Pacific Council News Spring 2019: Habitat and ecosystem

State of the California Current Report notes ecosystem improvements and challenges

In March the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Northwest and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers reported on the 2019 Annual State of the California Current Ecosystem Report.

Several ecological indicators in 2018 reflect average or improving conditions. For example, the copepod community off Newport was predominately cool-water, lipid-rich (“cheeseburger”) species; krill lengths off northern California have increased; anchovy densities continued to increase; and several indicators of juvenile and adult salmon survival increased slightly, particularly for coho salmon in the northern part of the system. In addition, sea lion pup numbers, sea lion pup growth, and piscivorous seabird densities were high.

However, there was lingering evidence of unfavorable conditions in 2018. Warmer-than-average subsurface water was found in the southern portion of the system, and strong hypoxia on the shelf in the northern part of the system. Pyrosomes (warm-water tunicates) remained abundant in northern and central water, and reports of whale entanglements in fixed fishing gear were high for the fifth straight year.

Climate, oceanographic and streamflow indicators were near average in 2018, though indices suggest weakening circulation and emerging mild El Niño conditions.

West Coast fishery landings in 2017 increased by 27.4% over 2016. Revenues increased by 12.3%. Increases were driven by Pacific hake, Dungeness crab, and market squid. Fishery diversification remains relatively low on average across all vessel classes.

Forecasts for 2019 include a five percent chance of a weak El Niño through at least the spring; average coho returns to Oregon coast, but below-average Chinook returns to the Columbia River; and extensive hypoxia and acidified bottom waters over the shelf off Washington and Oregon.

Habitat briefs

Central Valley Operations

The Habitat Committee and Council discussed pending regulatory actions in the California Central Valley which could have a detrimental impact to Council-managed fisheries.

A Bureau of Reclamation biological assessment proposes significant changes to Central Valley Project operations, which include Shasta Dam, Oroville Dam, Trinity Dam, and the pumping facilities that supply water to the California Central Valley via the California Aqueduct. Initial modeling shows that the proposed changes could result in up to twice the maximum level of mortality of winter-run Chinook salmon necessary to prevent the stock from declining.

NMFS was directed to produce a biological opinion on the revised operations under a quick timeframe that limits the peer review process. The proposed changes include, among other things, eliminating requirements to consult with NMFS before issuing initial water allocations to contractors; eliminating the carryover storage requirements that help ensure there is water in storage at the end of the year to maintain water temperatures and water supply for subsequent potential dry years; eliminating April and May pumping restrictions and an action that protects Delta habitat, resulting in a 50 percent increase in pumping for those months and likely impacting fall run salmon migrations; delaying water temperature management plans until May, after the Bureau of Reclamation has already begun draining Shasta reservoir for contract deliveries; and eliminating requirements to provide fish passage above Shasta Dam. Most of these proposed actions could result in significant mortality to listed and non-listed salmonids.

The Council is developing a letter on the Bureau of Reclamation Biological Assessment on the Central Valley Project/State Water Project and 2019 Central Valley operations conditions and forecasts. The letter will be sent by the deadline of June 17 and will be available on the Council website. The letter will encourage peer review of the analyses, highlight that the proposed changes are likely to weaken protections not only for winter and spring runs but also for Council-managed fall and late fall runs, and urge improvements in temperature management to promote survival across all stocks.

Humboldt Aquaculture

Nordic Aquafarms has signed a three-year lease from the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, with a renewal option for a 30-50 year term, for a shorebased aquaculture facility adjacent to Humboldt Bay. Permit applications may be forthcoming and the species to be produced are yet to be determined. The facility would occupy the site of a former pulp mill. If the project is permitted, it has the potential to be the largest aquaculture facility on the West Coast.

Dissolved Gas Levels

The states of Washington and Oregon are going through their processes to modify total allowable dissolved gas levels at dams for increased spill. Both states expect to raise total dissolved gas levels to 125% by 2020, a level that is considered optimal for outmigrating smolts.

Climate and Communities initiative moves forward

The Council is conducting a climate change scenario planning exercise in order to further the goals of the Climate and Communities Initiative. This exercise is intended to help develop tools to allow the Council to react to ecosystem shifts resulting from climate change. Last November, the Ad Hoc Climate Scenario Investigation Committee provided guidance on identifying potential topics for such an exercise. In March, the Council chose shifting stock availability (including shifting distribution) across species, fishery management plans, and communities across the west coast as a general topic, recognizing that it will need to be further refined.

The Council created the Ad Hoc Climate and Communities Core Team composed of Council members, ecosystem advisory body members, and NMFS scientists to refine the topic and plan the exercise, which is scheduled to be completed by March 2020. The Core Team is meeting in May and plans to report back in September 2019 with a project description and timeline, which would be carried out between then and the March 2020 Council meeting.

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