Review of 2009 Fish and Wildlife Program

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ISAB Chair Rich Alldredge, Vice-chair Chris Wood, and member Greg Ruggerone presented findings from this report at the Council’s March 13 meeting in Portland.

Executive Summary

This report contains the evaluation by the Independent Scientific Advisory Board (ISAB) of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's 2009 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program (Program). In general, the ISAB finds the 2009 Program to have been a useful framework for providing context for the complex issues facing the altered Columbia River Basin ecosystem. In Part I, we revisit the conceptual foundation for the Program, focusing primarily on recommendations for updating the scientific principles based on advances in the sciences of landscape ecology and complex adaptive systems. In Part II, we examine progress in implementing the Program and in monitoring its outcomes; then we consider some major threats to future success and identify potential gaps in the current Program. In Part III, we discuss some general opportunities for improving the effectiveness of the Program. 

Sustainability as a conceptual foundation

The concept of sustainability in ecology describes how biological systems remain diverse, robust, and productive over time. Sustainability can be enhanced by building ecosystem resilience and adaptability. Natural systems do not fluctuate within a fixed range of variability. What we have seen historically will not be a reliable indicator of the future, and we must seek to be more flexible and adaptable in our management responses. Uncertainty is inevitable and is an essential feature of resilience thinking, structured decision making, and adaptive management. Success is not a completed state, but a process requiring sustained monitoring, intentional learning, communication, and cooperation. Indeed, the Program amendment can be considered as the learning phase of the adaptive management cycle, and as an opportunity to benefit from 30 years of experience.

Threats to sustainability

In this review, the ISAB has identified major threats to the sustainability of the Columbia River ecosystem and to the success of the Program. This list includes loss of biological diversity, climate change (both directly and indirectly through linkages to the ocean ecosystem), proliferation of chemicals and contaminants within the Basin (including the estuary), the emergence of hybrid food webs due to the spread of non-native and artificially propagated species, and a failure to understand and respect the carrying capacity of the Columbia River ecosystem.

Biological diversity arises naturally within diverse landscapes and habitats, and it provides the redundancy and options for ecological innovation that contribute to resilience and adaptability in the face of environmental variability and change. The capacity to systematically monitor biological diversity at scales relevant to the Basin is limited. Moreover, relatively little effort is being directed at documenting trends in diversity or at understanding how actions implemented across the Basin affect diversity and the consequences of losing diversity. The ISAB recommends that the Program develop quantitative objectives for diversity and promote an active program of research to systematically collect information so that trends in biological diversity can be monitored and reported at the scale of the entire Basin.

Climate change predictions point toward changes in the timing and distribution of water flow, including extreme events such as floods and droughts. The concept of return periods of floods and droughts based on historical data may no longer be adequate for designing and planning for extreme events. Fisheries impacts due to warmer water temperatures include physiological effects such as lower growth rates that can result in higher predation, increased susceptibility to invasive and non-native species, and reduced cold water refuges. Ocean habitat suitable for salmonids in the Gulf of Alaska is projected to be substantially reduced in extent by the 2080s, due to changes in temperature, salinity, and acidification.Given the importance of climate change to the success of the Program, the ISAB recommends that the amended Program promote development of a comprehensive strategic plan to explore strategies to cope with potential impacts of climate change throughout the Basin. Modeling and analyses are needed to provide guidance for flood control and hydropower operations to enhance ecosystem resilience and adaptability under climate change.

Artificial chemical proliferation in the Basin is a priority for resolution. In addition to contaminants of the past, there is a growing concern about emerging contaminants. The estuary and the coastal ocean communities are particularly vulnerable to the accumulation of contaminants because of their spatial position in the watershed. There is an urgent need to quantify and map the spatial patterns of these chemicals; assess their transfer, accumulation, and persistence; and document their impact on native organisms and on the carrying capacity of the Columbia River ecosystem for juvenile salmonids. The Council has an opportunity to take an active role – through cooperation with regional partners – to ensure that monitoring of toxic contaminants and evaluation of their effects on fish and wildlife are addressed.

Non-native species’ spread is a major issue confronting the Program. Well-reasoned policies and procedures are needed to address the risk posed by non-native species, as well as native species spreading outside of their native ranges within the Basin. The Program could play a key role in fostering development of policies and effective methods for monitoring and controlling the spread of these species.

The limitation of the carrying capacity for juvenile salmonids is an urgent and specific priority for research, management, and restoration activities in the Basin. It is not clear whether the Columbia River can provide sufficient food in the long term to support the large populations of artificially propagated fishes produced today, as well as natural salmonids and other organisms. The concept of carrying capacity for target species in the Basin must ultimately constrain Program objectives related to the abundance and productivity of those species. The amended Program should explicitly address carrying capacity for juvenile salmonids when integrating and prioritizing plans for hatchery production and habitat restoration. The ISAB also sees a need to conduct empirical investigations and to develop bioenergetic models to estimate trophic demands on food supplies by native and non-native competitors of juvenile salmonids.

Artificial production, used to mitigate for lost harvest opportunities, must be reconciled with the objectives of ESA recovery and threats such production poses to the restoration of healthy natural populations. Implementation of artificial production must consider scientific insights about the need to maintain the diversity of heterogeneous populations and habitats that confer resilience. Hatchery fish provide important benefits to some of the Basin's stakeholders and populations, but the trade-off in costs to natural production and other environmental consequences remain poorly understood. The ISAB recommends that the artificial strategies be revised to incorporate conclusions from the Hatchery Scientific Review Group’s review and that supplementation, harvest, and habitat restoration programs must be well integrated to be effective.

Harvest plans need to be scientifically justified and consistent with subbasin and other plans that establish viability parameters for salmon and steelhead populations. It is not clear whether harvest management plans have been scientifically reviewed and analyzed to assess compatibility with the Program. If not, an independent scientific review should be encouraged. The amended Program should also promote development of capability to monitor hatchery and natural-origin fish separately so that the productivity and abundance of the naturally-reproducing stock can be tracked and used to develop escapement goals and harvest rates.

Key advice on moving forward

Three fundamental issues warrant reconsideration in amending the Program. First, it would be timely for the Council and region to re-evaluate the scientific foundation in light of accomplishments of the Program during the past 30 years. A review of the Program’s foundation might lead to reassessment of the long-term objectives and the strategies to achieve those objectives. Second, there is a need to move away from qualitative goals toward quantitative objectives with specified timelines. Third, there is a need for increased socioeconomic engagement as part of a landscape approach. The current Program is intended to be habitat-based but in reality, relies heavily on artificial production; the amended Program should be ecosystem-based and fully acknowledge social aspects of the Program that can contribute to its success.

The ISAB believes that the scientific foundation should be modified to more explicitly consider the basis of resilience and adaptability, and to include additional emphasis on the landscape approach to fish and wildlife management (ISAB 2011-1, 2011-4). Accordingly, the ISAB proposes six revised principles based on recent advances in scientific knowledge about the nature of ecosystems. These new principles are intended to replace the original eight principles, but they retain most of the original content.

Establishing quantitative performance goals both for the biological objectives and restoration strategies is an essential feature of adaptive management and provides measurable thresholds for determining success. True objectives are focused and measurable benchmarks whereas many of the “objectives” identified in the 2009 Program express general intentions as unquantified goals or strategies to achieve goals. The amended Program should include quantitative biological objectives that can be regularly monitored and evaluated as a means to determine whether the Program is on target or in need of change.

Social aspects of the Program should include stronger efforts to foster leadership and to build the structures that provide governance needed for broad collaboration and effective integration across science-management disciplines and social, political, and ecological boundaries. The revised Program should recommit to regional partnerships and explore similar ideas to strengthen regional coordination efforts, and share information and learning among projects with common settings or issues. The Program should be amended to describe techniques for engaging broader public involvement and to explain how socioeconomic engagement will be measured and monitored.

A primary conclusion of this review is that continuing to implement the Program on its existing trajectory is highly uncertain to achieve the Council’s biological objectives for the Basin. The ISAB suggests a revised focus on sustainability with strategies to protect diversity and resilience, and to build adaptability.The ISAB is concerned that artificial propagation is a risky foundation for restoration, and that adaptive management, long considered an integral component of the Program, has not been conducted in the manner originally envisioned. A landscape perspective, drawing from broader community involvement, could help build consensus on Program objectives and strategies, or if this is not possible, it could at least help to create strategies that keep options open, consistent with a diversity of visions for the future. The ISAB recommends that Council decisions be guided by the precautionary principle and structured decision making, within an adaptive management cycle.

See the full report for the ISAB’s full rationale and details.

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