In response to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s request of July 18, 2016, the Independent Scientific Review Panel (ISRP) reviewed a revised Snake River Basin Steelhead Kelt Reconditioning Facility Master Plan prepared by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) and the Nez Perce Tribe (hereafter “project proponents”). In the preliminary review dated May 13, 2016, the ISRP found the original Master Plan to be well written, containing an excellent summary of the extensive steelhead reconditioning work that has occurred in the Basin, but needing clarification on nine issues (ISRP 2016-8). The project proponents revised the Master Plan and included an appendix in response to the ISRP’s preliminary review.
This evaluation is part of the Council’s Three Step Review Process for artificial production programs. The Master Plan is a component of Project #2007-401-00, Kelt Reconditioning and Reproductive Success Evaluation Research. The proponents are proposing to modify the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery (NPTH) and install six 20-foot and four 15-foot circular tanks to support the long-term reconditioning of up to 750 Snake River Basin steelhead kelts. This infrastructure would support the annual release of 180 reconditioned kelts – “the equivalent of a 6% increase in B-run adult steelhead escapement relative to the base period considered in the Supplemental Comprehensive Analysis Steelhead Kelt Appendix (Bellerud et al. 2008).”
The proponents acknowledge that the submitted Master Plan does not yet have all the necessary components for a Step 1 review. It currently lacks a Hatchery Genetic Management Plan (HGMP), and work is needed on the program’s Research, Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Plan, Comprehensive Environmental Assessment, Value Engineering review, and final design. Before producing these elements of the Master Plan, the proponents requested that the ISRP determine if the program’s preferred location for a long-term reconditioning facility for Snake River B-run steelhead is appropriate. The ISRP agrees that the NPTH provides the best location, among those considered, for the proposed kelt reconditioning facility. The proponents now need to complete the components of their Master Plan that were delayed until this assessment was made.
ISRP Recommendation: Meets Scientific Review Criteria (Qualified)
The proponents provided good detailed responses to the issues that were raised in the last ISRP review. A lingering issue, however, is the possibility that B-run steelhead abundance might be constrained by density dependent factors during the spawner to smolt stage rather than by low numbers of spawning adults. Monitoring studies to assess density dependent effects will be challenging to implement because of the remote locations of some of the populations. Moreover, collecting biological information is difficult due to high flows and turbidity during the spring when adults are returning to spawn and smolts are emigrating. Even so, Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) researchers (Copeland et al. 2013) developed recruits per spawner (R/S) relationships in two Snake River steelhead streams (Fish Creek, 15 broodyears, Lochsa River, Clearwater subbasin; Rapid River, 4 broodyears, Little Salmon River, Salmon subbasin). In both cases, density-dependent effects were detected.
The proponents are convinced (the ISRP less so) that increasing adult escapement will augment B-run population abundance. They hypothesize that reconditioned kelts from their program will increase the abundance and productivity of B-run steelhead populations located above Lower Granite Dam (LGR). The ISRP acknowledges that even if density dependence is currently limiting abundance, ongoing habitat and fish passage restoration work may help alleviate some population bottlenecks and lead to increased productivity. Also, reconditioned adults are buffered from environmental conditions that affect survival rates in mainstem and ocean habitats. Thus, these fish may become an important conservation resource when the survival of maiden steelhead is impacted by poor marine and river conditions. The project also directly addresses the issue of declining iteroparity in Snake River steelhead. Additionally, it provides an opportunity to assess the viability of using reconditioned kelts in population recovery. Consequently, the program offers a “spread-the-risk” strategy that can provide potential benefits not possible through any other existing or proposed action. The Council may wish, however, to weigh these potential benefits against those that might be obtained by alternative actions which improve B-run steelhead survival in tributary and mainstem habitats.
Qualification - The ISRP recommends that the proponents address the following four issues during the next phase of project development:
- Of the proposed locations for the kelt reconditioning facility, the NPTH appears to be the best option. The existing HGMP and Environmental Assessment for the NPTH will need to be modified to account for the reconditioning program.
- A comprehensive M&E Plan with an adaptive management component is needed. The M&E plan should describe quantitative objectives, sampling designs, data collection, and an assessment methodology that will be used to evaluate density dependence in B-run steelhead populations.
- Biologically based escapement goals that consider density dependence should also be included in the M&E Plan. Such goals will help the proponents assess the contributions that reconditioned kelts are making toward B-run recovery on a population-specific basis.
- The M&E plan should also provide more information on the level of effort that will be expended on collecting natural origin B-run kelts and on how they will be identified. How, for example, will the inadvertent inclusion of unclipped B-run hatchery kelts in the program be avoided?