Oregon and Washington officials on Thursday voted to trigger a four-day extension of the lower Columbia River sport spring chinook salmon fishery, saying it posed little risk of breaching harvest limits established in negotiations with treaty tribes and the state of Idaho.
During a special hearing to consider the extension, representatives of Idaho and tribes, as well as a lone angler, argued against continued sport fishing in the river from Bonneville Dam down to the river mouth. They expressed concerns of the potential for overharvest of the early portion of the run, and of the run as a whole, if the return isn’t as big as forecast in preseason. Numerous anglers and sport fishing industry officials voiced support for an extension during the hearing.
The representatives of the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife agreed that there is some concern about the size of the 2011 upriver spring chinook salmon return, which was predicted in preseason to number 198,400 adults to the mouth of the Columbia.
The total projected 2011 sport catch through today (April 15) is 4,587 upriver spring chinook, which would be 59 percent of the 7,750 fish allocated to the lower Columbia sport fishery for the early spring season. The catch totals include hatchery fish with a clipped adipose fin that are harvested and assumed mortality for a portion of the unclipped fish that are caught and released. Anglers can only keep fish marked with a fin clip.
That allocation for the early season represents 70 percent of the overall allocation, which is based on the preseason forecast. The U.S. v Oregon fishery management agreement developed by the states, tribes and the federal government allocates harvest shares based on the size of the run -- the larger the run, the larger the allowed harvest.
There had been a total of 864 spring chinook counted passing over Bonneville’s fish ladders this year through Wednesday. That’s the third lowest total through April 13 since 1970. In the two years with lower counts through April 13 – 2005 and 2006 – the final annual Bonneville counts were 74,038 and 96,456. Those counts are minus downstream harvest and other mortality.
On the other hand, last year’s count through April 13 was only slightly higher – 1,472 – and the final count turned out to be 244,384, according to data posted online by the Fish Passage Center.
ODFW and WDFW staff point out that the run is only just starting. The recent five-year average, which includes four runs timed later than the historic average, indicates that only 2 percent of the run will have passed over Bonneville by April 13. Bonneville is 146 river miles from the river mouth. Upriver spring chinook are fish stocks bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds upstream of Bonneville in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. They include wild Snake River and Upper Columbia chinook that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Because of the presence of those wild stocks, harvests are limited based on the preseason forecast until such time as a run-size update can be produced. That happens after an estimated 50 percent of the run has passed over Bonneville, usually in late April or early May though the average date for the past five years has been May 8.
State officials say that extremely high flows, colder than normal water temperatures, and murky water could be stalling the fish. And those conditions are definitely hampering anglers, who are catching fewer fish per trip over the past week than they did in late March. Overall angler effort dropped considerably too during the eight-day fishery that ends Friday.
“Anglers have been catching fish in some areas of the lower river, but turbid, high-water conditions have put a damper on overall catch rates," Cindy LeFleur, the WDFW’s Columbia River policy coordinator, said. "Visibility underwater is about two feet, so the fish have a hard time seeing anglers' lures."
The extension, which follows an eight-day extension, is from Saturday through Tuesday from Buoy 10 at the river mouth upstream to Rooster Rock just above Corbett, Ore., for boat and bank from Rooster Rock upstream to Bonneville Dam for bank anglers only. The daily bag limit continues to be 2 adult salmon/steelhead in combination, of which only 1 may be an adult chinook.
Anglers may also retain shad and hatchery-reared steelhead when the spring chinook fishery is open.
The agency staff’s estimated that even if the run size estimate, as measured at the river mouth, dropped to 112,000, the projected catch through April 19 would still be within the harvest sharing guidelines and would represent only 57 percent of the allocation based on the 198,400 preseason forecast. The original target was to catch only 70 percent of that allocation before the run size estimate is updated.
Both Steve Williams and Guy Norman, who represented the ODFW and WDFW respectively on the joint state hearing panel, said that they were comfortable, given the extreme fishing conditions, that the sport harvest would stay within bounds.
“I think what we’ve done is a reasonable approach given the information we have,” Williams said.
“Forty-three percent is the largest buffer we’ve ever employed before the run-size update,” Norman pointed out.
Williams said recent test fishing in the lower mainstem estuary showed promise. Catches spiked early this week to 12.7 fish caught per drift. That compares favorably to test fishing during the same time period last year of 15 and 17 chinook caught per drift by commercial tangle net boats. Test fishing earlier this year netted 5.2 fish per drift at best.
Both Williams and Norman said the lower Columbia four-day extension would be the last.
"After this extension, we don't anticipate making any changes in the season until more fish pass over the dam and we can update the run-size forecast," Norman said. "We want to give lower-river anglers a chance to catch some more fish, but we also have to make sure we can meet our conservation objectives and our obligations to upriver fisheries."
During public testimony representatives of the Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Shoshone-Bannock tribes all urged the panel to allow the sport fishery to close for now.
“Because we have no way of knowing how late the spring chinook run may be, the tribes believe it is unreasonable, and indeed risky, to continue any non-Indian spring chinook fishing until we have more certainty about the run size,” said Bruce Jim, a member of the Fish and Wildlife Committee of the Warm Springs Tribes and chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes.
“We have never had a cumulative count this low this late where the total run size was anywhere near this year’s forecast,” Jim said.
“Additionally, the tribes concur with comments made by IDFG at the last sport hearing where they raised concerns about the states of Oregon and Washington continually focusing harvest on the early portion of the spring chinook run,” Jim said in reference to testimony by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Pete Hassemer. “The principle of managing for harvest rates on the entire upriver run is that harvest should be spread out over the entire run so that certain stocks are not harvested at higher than acceptable levels.”
“The evidence we have in hand now would suggest prudence,” the IDFG’s Sam Sharr said Wednesday, who also advised against an extension.