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NMFS Meeting: High water temps, Red Bluff Diversion Dam, back flowing Delta and pumps major causes of salmon decline

February 13, 2009 -- On Tuesday February 3rd, 2009 a coalition of recreational, commercial, environmental and fishery conservation group leaders met with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Sacramento to discuss government actions to restore the California salmon and steelhead fisheries. There were approximately 30 stakeholders present representing a broad range of businesses and organizations. Representatives from The American Sportfishing Association and Maurice Sporting Goods could not attend the meeting but sent strong letters to NMFS supporting recovery actions. This was the second meeting of the participants. The Government participants were:

Rod McInnis – Regional Director of NMFS
Maria Rea – Sacramento Area Office Supervisor NMFS ...(Continued)
Russ Strach – Asst. Director Protected Species NMFS
Churchill Grimes – Director of Fisheries Ecology NMFS
Bruce McFarlane – Research Scientist NMFS
Bruce Oppenheim – Biologist, Upper Sacramento NMFS
Jeff Stuart – Biologist, The Delta NMFS
Chris Yates – Long Beach Protected Resources NMFS
John McCamman – Chief Deputy Director, Calif. Fish and Game
Neil Manji – Chief of Fisheries, Calif. Fish and Game
Dan Castleberry – Regional Fisheries Program Manager, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The National Marine Fisheries Service has the broad authority and responsibility to protect and restore marine fisheries under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2004 the agency issued a biological opinion (Opinion) covering the effects of water project operations (CVP and SWP) on listed Central Valley salmon and steelhead species. As a result of litigation brought by NRDC and Earth Justice on behalf of many of these same
fishing groups, this Opinion was later found to violate the ESA by the court and the agency was directed to issue a new Opinion by March of 2009. The agency has spent the last two years studying fish losses and corrective measures. In December, 2008 they issued a draft biological opinion. Since that time they have been communicating the results and the new operational requirements with the state and federal water agencies and others whose operations impact on listed species. The purpose of the stakeholders meeting was to communicate progress and get feedback on options.

NMFS started the meeting with a review of its preliminary findings for the 2009 OCAP Opinion on the Central Valley’s State and Federal water projects. In the context of OCAP, NMFs discussed the primary stressors and threats to salmon in the Central Valley watersheds and their conclusions about the greatest sources of fish mortality caused by the projects. The biological studies were very impressive and the reports were well documented. In summary, the major causes of the declines were listed as follows.

1. In the Upper Sacramento, high water temperatures have been a major contributor to spawning and egg mortality. The cause relates to too little carry-over water in Lake Shasta to be used in late summer and early fall to support returning fish. Water is over-committed downstream and the impact is complicated by the reductions of diversions from the Trinity River, as directed by the Federal Court. The Trinity must now get at least 40% of its
historical flows, which has reduced cold water diversions into the Sacramento. One study puts the egg loss of Fall Run fish at 10% because of these conditions. High water temperatures also cause major losses of steelhead in the American River.

2. The loss of juveniles between the Upper Sacramento River and the Delta is staggering. Only 20 % of the fish make it to the Delta from Red Bluff. The Red Bluff Dam was cited as one major contributor to these losses. Delayed migration, stress going through the dam and high predator mortality below the dam were cited as primary factors.

3. The Delta also exhibits staggering losses. Indirect losses in the Central Delta were found to be far more significant than losses from direct impingement at the state and federal pumps. With the cross channel gates open at the head of the Delta it was determined that 65% of the juveniles perish as they are drawn into the Delta interior. When the gates are closed, more than 50% survive.

4. At the pumps themselves, only 16.5% of the juveniles survive at the state facility and only 35% survive at the federal pumps. Once fish are pulled into Clifton Court Forebay nearly all of them are lost. The net total loss in the Delta is approximately 60% of the fish entering the system. This number does not include those lost prior to getting to the Delta.

5. Endangered steelhead survival out of the San Joaquin is near zero. Flows and predation are major problems. Much of the complication for the San Joaquin out migrants is the negative flows in Old and Middle River. Fish are unable to move to the North Delta because of these southward moving flows.
Overall, when the Sacramento River survival of 20% is combined with the Delta survival of 40%, only 8% of the smolts make it to the West Delta. It is obvious why the runs have crashed.

The conclusions of these studies are grim. The conclusions are significant alone but when combined with the losses of historic habitat for the salmon, toxicity problems, droughts, climate change, variable ocean conditions and all other stressors, the Central Valley calls out for a complete overhaul. There is no question that several runs are headed to extinction. The endangered Winter Run recovered to 15,000 returning spawners in 1995 but in 2008 dropped back to only about 3,000 fish. At the current levels, the run is not
replenishing itself.

If there is good news in these studies, they now pinpoint the real damage done by the operations of the water projects to fisheries and how they have contributed to the fishery declines. Sound science has uncovered the truth and it is now incumbent on the state and federal governments to repair the damage.

As a result of these studies, the NMFS Opinion currently concludes jeopardy for all three salmon species, green sturgeon and the southern resident killer whale species. The Opinion also concludes the water projects would likely result in the adverse modification or destruction of critical habitat for the three salmon species. Jeopardy and adverse modifications indicate that the OCAP process cannot move forward as planned.

Under the Endangered Species Act such a finding requires that conditions must change. NMFS is now working on what are called “reasonable and prudent alternatives”. They were not able to reveal the final actions, as they are still in the process of developing them with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Dept of Water Resources. They left the impression that they are seriously dealing with the problems and changes will come about. NMFS has requested a 90 day delay from the court in order to better complete this work. If this is approved, the final decisions will be made public on June 2nd.

The meeting then moved to other subjects. Chris Yates gave a report on the NMFS steps that are underway to deal with changes in the ocean fishery to protect the Winter Run. The current plan expires in early 2010 and a new plan must be in force before that date. A number of stakeholders expressed deep concern about this issue because the Winter Run declines have very little to do with the ocean.

The meeting then moved to a discussion of hatcheries. The stakeholders expressed a number of concerns about the hatcheries and hatchery programs. With the complete collapse of the natural runs and the terrible current river conditions, fishermen are more dependent on hatcheries than ever. Yet there is continuing pressure from the some of the agencies and others to minimize hatchery production and programs like trucking in order to
rebuild the natural runs.

The position of the fishermen is clear. Without aggressive hatchery production there will likely never be a fishing season again in California. The
discussion turned to ways that hatcheries can support the short range while at the same time the natural runs can be enhanced for the longer range. The trick is how to do both at once. Several agency staff members agreed that California has to have hatcheries if we are going to have fishing in the short run. All parties agreed we have to also enhance production from the few remaining wild stocks. Unfortunately, the natural rebuilding process is going to be very slow and it is going to cost a lot of money.

Two suggestions were made.

1. Ask the agencies to assemble a top scientific task force to study the best ways we can have hatchery production and also improve the wild stock runs and genetics. The stakeholders will write a letter on this with suggestions.

2. Assemble an ad hoc committee of the agency hatchery experts and some commercial and recreational fishermen to review short range options.

The overall response to the meeting by the stakeholders was positive. They were deeply disturbed with the losses but they expressed hope and optimism that we are now on the threshold of major changes for the better. They congratulated NMFS on the studies and thanked them for their openness in the meeting.

The NMFS Regional Director, Rod McInnis, suggested a next meeting when NMFS finishes its recovery plan for Central Valley steelhead, and Spring and Winter-run Chinook.