Council Majority Approves Fish Tagging Forum Recommendations

Tiny tags about the size of a grain of rice and can identify individual fish.

Tagging salmon and steelhead, implanting a wire or electronic device in the fish or otherwise marking the fish, is one of the most effective techniques available to researchers to monitor fish as they migrate to and from the Pacific Ocean.

But it’s also expensive—about $60 million in the Columbia River Basin in 2012—and difficult to coordinate because of river conditions, run returns, the wide distribution of spawning grounds, release sites, migration routes, and the many agencies, tribes, and other entities doing the tagging, which varies significantly every year.

To better understand how they’re used and how much it costs, the Council chartered the Fish Tagging Forum. The forum, which included experts from state, federal, and tribal fish and wildlife agencies, electric utilities, and others, reviewed many types of tagging technologies and assessed fish-tagging in light of 19 key management questions and 117 related indicators.

Overall, the forum found that while there are few gaps and many overlaps in the tagging systems now in place, tagging coordination is generally well developed and successful throughout the basin. It identified more than 157 projects to carry out tagging, marking, detection, or analysis of tag- related data. The Bonneville Power Administration paid more than $60 million in 2012 to fund these projects, using about 200 million tags of various types. Tagging for projects in the Council’s fish and wildlife program was about $36 million of that total. Bonneville funds most of the fish-tagging in the basin either directly or indirectly, but others contribute, too, including the three Mid Columbia public utility districts, federal and state agencies, Indian tribes, and investor-owned utilities such as Idaho Power and Portland General Electric.

One question to address was whether Bonneville should continue funding coded-wire tag efforts, currently about $7.5 million annually. Coded-wire tags are tiny pieces of stainless steel wire etched with data that identify a fish’s release group. At the request of the Council’s fish and wildlife committee, the Council’s legal staff reviewed Bonneville’s funding requirements under the Northwest Power Act and determined that the agency is neither required nor prohibited by law to fund coded-wire tags. To be consistent with the Power Act, Bonneville’s expenditures must relate to Columbia River salmon and steelhead adversely affected by the basin’s hydrosystem. The legal staff reported it seems clear that is the case. In the end, then, it’s a policy issue and a question for Bonneville to decide.

Ultimately the forum agreed on 17 recommendations to the Council, but could not agree on the funding responsibility for all coded-wire tag uses, offering four alternative recommendations instead.

In August, the Council voted to approve the 17 consensus recommendations and the alternative recommendation that maintains status-quo funding. The coded-wire tags recommendation was consistent with nine principles stated in a decision memorandum prepared by Council staff. The vote was 6-2, with Idaho members Bill Booth and Jim Yost dissenting because of the status-quo recommendation.

Washington Council member Phil Rockefeller, who chairs the fish and wildlife committee, said the committee supported the recommendations, including the alternative to maintain the status-quo annual expenditure for coded-wire tagging efforts.

“For 32 years, coded-wire tagging has been a collaborative effort supporting the implementation of the Council’s fish and wildlife program,” Rockefeller said. “It’s been a core element of that program, and it serves not only the Council’s needs and interests but also the management needs of an array of other organizations and entities, including tribal, state, and federal.”

Rockefeller said the committee determined that Bonneville’s financial support of fish tagging falls within the terms of the Power Act. “That is to say, there is a nexus to the Council’s program,” he said, adding that the committee saw no evidence that Bonneville is supporting tagging in lieu of funding that should be provided by others. He said the committee’s recommendation that Bonneville continue to provide $7.5 million annually for coded-wire tagging “is not necessarily the ultimate answer or the desirable outcome,” but “only until or unless we can develop a better system, following the ideas presented to us by the Independent Economic Analysis Board [in a report on fish tagging earlier this year].”

Washington member Tom Karier said he supported the motion and hoped that in the future more information would be available from coded-wire tags to show where fish are being harvested.

“We’re paying millions of dollars for that information, and somewhere between Bonneville and the managers the ball gets dropped and we don’t get the information,” Karier said. “I tend to think that if we had that information right now, and we could see what the hatcheries are contributing to the program, we’d have a different debate about this.”
Council Vice Chair Jennifer Anders also agreed to support the continued funding.

“We heard from the scientists that coded-wire tagging is an important and valid scientific tool for a variety of reasons, and as a matter of policy this committee has concluded that those reasons have a sufficient nexus to the work we do to justify their funding, at least until there is some way to get that information from another source or in a more efficient manner.”
Idaho members Bill Booth and Jim Yost, however, disagreed.

“Member Yost and I were not able to support the Council’s motion today due to the status-quo decision on coded-wire tagging in the region,” Booth said.

“We appreciate the diligent efforts of the Fish Tagging Forum and thank its members for the many hours dedicated to this difficult task,” he said. “Because of their methodical and detailed work, the Council, the region, and the Bonneville Power Administration now have a much clearer picture of both the diverse functions served by a multitude of coded-wire tagging projects, and the costs associated with the Columbia Basin’s $35,700,000 fish tagging effort.

“It is our opinion that Bonneville should carefully review the record and findings of the Fish Tagging Forum, determine where any of the tagging efforts are inconsistent with the provisions of the Northwest Power Act, and phase out funding for projects that lack a nexus with the Federal Columbia River Power System or are in lieu of funds that should have been provided by other entities, such as Mitchell Act hatchery fish-tagging and other harvest management tagging,” Booth said.

Among its consensus recommendations, the forum said any reduction in funding that might result from implementing its proposals should be redirected to other projects in the fish and wildlife program. The forum recommended that NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that implements the Endangered Species Act for salmon and steelhead, should help coordinate state, tribal, and other researchers on the best practices for tagging ESA-listed fish. It also recommended that additional review be conducted to find cost and efficiency savings.