TIPTOEING INTO SALMON RECOVERY

In February 2008 the National Marine Fisheries Service issued what they call a "Guidance" for salmon harvest management to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The purpose is to execute commercial fisheries in a benign way so that at risk populations, especially those listed as threatened or endangered, get some protection so they can get on the road to recovery. Guidance is a suggestion and is not enforceable.

Harvest eliminates adult fish that would spawn and produce the next generation, so it is important, in order to continue to harvest, for enough spawners to get back to the rivers and make babies. Until most salmonid populations were listed as ESA protected species, the states ran the show on the ocean and in the river and we enjoyed harvest rates of 70 to 90 percent. Overharvesting wild fish was a concern but not a constraint. Wild fish did not matter much because the fisheries were managed to maximize the harvest of hatchery fish. Then the feds moved in and spoiled the game by listing the wild salmon, and took management authority away from the states. The states blustered and used some bad words, but had to follow federal laws.

Ocean salmon fisheries are managed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council with the approval of the U.S. Department of Commerce. In order to provide more protection for lower Columbia River tule fall chinook, ocean harvest has to be cut back.

In 2007 the NMFS guidance called for a 42% harvest rate on lower Columbia fall chinook (reduced from 49% in 2006). This was based on the health of some indicator stocks, but further checking turned up some other rivers that had less healthy fall chinook runs. The Grays River in SW Washington has a wild fall chinook run that is not very healthy. It is tiny, and in order for it to grow more abundant the harvest rate on fall chinook will have to be cut back even more. The Grays is not the only river with unhealthy fall chinook populations, so doing what is good for the Grays may improve the health of other fall chinook populations. After all, the purpose is to recover these fish.

The NMFS had a team of scientists evaluate the health of the Grays River fall chinook and they concluded that it was in such poor condition that no harvest would be better than just a little bit of harvest. The NMFS said in its letter to the PFMC "Results for the Grays River population were more pessimistic. With very low or even no harvest, the analysis suggested that the population would continue to be at risk." That's right: even without harvest the wild fall chinook would be at risk. The scientists ran some models to see how much harvest impact these fish could take. They come up with a "range of 0% to 20% with a subset of the preferred models suggesting a range of 0% to 8%.

Taking all this into account the NMFS, with its federal mandate to protect ESA-listed species, determined that the exploitation rate should be 41%. This is not a typo in their letter of guidance to the PFMC. Let's see, last year the exploitation rate was 42% - down from 49% in 2006 - and since last year they have found a bunch of wild fall chinook populations that would be at risk without any harvest, but decide to drop the harvest rate by only a measly 1% in 2008. What is the scientific justification for their decision?

NMFS is certain that over the "long-term" recovery of endangered salmon runs will actually take place, but in their guidance letter to the PFMC they assure all of us that "NOAA Fisheries expects that further reductions in the harvest of naturally-spawning fish may be required," but not in 2008. It's a long-term process.

Bill Bakke, NATIVE FISH SOCIETY