WHAT DOES THE NEXT DECADE HOLD FOR WILD SALMONIDS?
Now that year-end comments and reviews have been made it is time for new-year predictions. It is customary to make predictions based on guesses and absolutely no information other than what one knows of the past and based on past experiences one can guess about the future. So what are my guess-predictions of the future for native wild salmonids in the Pacific Northwest?
I know from experience that policy changes in salmonid management, this means salmon, trout, and steelhead, take at least ten years to hit the ground. So predictions about what will happen to salmonids can be checked in no less than a decade from now. Since most of our major problems have a policy link, that is, people have to decide to do something and once the decision is made the institutional ship must be changed and that is what slows every thing down, for the machinery of fish management is the main problem in solving problems. This process also involves governors and legislators and even congress, and for the most part they come in three flavors ranging from “Don’t care,” “Luke-Warm,” and “Openly Hostile.”
Agencies fear change and resist it with all their power. When I was able to convince the ODFW commission to adopt a wild fish management policy for Oregon salmonids in 1978, the opposition form the agency staff was remarkable and the policy was never really implemented before they revised it to make it more bullet proof to legal actions. It took 16 years to get stocked hatchery trout out of the Metolius River, but it took the retirement of the district biologist to make it happen. When I sought a slot-regulation for the Deschutes rainbow fishery, the staff was the major opponent. If it was not for the Chief of Fisheries, Dr. Harry Wagner, and his sidekick Jim Lichatowich as the deputy chief, the trout fishery on the Deschutes would still be based on hatchery trout, bait, and a kill fishery.
So making predictions about the next decade is really pretty simple: more of the same and massive resistance to change by state, federal, and tribal agencies; inattention or hostility form governors and legislators; with congress maintaining status quo on funding and remaining unaccountable for the public funds they shovel into state and tribal coffers. The federal agencies will continue to be miniaturized by funding cuts, but it is possible that there will be less interference on questions of science by the White House, even though the federal agency leadership will continue to be panting pets of the fish managers.
The critical areas of salmonids problem solving that will be addressed in the next decade are:
Conservation requirements for each wild, native salmonid population in each watershed. (Managers are being forced to move in this direction, but progress is slow and it will not happen in this decade. This has been applied to wild Atlantic salmon in Canada.)
Hatchery reform so that hatchery fish do not contribute to the natural spawning of wild fish. (This is being discussed and weirs are proposed like those that NFS and ODFW have placed on three Deschutes tributaries. A science review team has recommended reducing but not eliminating naturally spawning hatchery fish. There will be some movement in this decade, but only a few rivers will be treated in this decade and protection of wild salmonids will be less than complete.)
Harvest reform so that the by-catch mortality of wild fish is nearly zero. (The state of Oregon is resistant to applying harvest methods to reduce the kill of wild fish, but the state of Washington and Colville Tribe are testing the use of seines to live capture fish without harm. If an initiative petition is adopted by voters in Oregon this issue could be resolved in this decade.)
Habitat management/protection fully addresses the life history requirements of wild, native salmonids and increases the productive capacity of wild populations. (Setting standards to protect and increase habitat productivity for salmonid watersheds by state agencies will not happen in this decade, however, improvements will be made on federal lands, but many species and wild populations will not directly benefit.)
Spawner abundance objectives for wild, native salmonids provide full utilization of spawning and rearing habitats. (Interim spawner abundance objectives have been suggested for most ESA-listed species, but there is no indication that these objectives are taken seriously by state fish managers, for it constrains harvest. There will be little progress on this issue in the next decade without legal action.)
Nutrient enrichment of streams from spawner carcasses and eggs is enough to increase the productivity of streams for naturally produced wild salmonids. Streams will have nutrient enrichment targets from naturally spawned salmonids and management successfully achieves these targets annually. (State and tribal fish managers are not supportive of nutrient enrichment of streams if it comes from natural spawners. There is some pretense at doing this work using hatchery fish carcasses, but nutrient enrichment goals have not been established for each stream. There will be some progress in this during the decade, but not enough to provide much value to natural populations.)
Cured salmon eggs no longer contain the toxin sulfite and contribute to mortality of juvenile salmonids. (The state fish managers are not interested in moving to remove toxins from cured eggs used as bait even though their own research indicates that 30% or more of the juvenile salmonids that ingest these baits are killed. It will take legal action to move this issue forward this decade.)
Juvenile salmonids are protected in streams with bait and barbless hook restricted fisheries. (The state fish agencies have decided that selling more angling licenses is more important than protecting wild salmonid juveniles in trout fisheries. The states are using trout kill fisheries to harvest residualized hatchery steelhead in streams as a justification to maintain excessive hatchery releases and using trout fishing as a conservation tool. The issue is regressing and will not be resolved in this decade.)
Ecological effects of competition for food and space, from disease transmission, and from predation and predator attraction from hatchery fish is resolved to protect wild, native salmonids. (The first impact wild fish see from a hatchery program is a swarm of hatchery fish released into rivers. There has been little research on this issue, but what has been done points to a severe impact on the abundance of wild salmonids. There will be lots of foot dragging on this issue by the state fish managers because it is a threat to the hatchery programs and the federal funding they get to run them.)
Passage barriers for adult and juvenile salmonids are removed so that fish have full access to their natural distribution in watersheds. (Passage barriers take many forms and come under the authority of many jurisdictions. Barriers include culverts, diversion dams, hydro dams, storage dams, dewatered streams below diversions. All of our rivers are affected and it will take a focused and well funded effort and commitment by jurisdictions to solve this problem. Progress will be made in this next decade, but it will be slow and under funded.
Transported smolts in the Columbia River no longer generate adults that stray into non-natal watersheds and disrupt the reproductive success of wild salmonids. (In the 1980s researches for NMFS identified that transported steelhead were lost (failed to return to their home river or hatchery release point), but NMFS administrators were anxious to confirm transportation as the solution to dam mortality. Since then, recent research confirms that transported steelhead are lost and have a high stray rate. In response NFS and ODFW have constructed hatchery fish exclusion weirs on three tributaries of the Deschutes, so that they do not interbreed with wild fish. However, some hatchery fish are not externally marked and wild fish stray as well, so the weirs are only a partial fix of a bad fish management policy affecting all rivers. Given the resistance of NMFS and the state agencies to their own research, it is unlikely that much progress on this problem will be made in the next decade.)
Ocean acidification from carbon dioxide will be arrested and reduced to near normal conditions. (Increasing use of coal power plants in Asia is contributing to global warming and ocean acidification. The impact on the ocean may cause it to be less productive for salmonids. Acid precipitation in the Northwest will also acidify our streams. The effect of this pollution is well documented in eastern Canada where some salmon runs have gone extinct due to acid precipitation from coal plants in the eastern United States. Monitoring of this problem is poor in the Northwest, and we can look forward to rivers not only having lower summer flows that are warmer, but more acid. Resolving this international pollution problem is not likely to progress much in the next decade.)
ESA-listed species will have recovery plans in place and recovery measures are increasing the reproductive success of threatened species. (Since salmon were first listed in 1991 there are few recovery plans in place to recover threatened species. There has been more scientific evaluation of population status recently and we have a blue print of what needs to be done in many ESUs, but getting these plans implemented by the state and federal fish agencies will be slow and difficult because they disrupt established management policy. There will be important advances in our understanding of what to do, but doing it will be slow and awkward over the next decade.)
The cost to produce a hatchery fish that is caught in a fishery is routinely evaluated for each hatchery program in the region. (Hatcheries consume about 40% of the salmonid management budget at the state and regional levels. This large investment of public money has not been evaluated from the perspective of how much it costs to produce a fish that is actually harvested. When the economic team at the Power Council evaluated selected hatcheries in 2002, they found that the cost to catch was higher than the economic benefit of the salmon that were harvested. When the economists proposed to do an economic evaluation of all Columbia River hatcheries, the Power Council refused to fund the study. A recent economic study of Mitchell Act Hatcheries shows that all Mitchell Act Hatchery production for all species is a deficit program. The contractor, NMFS, fired that economic team, and another economic study was solicited to get a more favorable answer. The fish management agencies do not want a cost-benefit analysis of the public funded hatchery program. It is unlikely that this will change in the next decade.)
Water quality limited streams for temperature and sediment affect all watersheds in the region. (Most river basins in Northwest states are water quality limited and a major reason goes to high water temperatures and sediment that degrade streams for salmonid production. There are many thousands of miles of affected streams but state and federal agencies have been impossibly slow in developing a resolution to this non-point source pollution problem. Too many established commercial uses of our watersheds would be gored. In the next decade this problem will only get worse and global warming are making our streams far less productive. In the next decade this problem will expand rather than reduced.)
The public with a dog in the fight to protect wild salmonids and the habitats that sustain them will grow in size and effectiveness. (In the next decade the public will become more informed and more effective in its commitment to protect wild, native fish. Becoming organized, informed, and taking a stand for nature protection will mean that government will have a harder time retaining status quo policies. The public will act with a growing realization that government does not lead, it follows. Increasing the pressure for conservation is growing with improvements in communications and development of specific missions. As these organizations increase their commitment to protect nature and can show effectiveness, their public support and funding will increase. In the next decade there will be important growth and accomplishments in protection of nature.