VANCOUVER - A trio of Northwest congressmen exploring options to improve Columbia River adult salmon survival returned again and again to the topic of harvest during discussions with constituents last week in Vancouver.

"I don't see how you can square this with the law," Rep. Norm Dicks said of assorted ocean and freshwater harvests on the returning salmon, many of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

He used as an example a NOAA Fisheries' biological opinion that allows an impact of 31.29 percent on upriver bright fall Chinook in the Columbia River. Most of the fish are from the healthy Hanford Reach run. But that percentage is believed to reflect the "incidental take" of the Snake River portion of the run, which is listed as threatened.

"How can you say that - when you're taking 30 to 60 percent - it's incidental," Dicks said of combined ocean and freshwater harvests.

The exchange came as Dicks, fellow Washington Democratic Rep. Brian Baird and Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden quizzed NOAA's regional administrator, Bob Lohn, Bonneville Power Administration chief Steve Wright and Jaime Pinkham of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Lohn, Wright and Pinkham made up one of several panels called to testify Tuesday during the meeting in Vancouver. The congressmen also have scheduled similar "returning adult salmon and steelhead" survival meetings in Tacoma, and Pendleton, Ore.

BPA funds much of the salmon recovery work now under way in the Columbia River Basin. CRITFC's member tribes - the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama - have long-established treaties with the federal government that guarantee harvest.

Those treaty rights must be protected, said Wright, Dicks, Pinkham and others during the four-hour meeting.

But non-tribal harvests need to reduce their impact on the listed fish, through selective techniques or other means, the congressmen stressed.

"When you can't distinguish between the two, you protect them all," Dicks said of the "mixed stock" runs such as the upriver brights that include both listed and unlisted stocks. "Especially when Steve's having to spend billions and billions" on salmon recovery.

Lohn admitted that the harvest BiOp's incidental take provisions for Snake River fall Chinook "are painfully large" but noted that stock and other stocks' populations are showing positive trends. He said harvest levels are among the factors being considered as the agency works with local entities in building recovery plans for listed Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead.

Dicks was the driving force behind legislation enacted three years ago that requires any hatchery receiving federal funding to mark all juvenile salmon and steelhead with a clipped fin. That allows hatchery fish to be distinguished from naturally spawned stocks so that the wild fish can be released from hooks and nets.

Most of the hatchery releases in the Columbia River are now marked. But with the abundant naturally spawning Hanford stock dominating the upriver fall Chinook run, it is hard to design a selective fishery.

Wright admitted that "dams are harvesters too. Dams kill fish." But work to-date has greatly improved the fishes' survival rate during their migrations up and down the federal hydrosystem, and that investment continues at great cost.

The cost includes more than $1 billion to-date on passage improvements at the dams themselves and, on average, about $95 million in foregone revenue-generating opportunities because of hydrosystem BiOp-prescribed spill.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Fish Division administrator, Ed Bowles, told the congressmen that in-river harvests by non-tribal sport and commercial fishers have "negligible impacts" since they do employ where possible selective fishing techniques, such as catch and release from both hooks and nets. The large majority of the overall catch comes from ocean fisheries and tribal mainstem fisheries.

"The ability to effect change is small," Bowles said, because of tribal treaties and the U.S.-Canada treaty.

He said hydrosystem impacts far outstrip those of harvest, using as an example the nearly 90 percent mortality rate of the fall Chinook juveniles that begin their outmigration above the Snake River's Lower Granite Dam. That compares to combined ocean and freshwater fisheries taking about 45 percent of the adult Snake River fall Chinook. Those statistics, he said, are cited in NOAA's 2004 biological opinion on federal hydrosystem operations.

He argued that fishers have borne their conservation burden, with non-tribal harvests reduced seven-fold and tribal harvest one-third of historic levels.

Vancouver's Larry Cassidy said that altering lower Columbia and Canadian fisheries would "be helpful and meaningful, but it is not the silver bullet solution to resolving Snake River fall Chinook." He stressed that a continued emphasis on "all facets of fish recovery" are going to be necessary to recover Snake River and other stocks. Cassidy serves as a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the Pacific Salmon Commission, which negotiates the U.S./Canada treaty.

Gary Loomis of Fish First agreed with the congressmen that more selective harvest must be imposed to "get more native fish back to the river." That in itself will provide the building blocks for recovery with spawned out bodies feeding nutrients into the environment that will fuel the next generation, Loomis said.

Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society told the lawmakers that "until the fisheries are accountable to spawner abundance objectives by species and river, harvest will continue to contribute to salmon decline." He urged a better identification of the effect harvests have on recovery and then enforcement of the law if they are judged to be impeding recovery, an ESA prohibition.

Terry Flores of Northwest River Partners faulted the hydrosystem mortality figures presented by Bowles and those presented by Donald McIsaac of the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The presentations ignored the fact that 90 percent of the juvenile migrants are barged past the dams, leaving a small percentage vulnerable, she said.

She urged a "more common sense approach to harvest. Salmon will simply not recover at such high harvest rates."

Trey Carskdon of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association stressed the high value to local and regional economies of thriving fishing industries, and the ability to bring survival gains through such hydro manipulations as spill and flow augmentation.

"That is one thing we can control," he said of hydro operations.

Long-time commercial fisher Les Clark, representing the Northwest Gillnetters Association, and seafood processor Steve Fick pointed out that the commercial fleet has cooperated in attempts to minimize the impacts on listed stocks, employing selective methods and working in tightly controlled time frames.

"Commercial impact in the Columbia River does not have a significant role in salmon recovery," Fick said. On the other hand, a return to abundant salmon would provide jobs and improve the "social health in these rural communities," Fick said.

"We're willing to look at things" to further reduce harvest impacts, he said.

After hearing arguments both in defense and in opposition to current harvest practices, the congressmen said they would try to convince the fishery management agencies, usually the states, to make some adjustments.

"We'll come up with some ways to try and make this better," Baird said.

Simply continuing to throw money at the problem is not the solution, Walden said.

"I think it's beyond that," he said. "It may not be a lack of money, but how it's spent." All three said there is a need to further explore the possibility of selective fisheries in freshwater and the ocean.

Baird, Dicks and Walden stressed the need to continue efforts in the other three "H's" - improvements to habitat and hatchery practices, and in hydrosystem survival, but harvest remained their main issue.

"... if you kill a fish it can't reproduce," Walden said of the desire to increase the number of fish that return to the spawning ground.

Dicks said he did not have any specific legislation in mind related to harvests. But he did quibble about interpretations of the Endangered Species Act that allow harvests such as those of the Snake River stock.

"We may have to clarify the intent of Congress" in creating the ESA, Dicks said.

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