Pacific Council News: Winter 2019: Habitat

Habitat Report

An irrigation canal distributing water to farms in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Photo: Richard Thornton/Shutterstock

In November, the Habitat Committee (HC) discussed the Central Valley Project Biological Opinion, Klamath dam removal, the proposed Jordan Cove Liquefied Natural Gas project, salmon reintroduction, offshore wind energy, and critical habitat designations for Southern Resident killer whales and humpback whales.

Central Valley BiOp

The final biological opinion (BiOp) for the long-term operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project was released on October 21, and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is now conducting an analysis of the project’s impacts to essential fish habitat (EFH).

The HC drew the Council’s attention to several changes to the expected effects of project operations on salmon populations. First, the BiOp concludes that the project will not jeopardize the survival of winter run Chinook, spring run Chinook, summer steelhead, or Southern Resident killer whales. However, elsewhere it states, “reductions in the survival and productivity of all [Central Valley] Chinook salmon populations (including fall-run and late fall-run Chinook salmon) are expected to occur throughout the proposed action area, and the greatest effects will occur during the drier water years when effects of the proposed action are most pronounced.” (NMFS BiOp, page 683).

The HC identified several issues in the proposed action, including cold water storage in Lake Shasta, pumping in the delta, and temperature management, that could significantly impact the survival and populations of Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed salmon that constrain Council-managed fisheries, as well as the status and designated EFH of species harvested by Council-managed fisheries.

Based on the HC report, the Council plans to send a letter to NMFS Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver and West Coast Regional Manager Barry Thom, as well as the Mid-Pacific Regional Director Ernest Conant of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, highlighting these concerns about the BiOp and the impacts of the project on EFH and Council-managed and constraining species. The letter will be posted on the Council website when it becomes available.

Klamath Dam Removal

Federal and state biologists (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NMFS, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) met recently to discuss issues related to the removal of the four lower Klamath River dams, their associated infrastructure, and the Iron Gate Hatchery. They identified factors that will directly affect fall Chinook and coho salmon production, field methodologies, abundance estimates, and harvest.

Upon removal of all four dams, fish will freely disperse into hundreds of miles of streams. This will require that new data collection strategies be developed to estimate escapement well before 2021, when the dams are slated for demolition. Water quality issues adjacent to the dam, which were also identified as a consequence of demolition, will need to be addressed, and salmon spawning habitat in many miles of rivers and tributaries above the dams will require restoration or enhancement after the dams are removed. The STT and HC are scheduled to consider these issues at their March meetings.

Jordan Cove LNG Export Terminal and Pipeline Project

In September, the Council approved letters commenting on the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) of the Jordan Cove Energy Project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released the final EIS for the project on November 15th with a 30-day comment period. A Council comment letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will be posted on the Council website in the near future.

Columbia River System Operation Plan Draft Environmental Impact Schedule

The draft EIS of the Columbia River hydropower system operations should be available for comment in February 2020. The alternatives under consideration have been released to the public. Fish passage, spill, and dam breaching are among the issues considered in the alternatives. The HC will discuss the draft EIS at its March or April meetings, and will likely draft a comment letter for the Council at that time.

Salmon Reintroduction Upstream of Chief Joseph/Grand Coulee Dams

Casey Baldwin, Research Scientist with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, briefed the HC on a proposal for the reintroduction of anadromous fish upstream of Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams. The project is being conducted by the Upper Columbia United Tribes with support from the U.S. Geological Survey, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and others.

The project’s Phase 1 Report included habitat modeling for the U.S. portion of the blocked area covering 355 miles of Chinook habitat. If fish are re-established above the dams, the upstream extent of essential fish habitat could be greatly increased.

Phase 2 of the project will investigate options for efficient and cost-effective passage of adults across Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, such as trucking fish or using “salmon cannons” to essentially shoot fish over the dams and into the reservoir. Reintroduction is expected to occur in phases. Ceremonial releases of summer Chinook salmon were conducted in 2019, while large “experimental pilot” releases may not happen for several more years. Reintroduction on a grand scale, with bypass facilities and supporting hatchery programs, depends on successful feasibility tests in Phase 2, as well as funding. For more details, see the project’s Frequently Asked Questions.

A presentation on this project is currently scheduled for the April Council meeting.

Responsible Offshore Development Alliance

Annie Hawkins, the Executive Director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), spoke to the HC during a webinar in October. RODA has been active in tracking wind energy on the East Coast and is now adding West Coast members. The organization, formed in 2018, includes many sectors and stems from a common concern around the impacts of offshore energy to fisheries, as well as an extraordinarily fast pace of offshore wind development and leasing. Fishing industry leaders believe that the National Environmental Policy Act process used by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) needs to be updated to reflect the potential impacts of offshore wind energy projects. The HC plans to coordinate with RODA to keep track of offshore energy projects, which may affect both the habitat of, and fisheries access to, Council-managed species.

Proposed Critical Habitat Expansion for Southern Resident Killer Whales

The HC received briefings from Lynne Barre and Penny Ruvelas (NMFS Protected Species Division) on the proposed expansion of critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whales. NMFS is seeking comments on the geographic areas and boundaries and potential impacts of designation on existing uses, among other things. The comment period closes December 18.

Critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whales was designated in 2006 for most of the U.S. waters of the Salish Sea (the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and waters around the San Juan Islands). The proposed expansion extends from the U.S.-Canada border south to Point Sur, CA, between the 6 meter (20 ft) and 200 meter (656 ft) depth contours.

As required under the Endangered Species Act, NMFS identified habitat features that are essential to the whales’ conservation: prey (quality, quantity, availability), water quality, and passage.

NMFS does not expect the critical habitat consultation to result in conservation measures beyond what would be needed to protect the whales themselves (as opposed to the whales’ prey). Impacts to Council-managed fisheries are likely to be limited to the administrative aspects of reinitiating consultation. However, the critical habitat designation could be used by the Council in its dealings with other agencies to emphasize the impacts of activities that affect both salmon and killer whales.

Proposed Critical Habitat Designation for Humpback Whales

In addition to Southern Resident killer whales, NMFS is also proposing to designate critical habitat for certain “distinct population segments” of humpback whales. Both the Mexico and Central America population segments forage off the U.S. West Coast, where critical habitat is now proposed. NMFS identified prey (krill, sardine, herring, anchovy) as the essential feature of critical habitat that is necessary for the conservation of the species.

NMFS expects that the critical habitat analysis is not likely to require changes in fisheries management. However, it is possible that  analyses of the effects of the coastal pelagic species fishery on the whales may be necessary.

Given this designation, the Council will be able to cite the need for abundant coastal pelagic and krill species as additional justification for comments on non-fishing actions that adversely affect essential fish habitat.

The public comment deadline for this proposal is December 9.

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