Despite continued low spring upriver chinook salmon counts, Oregon and Washington fishery managers said Wednesday they see enough signs that the fish are on the way, though maybe in somewhat smaller numbers than expected, to allow a seven-day extension of the Columbia River mainstem sport season above Bonneville Dam.
“Some optimism is warranted. I feel like there are fish there,” Steve Williams of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said of the prospects of numerous upriver spring chinook salmon lingering in the lower river.
Angler catch rates had slowly started to rise during the final days of the sport fishery in the 146 miles of river from Bonneville Dam to the river mouth. That fishery closed Tuesday. And researchers netting fish in the lower estuary reported relatively high catch rates in recent days.
There is also speculation that river conditions during early April may have stalled the upriver run, which includes fish bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds upstream of Bonneville. During the month’s first two weeks, higher than normal volumes of colder and murkier than normal water prevailed up and down the Columbia and Snake rivers. Those conditions have shifted more toward normal in recent days.
“We should start to see some fish moving if it’s river conditions” that is causing the fish to stall their upriver run, Williams said. He and Guy Norman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to extend the above Bonneville sport season from April 25 through May 1. ODFW and WDFW staff estimate that the catch will average about 50 upriver spring chinook per day through the period.
“I too am concerned that the season above Bonneville will close before many fish get there,” Norman said. Both fishery officials, during a Wednesday hearing, expressed the desire to allow upriver anglers the opportunity to catch their share of the bounty.
The above Bonneville sport fishery was scheduled to close at the end of the day April 24 or when its allocation of 1,032 upriver spring chinook had been caught. But through April 17 only 41 upriver mortalities (kept catch plus estimated post-release losses of unmarked fish) had occurred according to ODFW-WDFW estimates.
During a lower (below Bonneville) river fishery that closed Wednesday, sport fishers caught and kept an estimated 7,115 chinook during 109,600 trips. It is estimated that that fishery includes 5,564 upriver mortalities, which would be 72 percent of its total “pre-update” allocation of 7,743 fish. Fisheries are being managed to hold the catch to 70 percent or less of the overall allocation for the year until the upriver run-size forecast can be updated.
Two mainstem commercial fishing periods (10 hours total) in the lower Columbia resulted in the harvest of 2,039 spring chinook, including 1,728 upriver mortalities. That represents 90 percent of the fleet’s mainstem pre-run-size update allocation of 1,915.
The early season allocations are based on a preseason forecast return of 198,400 upriver spring chinook to the mouth of the Columbia River. The U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee will review the status of the upriver spring chinook run on Monday, April 25.
Counts so far this year at Bonneville remain among the lowest in recent memory. The tally through Tuesday, April 19, was 1,803.
A 10-year look back shows that this year’s 1,548 fish is the second lowest total through April 18. Only 248 chinook had appeared in the dam’s fish ladder windows through April 18, 2006. That year the final run-size estimate was 132,600 upriver fish to the mouth of the Columbia.
The total in 2009 was 1,850 through April 18; that run turned out to be 169,000 strong, the ODFW’s John North said. In four of the past five years the spring chinook have reached the midpoint, as counted at Bonneville, of their upstream surge later than the historic average.
Again, as they did during consideration last week of a lower river fishery extension, tribal officials and spokesmen for the Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife urged caution.
“As we told you before, because we have no way of knowing how late the spring chinook run may be, the tribes believe it is unreasonable to continue any non-Indian spring chinook fishing until we have more certainty about the run size. It is appropriate to use extra caution when the counts are so low,” 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. CRITFC provides technical advice to the member tribes – the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama.
“If the run is timed like 2009, which was the second latest run ever, then we would expect the Bonneville count to be only about 102,000 which might still put the states over the catch balance limit,” Jim said of allocation schemes outlined in a 10-year management plan forged in legal negotiations through U.S. v Oregon between the tribes, states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington and the federal government.
That plan includes a matrix that prescribes the percentages of the upriver run that can be taken by the states and by the tribes at various run sizes. The bigger the run size, the more fish that can be harvested.
The states have estimated that the projected take – in sport and mainstem and commercial fisheries – would remain within bounds if the run size was 109,000 or more.
“Given the information currently available, the most prudent action is for the non-treaty fisheries to remain closed until the U.S. v. Oregon Technical Advisory Committee is able to update the run size and that updated run size shows that the states are within their allowed impacts,” Jim said.
“We also caution the states against exceeding their share of the allowable catch in contravention of the U.S. v. Oregon Management Agreement. It was very costly to revisit the spring chinook harvest provisions after 2008 and 2009, for the states as well as the tribes. Should we have to go through that exercise again because the states catch more fish than the tribes, it will be even more costly.”
“Our ceremonial fishermen continue to catch fish at a rate much lower than expected,” said Warm Springs Fish and Wildlife Committee Vice Chairman Leslie Bill, who also urged the state panel to forego the fishery extension.
The IDFG’s Pete Hassemer, too, testified that conservative management is required.
“As each day passes, the uncertainty is becoming a reality,” Hassemer said of the continued low counts. “There aren’t as many fish coming in as we expected.”
The mainstem is now open for salmon and steelhead through May 1 from the Tower Island power lines about six miles below The Dalles Dam upstream to the Oregon/Washington border plus the Oregon and Washington banks from Bonneville Dam to the power lines.
The daily limit for anglers is six hatchery chinook and steelhead with no more than two of the total being adult chinook or steelhead. Only adipose fin-clipped fish may be kept.