Fish Runs: Current agreement significantly different from assurances
By: John Henderer
Irate local anglers claim a deal touted by Tacoma Power to restore Cowlitz River fish runs actually will doom them to further ruin.
Fishing groups say Tacoma Power’s so-called Agreement in Principle to operate its hydroelectric dams in Lewis County calls for the reduction or elimination of the Cowlitz River’s two remaining reliable fish runs: summer steelhead and early winter steelhead.
You know, the only two fish runs that we have to fish for are those two fish,” said Joe Little, Chehalis, vice president of Sport Fishing Guides of Washington.
While several key state and federal resource agencies signed the preliminary agreement, none of the fishing, environmental or tribal groups involved in the utility’s four-year relicensing process has signed it.
“I think it’s slanted way too far for Tacoma’s favor, and there isn’t much for anyone else,” said John Barnett, Cowlitz Indian Tribe chairman. “It’s not a good deal for the fish”
Lewis County Commission Chairman Dennis Hadaller signed the preliminary deal Mayn3. He did not return calls for comment.
“Tacoma really did a good job of negotiating of absolutely pulling this off,” Little said. “I don’t think the Lewis County Commission really understands the issues here. What they don’t realize is there’s nothing else here to catch.”
THE CURRENT ISSUE
of Fishing and Hunting News includes an editorial lambasting state Fish and Wildlife Department Director Jeff Koenings for signing the agreement.
Anglers are angry because they say the agreement Koenings signed in May differs significantly from assurances they received from department biologists in April.
“Jeff Koenings has agreed, in principle, to kill sport fishing on the Cowliltz River,” the editorial begins, continuing with a diatribe against the director in much the same vein.
A spokesman for the department disputed the editorial.
“We think it’s simply not true,” said Tim Waters, of the director’s office. “Our intent is to recover the wild fish as well as provide enhanced fishing opportunities, and I think we can do, that down there.”
After receiving a petition with signatures of support for the agreement, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted Tacoma until July 15 to hash out a comprehensive settlement.
A settlement would mark the culmination of Tacoma’s four-year alternative relicensing effort, avoiding a potentially unfavorable license decision from the federal commission. Dubbed a collaborative enterprise, the process involved monthly public meetings until last December when no deal had been reached, and Tacoma submitted its application for a new 40-year license to meet a deadline. Its existing license expires next year.
Talks have continued behind the scenes, and Tacoma hopes to “bring more people into the fold,” said Toby Freeman, Tacoma’s relicensing coordinator.
He termed the signing by resource agencies, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, “tremendously significant.”
But some aren’t waiting for Tacoma to issue new guarantees.
Assessing the deal as “unacceptable,” the Bonneville Power Administration onnJune 2 filed a motion before FERC to intervene in the relicensing process. ThenBPA expressed particular concern that Tacoma appears to limit its own liability,nwhile leaving a gaping hole to be filled by the BPA and the Lewis County PublicnUtility District, which operate the Cowlitz Falls Dam.
HOPING TO TORPEDO
Tacoma’s effort, members of the Friends of the Cowlitz are working to build coalition of fishing interests and environmental groups.
Friends of the Cowlitz President Bill Zaikawsky criticized the settlement plan for proposing to reduce or eliminate the steelhead runs, and for requiring unlikely scenarios before Tacoma ever would be required to build fish ladders over the dams.
“They’re wanting to do away with part of the run? No way,” said Zaikawsky said. “It just doesn’t make sense, other than from Tacoma’s standpoint. It’ll save them a lot of money.”
Tacoma pays the state about 4$ million a year now to operate the Cowlitz salmon and trout hatcheries, rearing 13 million juvenile salmon and steelhead yearly. But hatchery operations have come into question in recent years as fish runs have continued to flounder in spite of the massive hatchery efforts.
Spring chinook salmon, once the pride of the Cowlitz, have dwindled dramatically in the latter part the last decade. The last five year’s average return of 1,414 kings to the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery amounted to just 12 percent of the average annual return in the 1980s.
With so few returning fish, anglers catch just a fraction of these.
But the disputed steelbead runs have continued to provide a fishery, albeit less than in prior years. In 1998, anglers caught more than 5,000 steelbead on the Cowlitz.
Freeman acknowledged public opinion surveys show a great deal of interest in fishing on the Cowlitz River. About 60 percent of the people who live in the basin go fishing on the river at least once a year, he said.
Regarding the elimination of the popular steelhead runs, Freeman attributed this to a misunderstanding. He said the summer steelbead program will continue until indigenous fish runs rebound enough to allow fishing on the native species. But he acknowledged the early winter steelbead will be phased out “in the not too distant future.”
THE AGREEMENT ALSO
calls for using late winter steelhead and spring chinook salmon as indicator species to determine whether fish ladder should be built over Mayfield Dam and and a tram over Mossyrock Dam, helping the fish spawn more naturally. Once these species, which have been listed as threatened, return in sufficient numbers Tacoma would have to begin building ladders.
“By using late winter steelhead and spring chinook they’ve probably doomed volitional passage (using fish ladders) from ever happening because those are the most depressed runs we’ve got right now,” Zaikawsky said.
But Hal Beecher, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said using these species makes sense.
“I think there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll get one or the other of those (to recover) ,” he said.
The trend under the Endangered Species Act has been away from artificial propagation and toward supporting self-sustaining fish runs.
We’re also trying to create an environment to give fish that are listed and really all the fish that are indigenous to the Cowlitz Basin the best chances for recovery and abundance,” Freeman said.
Tacoma and at least some government biologists say the fish species to be eliminated are not native to the Cowlitz River, but were introduced there. Fishing groups disagree.
June 9, 2000