Water management in California deemed critical to orcas

Federal biologists are really stirring things up in Northern California. They have determined that the irrigation system in the vast Central Valley farm region jeopardizes the future of several species of fish as well as Puget Sound’s killer whales.

The killer whale angle is worth some discussion — but first the larger picture.

“What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems and the economies that depend on them,” Rod Mcinnis, southwest regional director for NOAA’s Fisheries Service said in a news release. “We are ready to work with our federal and state partners, farmers and residents to find solutions that benefit the economy, environment and Central Valley families.”

Changing the water system to meet the requirements of threatened and endangered species could reduce water supplies by 5 to 7 percent, significantly affecting farm production and drinking water supplies. Several proposed projects — valued at hundreds of millions of dollars — could help balance that out. To see the technical reports, go to NOAA’s Web site on the issue.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger objected to the findings in a written statement:

“This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth largest economy. The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act. I will be asking for a meeting with Secretary Salazar and Secretary Locke to discuss our concerns with these biological opinions, and my Administration will be pursuing every possible avenue to reconcile the harmful effects of these decisions.”

Court action is almost certain.

Reporters Kelly Zito of the San Francisco Chronicle and Colin Sullivan of the New York Times’ “Greenwire” do a good job in fleshing out this story from the California perspective.

It’s interesting to see the federal biologists address the plight of the Southern Resident killer whales with respect to water use in California. These orcas frequent Puget Sound, but they are spending a great deal of their time along the West Coast down to Monterey Bay. The bottom line in the biological opinion is that salmon availability along the coast could be a key factor in whether the population is able to avoid extinction.

Environmental groups were quick to argue that if water operations in Northern California can raise the risk of extinction to intolerable levels, then surely the dams on the Columbia River ought to be a concern.

“The recent National Marine Fisheries Service conclusion linking destruction of salmon habitat to harm to killer whales is a breath of fresh air,” said Kathy Fletcher, executive director for People for Puget Sound in a statement. “Our killer whales are at critically low numbers, and NMFS has recognized that what we do to salmon in freshwater impacts our orcas in the ocean. But it doesn’t make sense to protect salmon for whales to eat in California while at the same time ignoring the effect of dams on fish in the whales’ backyard.”

The issue of what to do about the dams remains before a federal judge. The Obama administration is considering whether to continue with the Bush approach to leave the dams in place or revisit the issue.

“The fiction that the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have no effect on the food supply for orcas is one of many failings in the Columbia and Snake River biological opinion,” said Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the case. “Our killer whales shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Monterey Bay to find a decent meal.”

To understand why the federal biologists consider water activities in California critical to the survival of the Southern Resident killer whales, I’ve pulled some comments from the Biological Opinion and Conference Opinion on the Long-Term Operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project (PDF 12.7mb):

The Southern Residents were formerly thought to range southward along the coast to about Grays Harbor (Bigg et al. 1990) or the mouth of the Columbia River (Ford et al. 2000). However, recent sightings of members of K and L pods in Oregon (in 1999 and 2000) and California (in 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008) have considerably extended the southern limit of their known range (NMFS 2008b)….

No single threat has been directly linked to or identified as the cause of the recent decline of the Southern Residents, although the three primary threats are identified as prey availability, environmental contaminants, and vessel effects and sound (Krahn et al. 2002). Researchers are unsure about which threats are most significant…

The ongoing research provides insight into the river of origin of Chinook salmon consumed by the Southern Residents. Genetic analysis of fecal and prey samples from the research indicates that Southern Residents consume Fraser River origin Chinook salmon, as well as salmon from Puget Sound, Washington and Oregon coasts, the Columbia River, and Central Valley California (Hanson et al. 2007, NWFSC unpubl. data)…

The proposed action (operation of the water system) has the potential to affect Southern Residents indirectly by reducing availability of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon. Central Valley Chinook salmon stocks are available to Southern Residents across their coastal range (based on coded wire tag recoveries, Weitkamp 2007); and available in greater magnitude south of Cape Falcon (O’Farrell et al. 2008). Any proposed action-related effects that decrease the availability of salmon, and Chinook salmon in particular, could adversely affect Southern Residents in their coastal range.

The Southern Residents population is sufficiently small and the probability of quasi-extinction is sufficiently likely that all individuals of the three pods are important to the survival and recovery of the DPS (distinct population segment). Representation from all three pods is necessary to meet biological criteria for Southern Resident downlisting and recovery. For these reasons, it is NMFS’ opinion that any action that is likely to hinder the reproductive success or result in serious injury or mortality of a single individual is likely to appreciably reduce the survival and recovery of the DPS…

12 thoughts on “Water management in California deemed critical to orcas

  1. Are our government officials under the delusion that we can run a society with no effect on the natural world? If so, they should be replaced with someone more in touch with REALITY.

    Are environmental activists under the delusion that we can run a society with no effect on the natural world? If so, they should be marginalized for the unreasonable whackos that they – all too often – are.

    Does the Biologic Opinion say ANYTHING whatsoever about the effect tribal gill-netting has on “availability of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon”? Or has the “environmental” community (which includes governmental activists) agreed to look the other way when it comes to environmental degradations perpetrated by their tribal allies (and campaign contributors)?

  2. Re Columbia/Snake fish:
    Tribal fishing kills fewer than 8.25% of Upper Columbia and Snake salmon, according to NOAA’s 2004 biop (I don’t have the recent one in front of me). The dams kill between 33% and 86%, depending on the run, of outgoing juveniles, and another 6 to 15% of returning adults.
    What is fascinating about Sac R. biop is that it explicitly says that hatchery production is only a short-term solution, at best: There is no evidence that salmon populations consisting predominantly of hatchery fish can persist over the long run.” BPA relied completely on hatchery production to support its claim that the Columbia dams won’t jeopardize orcas. Looks like the science is improving under Lubchenco.

  3. PLEASE!!! How many natives do you think fish with gill nets?!!! Give me a break or go study some more. Native do have their own fisheries and raise salmon, shellfish and other things. I seriously doubt they catch what they release for all people! What a cop out answer to a serious problem. And campaign contributors? Pocket change even for someone unemployed as tribes just don’t have that kind of money that would influence a flea. In case you don’t know, not all tribes have a casino. Those that do use the money for building schools, health clinics, daycare centers, help business and send people to college. Geeze!!! Those big ole trawlers have done damage for years and years. That 12 mile limit we had off our coast about destroyed this state as trawlers were up close and personal. Natives don’t have ships with nets that go out 100 miles, killing everything they can net. This is not a people problem as the governor of CA wishes to think. If we destroy our environment, we destroy ourselves. I lived in CA before that man was ever in the U.S..The state is not what it once was and now I wouldn’t live there if you paid me and gave me a million dollar home. The people have become totally self centered and do not care about anything but themselves. Dams are totally damaging to our fish and other wildlife. Doesn’t take a great brain to just watch at one for a month or so. Lives depend on a small canary in the mines but we are gonna ignore Orca and other lives and say it isn’t our problem? We are ALL joined in this life, one way or another. Every time we lose something, we have lost part of ourselves and our future.

  4. Bring ’em back: Frankly, I am less – immediately – concerned with Columbia and Snake River salmon than I am our local “species”; Puget Sound Chinook and Hood Canal Summer Chum. Those are the ones being cited as justification for all sorts of local regulation (and, by extension, taxation). What is the effect of tribal fishing on these two populations?

    Greenriverkate: Tribes don’t have money? And what they DO have, they spend on schools, health clinics and day care centers? And I need to “study some more”? Yeah. I agree, though, that offshore forces have a large impact. Which makes ever-increasing local regulation that much more onerous.

  5. Chris, you have followed these discussions since their start. What is the effect of tribal fishing on Puget Sound Chinook and Hood Canal Summer Chum?

  6. BlueLight,

    I’ve enjoyed the debate in which you’re engaged related to improving ocean management. I keep wondering how I might contribute to that discussion, but I’m happy to let it go on for now without me.

    As for tribal fishing, I think it depends on the species of salmon we’re talking about. I am not an expert, though we have plenty of experts who read this blog and choose not to comment because of their jobs.

    For summer chum, most of the harvest impacts have been reduced to near zero by delaying the opening of fishing season for coho. I can’t speak to illegal activities by tribal or nontribal fishers, but as far as I know, nearly all summer chum are getting through to spawn before coho season opens.

    Chinook salmon are taken largely by tribal fishermen with gillnets and purse seines and by nontribal anglers. I haven’t looked lately at how the allocations are working out, but it is supposed to be a 50-50 split.

    Selective fishing by anglers, which involves releasing wild salmon, appears to be protecting wild chinook much better than before this program was started. Some wild fish are still killed, especially if fishers don’t handle them well.

    Impacts on wild chinook by tribal gillnetters, as well as anglers, are accounted for in the management plan for chinook and the annual incidental take permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

    Nets are controversial, but it is argued that they are useful in catching hatchery fish as they move through areas in the ocean and Puget Sound. Salmon are not valued as highly by the time they arrive back at the hatchery. Nets can be put in the water quickly to take hatchery fish that could not be caught by anglers alone, and nets can be ordered off the water just as quickly when the runs decline or to protect wild salmon. (For anglers, seasons are set in advance with little adjustment for momentary salmon abundance.)

    The downside of gillnets is that they kill everything they catch. It would be a major breakthrough if there were a way to release nontargeted fish, such as wild chinook. Certain kinds of non-killing nets are still being evaluated for use on gillnet boats, so selective net fishing may come eventually. Many tribal fishermen are opposed to change for a variety of reasons, some more legitimate than others.

    Like it or not, most of the tribal allocations are accounted for by tribal gillnet boats owned by individual fishermen.

    My answer may be too longwinded for your question, but I would say all fisheries have their impacts on salmon. The key is to be honest about those impacts, make sure we can live with them and adjust fisheries to make sure enough salmon make it back to the streams to spawn.

  7. Yes, Chris, the answer is too long. It should be in the form of a number. The fact that it isn’t, though, helps makes my point on that other discussion you reference. Here we are ten years into the “recovery” effort and this impact is not readily at hand; even to the reporter who has covered these proceedings for the past decade. To MANY – therefore – it appears the exercise is one of politics, not science; that deals have been cut to look away from “certain” degradations and push the costs to those with the least power, the least representation in the discussions: the taxpayer. Consequently, a great many people (those who, ultimately, pay for this!)distrust those involved in the process. They distrust their motives, their methods AND their solutions. And, in the long run, like I said on that other thread: what, then, these “democratically mandated adaptations”? Personally, I believe many of our so-called “experts” have sold long-term gains for short-term grants, political and personal power. They should be recognized as barriers to truly moving forward on this issue. As parts of the problem that – like indian fishing – have yet to be addressed.

  8. Sometimes I wish I could explain things with a single word or a number, but many of these issues are not that simple.

    I agree with you that there is mistrust. But is it the fault of the person who is mistrusted or the person who mistrusts what he does not understand?

    It may sound simplistic, but I believe average people could do more to understand the problems and experts could to more to explain them.

  9. A post above gives numbers for Columbia/Snake River. We should have numbers for Puget Sound/Hood Canal. The issue IS that simple. And the fault lies ENTIRELY with the people being paid to do the job, not the people paying them to do it.

  10. Even if I did read that 253 page report, I doubt I would understand it. Which, again (in my opinion), points to a failing of the restoration bureaucracy to effectively communicate the process to the people footing the bill. Something a bit easier to digest is found on the Annual Fishing Season Reports to the left of the page you link. For Puget Sound, tribal catch accounted for these percentages of total take (tribal + non-tribal commercial + recreational)in these years:

    2000 = 61%
    2001 = 56%
    2002 = 61%
    2003 = 62%
    2004 = 72%
    2005 = 71%
    2006 = 64%

    As you say, the oft-cited “treaty” calls for a 50-50 split.

    I don’t know the effect these takes have on the fish we are trying to recover. Apparently, neither do you. We should. That is my point.

  11. BlueLight – Whoever you are, thanks for your clear input.
    Other folks could comment without concern for their jobs ..I hope they do.
    Sharon O’Hara

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