality, especially toxic pollutant levels,

•         Managing marine ecosystems, and

•         Reconnecting floodplain habitat

The draft of this final report– “Rebuilding Interior Columbia River Basin Salmon and Steelhead” – was released in mid-July by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. It was prepared by NOAA with input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and fishery managers with the Nez Perce Tribe and the State of Oregon. State and tribal fisheries managers have since reviewed and commented on the draft.

A second report, which was an assessment of what power production portfolios would be needed to offset the potential loss of the lower Snake dams and their costs, was released by the CEQ at the same time as the draft “Rebuilding” report. The power report, “BPA Lower Snake River Dams Power Replacement Study” is here.

The final rebuilding report says that the “Biden–Harris Administration is leading an effort to support development of a long-term, durable strategy to restore Columbia River basin salmon, steelhead, bull trout, and other listed and vulnerable species; honor long-standing commitments to tribal nations and address tribal cultural, ceremonial, and subsistence needs; balance the priorities of fishing communities; ensure a reliable, affordable, and carbon free energy supply; and account for the other varied uses of the Columbia River, including flood risk management, water supply, navigation, and recreation.”

It addresses the 16 interior Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead stocks that spawn above Bonneville Dam.

“This is a crucial time for the Columbia Basin’s salmon and steelhead. They face increasing pressure from climate change and other longstanding stressors including water quality and fish blockages caused by dams,” said Janet Coit, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries and acting assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at NOAA. “The report identifies goals for the recovery of salmon and steelhead that will require a sustained commitment over many decades.”

The actions recommended in the report “convey the urgency behind the Columbia Basin Partnership’s 2020 Phase 2 recommendations that “merely avoiding extinction of native salmon and steelhead is not enough. Instead, the Partnership called for healthy and harvestable numbers that contribute fully to the culture, environment and economy of the region,” NOAA said in the report. The Partnership report set ambitious abundance goals for salmon and steelhead that are to be achieved by 2050.

NOAA says that the Columbia Basin Partnership’s healthy and harvestable goal goes substantially beyond recovery as required by the ESA and would take a sustained commitment over many decades.

“The Columbia Basin Partnership expressed the hope that in 20 years, the people of the Columbia Basin would view the Partnership’s work and the resulting efforts as ‘a turning point for the return of healthy and abundant salmon and steelhead to the Columbia River.’ The report represents one step toward that important goal,” NOAA said.

The final report is not a regulatory document, but instead will inform ongoing dialogues about salmon restoration and decisions regarding allocation of resources for recovery actions. The rebuilding actions can also help restore fish populations to meet long standing commitments to Columbia Basin tribes, NOAA said.

This final report and the second one released in July estimating the costs and types of replacement power if Snake River dams are breached are important parts of the commitments made by “moving” parties – the United States, National Wildlife Federation et al., the State of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Spokane Tribe – as they requested a one-year stay in litigation in early August. The report “complements the countless ongoing actions and activities being undertaken by sovereign governments and stakeholders across the basin.”

U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon on Aug. 4 agreed to a request by the Biden Administration and plaintiffs to extend for another year the stay in the litigation challenging the federal government’s environmental impact statement and biological opinion for Columbia/Snake river salmon and steelhead. The parties said they want more time to identify “comprehensive” solutions to basin salmon recovery.

The draft report answered eight questions posed by its authors about salmon and steelhead rebuilding efforts in the Columbia River basin. The original eight questions are:

Question 1: What is the relative priority of stocks for protection and rebuilding given the scope and criteria above (in the introduction)?

Question 2: What is the status and outlook for each stock?

Question 3: What is the importance and context of climate change (e.g. ocean conditions, snow pack, drought, flow, mainstem/tributary water temperature, etc.) on the life-cycle productivity, resilience, extinction risk, and recovery potential of priority stocks?

Question 4: What are the primary ecological threats or limiting factors, by life stage, to achieving abundance and productivity goals?

Question 5: Which actions have the highest likelihood of helping (e.g. of avoiding additional generational downturns and providing reasonable certainty of achieving the goals by addressing primary life-cycle threats and bottlenecks to survival, distribution, etc.) in the face of climate change?

Question 6: Given the status in Question 2, what is the urgency for implementation of actions?

Question 7: Given the status in Question 2, what confidence do we have that salmon and steelhead will respond favorably if the actions identified in Question 5 are implemented comprehensively?

Question 8: If the actions identified in Question 5 are implemented comprehensively for salmon and steelhead, how would they benefit or degrade conditions for other species?

This final report poses 10 questions. Questions 9 and 10 are:

Question 9: Are there uncertainties associated with the efficacy of the actions identified in Question 5 and how might the region resolve these uncertainties?

NOAA’s answer is yes. “Clearly, there are many factors that substantially affect the abundance and productivity of interior Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead stocks, and for which uncertainties exist,” the final Rebuilding Report says. Among those uncertainties are:

•         Climate change

•         Density Dependence: “Separating survival from capacity limitations, that is, understanding why density dependence is more evident than expected at low abundance, will be needed in order to develop effective actions to reduce this constraint,” the report says.

•         Habitat restoration: measuring the response of salmon and steelhead is difficult.

•         Polluted habitat

•         Non-native invasive species predation

•         Avian predators

•         Breaching Snake River dams: “There is uncertainty regarding the direct productivity and survival benefits that might accrue to salmon and steelhead stocks from breaching Snake River dams,” the report says. “Breaching would, over time, substantially increase the amount of available spawning habitat for fall Chinook salmon in the Snake River basin, but the productivity of this habitat relative to other major spawning areas is unknown. It is also expected that juvenile survival rates would increase as they would no longer pass through dams and the associated reservoirs would no longer exist (i.e., decreased migration times, increased turbidity levels, etc.). If dams were breached, predators (birds and native and non-native fish species) would likely disperse and no longer be concentrated near the dam sites, but we assume they would continue to prey upon juvenile salmon and steelhead in other areas to some degree.”

•         Latent or indirect mortality of juvenile salmon and steelhead

•         Hatchery-origin fish spawning on spawning grounds and directly competing with natural-origin fish (pHOS). “The actual quantitative effects of straying hatchery-origin adults on the productivity of natural-origin populations are not well established,” the report says

•         Reintroducing fish into blocked areas, the report says, may be the only way to meet Partnership abundance goals.

“While I appreciate the fact that the Biden administration included more voices in its final report on Columbia Basin salmon, I question the integrity of their dam breaching recommendation,” said Eastern Washington U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. “The report explicitly states that it is unclear how breaching the Lower Snake River dams would positively impact juvenile fish survival rates. It further states that the concept of delayed mortality, an issue dam-breaching advocates often point to as the reason for ripping out critical federal clean power and navigation infrastructure, is unproven. Still, their unequivocal conclusion is that the dams must be breached to save the salmon. Just like two plus two doesn’t equal five, this just doesn’t add up.”

Question 10: What is the role of a science-informed decision structure in the implementation of major management actions for priority stocks?

The report says that adaptive management is the “most appropriate decision structure to deal with the scale of the issues surrounding rebuilding salmon stocks of the Columbia River. Adaptive management is defined as a structured, iterative process of decision to reduce uncertainty over time through monitoring and evaluation.”

“In summary, adaptive management-based decision making can structure plans and actions that increase salmon populations regionally. Multiple, long-term, cumulative impacts have contributed to depleted salmon and steelhead stocks. Reversing these effects and rebuilding abundant and diverse, healthy and harvestable stocks, and high-quality freshwater, estuary, and ocean habitat will require multiple and synchronized cumulative large-scale actions through a well-designed and societally-supported adaptive management plan.”