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Stakeholders urge NMFS to take necessary steps to restore salmon fishery

By Dick Pool, Water4Fish
September 30, 2008 -- Mr. Rod McInnis, Southwest Regional Director of The National Marine Fisheries Service, hosted a stakeholders meeting at the NMFS Sacramento office on September 18th.  He was joined by Mr. Russ Strach, Assistant Administrator for Protected Resources, Ms. Maria Rea, Sacramento Area Office Supervisor, and Mr. Churchill Grimes, Director of the Santa Cruz Fisheries Ecology Division.  Mr. Neil Manji, Director of Fisheries for the Calif. Dept of Fish and Game, sat in on the meeting.  Stakeholder participants included commercial and recreational fishermen, fishery conservation groups and fishing businesses.  In total, the stakeholders present represented over 250,000 fishermen and supporters, and over 1,000 businesses with a California economic contribution of over $1 billion.  The stakeholder participants are listed at the end of this report.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss:
1.      The salmon crisis in California
2.      The salmon steelhead recovery plan under development by NMFS
3.      The biological opinions under development by NMFS
4.      A review of the NRDC salmon recovery proposal “Fish Out of Water”.

Bill Jennings opened the meeting explaining the concerns of the stakeholders and the questions they would like answered.  He spoke of the severe crisis of the Central Valley salmon runs and the current lack of any meaningful recovery steps.  He was very critical of the past NMFS biological opinions which he charged have totally failed to protect endangered salmon and steelhead.  He indicated that NMFS is the only agency that has the lawful authority and legal responsibility to protect these fish and the agency has completely failed to exercise this responsibility.  Jennings urged a major change in how the agency exercises its authority by putting fish needs first.  He asked the agency to please tell the group what they are going to do to correct the ills of the past and when.  He indicated that unless NMFS changes its permit process, most observers believe that within five years the runs will be beyond recovery.  He also expressed deep concern that the peripheral canal is not receiving any analysis of its impact on salmonids particularly the upstream impact on flows and habitat with additional water diversions.

Rod McInnis discussed the role that NMFS has in marine fishery management.  Their strongest authority comes from the Endangered Species Act.  They have the full authority of that law to set the operating parameters and design criteria for all projects with a Federal nexus (funding, permits, etc.) that interact with endangered fish or their designated critical habitat.  NMFS has no direct regulatory authority over non-ESA listed fall-run Chinook in the Central Valley.  Other applicable authorities include the Fish Wildlife Coordination Act and the Essential Fish Habitat provisions of the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act.  Neither authority, however, enables NMFS to establish mandatory actions.  McInnis also outlined NMFS responsibilities under the Federal Power Act and he described NMFS authorities to prescribe fish ways when the science supports such a finding.

McInnis indicated that under the Endangered Species Act, NMFS has the responsibility to produce recovery plans for salmon and steelhead but they do not have the authority to dictate implementation of the recovery projects.  He also indicated NMFS has some limited authority to deal with polluted waters.

Maria Rea presented the analysis and steps that are underway to produce the Central Valley Multi-species salmon recovery plan.  She showed samples of how each watershed has been analyzed for stressors on salmon.  NMFS is now in the process of identifying actions that will remove those stressors.  She indicated the draft plan will be ready in November for public review and the final plan completed in 2009.

A number of stakeholders expressed deep concern about the nature of the plan.  It was labeled as only “a list of opportunities” without priorities, implementation timing and funding needs.  Several individuals indicated they believe recovery is impossible with this approach.  The strongest criticism came in the lack of meaningful elements dealing with the delta and the pump driven water management as it affects fish.  It was stated that without fixing the delta, many upper river projects are useless because even if they produce more smolts, under current conditions the fish will be lost in the delta.

McInnis indicated he understood the concern and that NMFS would try to help, but it did not have the authority to prepare and execute the full plan the stakeholders outlined.  He indicted he would discuss the subject with the other fishery agencies.

Churchill Grimes discussed the joint agency task force that is trying to answer the 54 questions provided by the PFMC.  He indicated that they do not have answers yet on a number of the questions particularly how the fall run can be recovered.

Increased trucking of hatchery fish and expanded hatchery operations were discussed.  Stakeholders have been pushing for more trucking and more hatchery fish as the best means of bringing back a fishing season as soon as possible.  NMFS indicated they understood the need of the fishing industry but they are concerned about the straying of hatchery fish to watersheds where unique gene pools currently exist.  They are concerned that interbreeding with hatchery fish has resulted in the loss of unique runs to these watersheds, and thereby reduced the species diversity and resiliency that has safeguarded these runs against adverse effects that lead to wide spread population collapses.  Hence, they are not in favor of increased hatchery production and they feel some curtailment in trucking may be necessary.  The stakeholders indicated they would like to talk more about this subject.

McInnis discussed the new biological opinion that NMFS has underway as a result of the Federal District court ruling on the 2004 Central Valley and State Water Project.  He indicated the draft opinion would be posted on NMFS Regional website in December and the final opinion is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2009 in accordance with the District Court Order.

Doug Obegi presented the NRDC “Fish out of Water” salmon recovery proposal.  The study is based on the premise that salmon can never be recovered with business as usual in the delta.  The study shows how current delta operations and the water movements and habitat conditions that result in the upper rivers will not allow salmon recovery.  The study recommends that the salmon population doubling goals that are currently included in both state and federal laws be implemented.  It proposes a number of action steps that, if implemented, will bring about recovery.  The study also shows how the future needs of fish, agriculture and municipalities can all be met with improved conservation, recycling and groundwater management.

Rod McInnis indicated he would like more information about the authorities that the stakeholders believe that NMFS has to achieve the doubling requirements for salmon.  This information will be forwarded to him.

In summary the stakeholders requested several actions on the part of NMFS

1.      Adopt the doubling goals and lay plans to achieve them.  In salmon production terms, doubling means laying plans that will allow 15 to 20 million pounds of commercial catch along with a parallel recreational catch.
2.      Change their current recovery list to a full plan with priorities and steps along with a financing proposal that the stakeholders can support.
3.      Focus more on the real causes of the decline.  Set plans that will reduce the amount of water taken out of the delta and reduce its pollution.
4.      Improve enforcement of illegal water movements and diversions.  
5.      Stop focusing on compromises and bring the agency’s full focus on the needs of fish.  Use the unique position of the agency and its bully pulpit ability to get positive results for fish.

In closing, Mr. McInnis thanked the stakeholders for their comments and insight and suggested a possible next meeting after the agency finishes its public review draft recovery plan in December 2008.  

In the windup, several stakeholders commented on the outstanding NMFS staff.  We feel let down on a number of issues but we highly respect the expertise and dedication of the Southwest Regional staff.  We sincerely appreciate all of their efforts on behalf of the resource.

Following is a list of the stakeholders in attendance:

American Sportfishing Assoc. - thingy Pool, Ken Elie, Brian Layng
Cal Trout – Jeff Shellito
California Sportfishing Protection Alliance – Bill Jennings
California Striped Bass Assoc. - Gary Adams, Roger Mammon
California Water Impact Network - Mike Jackson
Coastside Fishing Club – Paul Pierce
Earth Justice – John Mc Manus
Golden Gate Fishermen’s Assn. – Roger Thomas
Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Assn. – Duncan Mac Lean
International Sportsmen’s Expositions - Brian Layng
Outdoor Pro Shop – Ken Elie
Monterey Fishermen’s Assn. – Mike Rickets
Natural Resources Defense Council – Doug Obegi
PCFFA - Zeke Grader
Pro-Troll – thingy Pool
Restore the Delta – Barbara Barrigan Parilla, Roger Mammon
Sacramento River Guides – Mark Milcoch
Salmon Aid – Mike Hudson
Salmon Stamp Committee – Mike Rickets
Sherman Island Duck Hunters – Roger Mammon
Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Assn. – Mike Hudson
The Fish Sniffer - Dan Bacher
Water4Fish – thingy Pool, Gary Adams

The following stakeholders support the activity but could not attend the meeting
Allied Fishing Group – Mike Mc Kenzie
American Sportfishing Assoc. - Gordon Robertson
Coastside Fishing Club – Chris Hall, Dan Wolford  
Cal Trout – Brian Stranko
California Sportfishing Protection Alliance – John Beuttler
California Sportsman Radio – Sep Hendrickson
Environmental Defense Fund – Laura Harnish
Environmental Water Caucus – David Nesmith
Federation of Fly Fishers – Mark Rockwell
Friends of the River – Kelly Catlett
Hi’s Tackle Box – Jonah Li
Icon Products – John Ryzanych
KFBK Radio Outdoorsman – Bob Simms
PCFFA – Vivian Helliwell, Dave Bitts
Tackle Technology – John Bedwell
Trout Unlimited – Chuck Bonham
USA Fishing – Mike Aughney
Water4Fish – Bob Mellinger, Michael Schweit