Snake River Spring Chinook Struggles Like Never Before, Authorities Decide Not to Classify Them as ‘Endangered’

LEWISTON — Federal fisheries managers have found that wild salmon and rainbow trout in the Snake and Columbia Rivers are threatened by climate change like never before and urgent action is needed to save the fish.

But National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials chose to leave their status under the Endangered Species Act unchanged, surprising some who thought the Snake River spring chinook could be upgraded from threatened to endangered. of disappearance. They also did not mention breaking the lower Snake River dams as one of the recommended actions to help the fish. That’s a departure from a draft report the agency released in July saying the dams need to come out.

The difference is in the purpose of the two disparate documents. In July, the agency released a draft report saying the dams would need to be breached, along with other aggressive actions, if the region is to restore wild fish to healthy, fishable levels.

Reviews of the status of four species returning to the Snake River and three to the middle and upper Columbia River released Thursday focus on less lofty goals – to prevent fish from becoming extinct and to restore them to the point that protection of the ESA is no longer necessary. For example, the delisting criteria call for the return of approximately 33,500 wild spring and summer chinook salmon to their spawning grounds. The healthy, harvestable level, set by the Columbia River Partnership Task Force convened by NOAA, is about 98,000 wild spring and summer chinook salmon returning to the Snake River.

Biologists believe around 12,000 to 15,000 wild spring and summer chinook have returned to the Snake River basin this year – that’s up from previous years, but still well below the number needed for radiation and miles away from the higher goal for actionable numbers.

“We are nowhere near that. We’re a bit worried about going the other way,” said NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein. “It’s such an ambitious goal, way beyond what the Endangered Species Act requires. But that’s what people told us we should aim for.

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Approximately every five years, the agency is required to review the status of fish and marine mammals protected by the ESA. The idea is to assess whether recovery efforts are underway and whether changes need to be made.

“It’s a snapshot of how the species has fared over the past five years and how it’s doing overall at a critical time,” said Michael Tehan, deputy regional administrator for the interior basin of the Columbia for the agency, in a press release. “We are seeing the impacts of climate change unfold, demonstrating the urgency to push forward the most critical recovery actions now. The take home message is that we cannot wait.

The previous half-decade has been difficult for salmon and rainbow trout in the Columbia Basin and beyond. Poor ocean conditions and often hostile summer freshwater temperatures have hit fish hard. According to the review, 27 Snake River spring wild chinook populations have declined by an average of 55% and face a moderate to high risk of extinction. Steelhead is down about 50% and faces a moderate risk of extinction. Sockeye salmon continue to be critically imperiled. The fall chinook is doing much better and it is conceivable that the fish could be removed from federal protection if this trend continues.

“The fall chinook is a bright spot that reflects the hard work tribes and states have put into their recovery,” Tehan said. “We know what the species needs and we were able to apply it.”

Nancy Munn, a NOAA scientist who has led numerous studies, said the agency is seriously considering moving the Snake River spring chinook from threatened to endangered. Instead of taking that step, they plan to watch fish numbers closely and expect a rebound if ocean conditions continue to improve as they did last year.

“If that doesn’t happen, if we see continued declines when ocean conditions are good, then we’ll take a closer look,” she said.

To address climate change and other threats, the agency stresses the need to make inland spawning habitat more resilient to higher summer temperatures and lower flows through river restoration projects. large-scale habitat. They also call for a reduction in predation by sea lions and other marine mammals that feast on returning adults in the lower Columbia River.

Wild salmon and rainbow trout have been under federal protection for about three decades. They face a number of threats, including dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers, habitat degradation, competition from hatchery fish, predation, and in some cases harvest.

More information on status reviews is available at bit.ly/3PyKSqb.