Federal authorities are working on a plan aimed at deciding how much sport, commercial and tribal fishing for salmon and steelhead will be allowed in the Columbia River and its tributaries as part of a long-term agreement starting in 2018.
The other main component considered in the environmental review being prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hatchery production levels. The agencies will use the document as they work to craft an agreement with Idaho, Oregon and Washington, as well as tribes in those states with harvest treaty rights.
The length of the agreement has yet to be determined, but a 10-year time frame is generally supported.
The pie being divvied up is the number of adult salmon and steelhead that return to the Columbia River annually. Last year, 2.9 million fish returned.
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The agreement that took effect in 2008 expires at the end of 2017. Much has changed since the signing of the original deal, said Mark Bagdovitz of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We have a whole lot more fish than we had before,” he said. “Over the last 10 years, we have really been surprised at how well the fish have responded to all the things we’re doing in the basin.”
Habitat improvement, changes in how hydroelectric projects are operated, hatchery production modifications and good ocean conditions are some of the reasons, he said. However, 13 runs of salmon and steelhead remain listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Another big change, fisheries managers say, are advances in technologies, including genetic tools that allow a much better understanding of the fish, and that could play a role in any new agreement.
Courts have previously found tribes are entitled to half of the harvestable return of salmon and steelhead, which are fish in excess of what is needed to sustain or increase populations.
Sport anglers also want fish to catch but sometimes face harvest reductions due to federally protected fish or limits related to tribal treaty rights.
“We’re not heavily critical, but we want a chance to open the dialogue,” said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
Of the adult fish that return to the Columbia annually, about 20 percent are of wild origin and 80 percent come from hatcheries.
Fifteen federal hatcheries, built to mitigate the effects of hydroelectric projects, produce about 65 million salmon and steelhead annually, Bagdovitz said. The hatcheries are spread out through Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and are located mostly on tributaries of the Columbia. They produce about half of the 130 million hatchery fish produced each year in the Columbia River Basin. The other half come from state, tribal and private hatcheries.
The new agreement will set production levels for hatcheries in the three states.
The states, federal agencies and tribes have had some early talks about the deal, said Peter Hassemer, anadromous fish manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Idaho withheld its signature from a portion of the current agreement amid worries too many wild Idaho steelhead were allowed to be caught lower in the basin. That remains a concern.
“The state has a keen interest in that just because of the harvest that occurs as these fish migrate upstream,” Hassemer said.
Peter Dygert, branch chief for sustainable fisheries for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, said it’s a complex process with a lot of competing interests.
“I think the existence of the agreement provides context for the parties to resolve difficult issues, and I think in that respect, it has been quite successful,” Dygert said.
In a notice published this month in the Federal Register, the federal agencies offer for comment six initial alternatives on the planned environmental impact statement.
An abundance-based management alternative considers the numbers of returning adult fish, with managers setting seasons and catch limits accordingly. It’s the system currently in place for most species but requires on-the-fly changes in fishing times and limits based on expected returns and angler success.
Another alternative includes setting a fixed percentage of fish to be caught every year regardless of how many fish return, a scenario that could allow for more long-term planning by sport and commercial anglers.
Various tribal entities involved in the current agreement didn’t return calls from The Associated Press.