PORTLAND - Knowledge about the effects of harvests on naturally spawning Columbia River salmon and steelhead populations has advanced notably but the region still lacks the data and tools necessary to determine whether recovery efforts are hindered by carefully managed fisheries.
A lack of data, and no clear identification of what populations each species need to recover, essentially leaves harvest management efforts in the dark, according to a recent report by the Independent Scientific Advisory Board.
"What is lacking is stock specific information" about what levels of individual fish populations are needed to recover listed fish species or ESUs (Evolutionary Significant Units), the ISAB's Brian Riddell told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council last week.
Salmon species have survived over time because of spread of populations across watersheds, he said.
Without that genetic diversity, "they won't survive in the future," Riddell said.
Current harvest management processes are well intended, but ill-equipped to determine whether they adequately protect stocks - ESUs - that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The ISAB says harvest management questions "cannot be definitively answered until recovery objectives are established for ESA-listed populations, determinations are made as to which component populations within ESUs must be protected to maintain their viability, and quantitative risk tolerances are adopted. Until then, ambiguities will continue to surround interpretation of the phrases 'adequately manage and protect' and 'ESA-listed naturally spawning populations.'"
In the meantime, "You're dealing with an incredibly complicated task," Riddell said of current harvest management in the ocean and freshwater.
In the report, the ISAB says while it has been "favorably impressed with the development of biological science and management processes, it has significant concerns about fundamental components of harvest management.
"Given the severe limitations of historical data, the complex interactions of the 4-Hs [hydropower, habitat, harvest and hatcheries], and the number of salmon production units listed under the ESA, managers should clearly reflect on the appropriateness of harvest rates, their ability to control fisheries, and their ability to explain the status and trends in Columbia River salmonids.
"The elements of science, commitment, cooperation and investment are all evident and progressing in the Columbia River Basin. We remain, however, concerned about the conservation of naturally produced salmonids and the relative effect of harvest on their conservation," according to the report's executive summary.
Caution in harvest management was urged by most of those offering testimony Tuesday during a public hearing on the report held at the close of the day's NPCC meeting.
The harvest managers need a better accounting of fisheries "effect on individual populations in the watersheds," said Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society. Only then can they tell those harvests' effects on the recovery of listed species.
Svend A. Brandt-Erichsen said that, until those recovery goals are established, managers should cut harvests and "return more adult native fish to the spawning grounds."
Portland attorney James Buchal chided managers for allowing a harvest of nearly 32 percent of the Columbia upriver bright fall chinook salmon, which includes the listed Snake River stock, while outlining costly measures within the hydrosystem and off-site to regain a 3 percent survival improvement.
"There's no discussion of the idea that maybe we shouldn't fish with gillnets," Buchal said. "There's no intellectual consistency whatsoever."
The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association's Liz Hamilton called Buchal's calls for an end to harvest unfair, given the conservation burden already borne by sport and commercial fishers. Harvests have been cut back in some cases by as much as 75 percent, damaging the industries they support.
"We merely want to point out that we're laying off people" because of failing fish returns this year. She said others dependent on the river for their livelihood, such are irrigation groups that Buchal has represented in salmon/hydrosytem litigation, should contribute as much to recovery.
"We feel that it's important that this conservation burden be shared," Hamilton said.
In its report the ISAB, an 11-member panel that advises both the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, made recommendations for improving harvest management after an extensive review of current state, federal and tribal policies and procedures.
"The Council does not regulate fish harvest or set harvest policies, but the Council has addressed harvest issues since the inception of our Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program in 1982," said Council Chair Melinda Eden, an Oregon member of the Council. "It is not enough to improve fish migration, production and habitat. Fisheries management agencies must improve survival of these stocks through effective regulation of harvest. This benefits the fish and also communities where income from fishing is important to the economy."
In the report, the scientific advisory board made four recommendations:
1. Monitoring data: Fish production data should be monitored more carefully in order to improve understanding of productivity and trends in abundance over time.
2. Documented assessments: Detailed assessments of individual fish populations, which are the basis for harvest management decisions, must be better documented and scientifically peer reviewed in order to provide quality control to the scientific basis of management planning.
3. Accounting for uncertainty: Through public consultation, guidelines for estimating and accounting for uncertainty in harvest management targets and in-season harvest management should be developed and applied.
4. Adaptive management in salmon recovery: Adaptive management principles - learning by doing - should be adopted. The panel recommends that a systematic approach be developed to test alternative fish-recovery actions, including harvest, with an emphasis on achieving secure spawning escapement levels. The scientists also said harvest managers and the harvest industry need to be in close touch with the evolving scientific understanding of climate and ocean changes and cycles in relation to salmon and other natural resources and adjust their procedures accordingly for conducting assessments, setting allowable harvests, and harvesting fish.