PORTLAND – The Columbia River Treaty tribes and the states of Washington and Oregon have reached agreement on an unprecedented multi-year plan that establishes conservation goals for weak wild salmon stocks on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The agreement, reached after months of negotiations, is expected to provide the cornerstone for a new, comprehensive Columbia River fisheries management plan expected to be completed by December, 2003.
Leaders from the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes and the governors of four western states, including Gary Locke of Washington and John Kitzhaber of Oregon, have called completion of that plan pivotal if Columbia River wild salmon recovery goals are to be met. A major objective is to begin the work necessary to achieve rebuilding fish runs on the Columbia to 5 million fish within 25 years.
"This agreement has both logic and vision but, importantly, it provides the resource and fishers some level of certainty, something they haven't had much of in recent years," said Randy Settler, Yakama Nation Fish and Wildlife Committee Chair. "If the forecast holds up, this will be a year of celebration, but not without concern for the crisis we're facing on the energy and water issues."
"The agreement reached this week is a milestone in that it marks the first time we have had a coastwide, conservation-based approach to wild salmon management," said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings. "This approach is a fundamental building block in our diverse efforts to rebuild weak wild stocks. "We're truly entering a new era in salmon management on the Columbia River."
"The conservation agreement comes at a critical time," Koenings said. "The drought conditions we now face will create many difficult challenges in the months ahead, not only for fisheries managers, but for hydropower producers, farmers, business owners and many others. This agreement protects fish, and now with that framework in place, allows us to focus more clearly on these challenges and the need to balance diverse needs of water users."
The multi-year plan focuses on rebuilding Snake River spring and summer chinook, Upper Columbia spring chinook and Snake River sockeye. Under the plan, harvest rates will be adjusted based on the number of wild fish projected to return in a given year.
Tribal and state fisheries managers said that the agreement will provide stability in both harvest and hatchery production arenas and will allow managers to focus more of their efforts and time on addressing the difficult hydro power and habitat issues that are impeding salmon recovery, issues that are expected to be particularly challenging this year because of drought conditions.
"The tribes are appreciative of Governors Locke and Kitzhaber and their staffs for their diligence and commitment to get this agreement done," said Rapheal Bill of the Umatilla Tribe and vice chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
"The fishery managers should be commended for their diplomacy, flexibility and sensitivity to changes in abundance. The resource is better for it," said Olney Patt, Jr., CRITFC chairman. "Management of the other Hs would do well to follow this lead."
Jerry McCormack, representing the Nez Perce Tribe in the negotiations, summed up the spirit of the agreement. "We've taken a major step in a positive direction in the salmon restoration effort. The key elements to success are all here."
The accord also provides:
- A sliding scale of harvest, restricting harvest as necessary to protect listed stocks, while providing opportunities for fisheries to access harvestable spring chinook.
- Establishes levels of incidental impacts on wild stocks, while fishing for steelhead, sturgeon and shad in select area fisheries.
- Agreement on a variety of hatchery issues.
The plan will allow tribal, commercial and sport fishers to fish on an unprecedented return of 364,000 spring chinook this spring while allowing the majority of wild spring chinook to pass through fisheries. Hatchery fish will provide the bulk of the catch and are the focus of these fisheries. Biologists expect nearly 300,000 of the returning fish be adult fish that were released from hatcheries two and three years ago.
"We should be mindful that this extraordinary spring chinook return is a gift from nature and will occur on a more consistent basis only if appropriate actions are taken to recover these wild fish," said Ed Bowles, Fish Division director for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "This fisheries plan fits into a recovery plan very well but needs assistance from other factors affecting salmon survival in order to be part of a successful recovery effort," he added.
The plan, which the federal government will endorse as consistent with the conservation requirements of the endangered Species Act (ESA), sets harvest rates depending on the annual abundance of wild chinook salmon from the Snake and Upper Columbia Basin.
Scientists compared the abundance-based harvest plan with the National Marine Fisheries Service's previous ESA fisheries management plan, where the fishery impact on wild Snake River chinook was fixed at 9 percent. They concluded that the impact reduction when wild fish runs are low in the new plan makes it at least as conservative for fish recovery as the previous plan, yet provides more opportunity to harvest hatchery fish in years of major abundance.