Thanks to a big burst of salmon swimming up and over Bonneville Dam in recent days, Columbia River anglers will have at least additional four days to catch spring chinook on the mainstem from the hydro project up to the Oregon/Washington border under a re-opened season adopted Wednesday by fishery managers from Oregon and Washington.
The mainstem Columbia above Bonneville had closed to sport salmon and steelhead fishing at the end of the day Tuesday as a precaution -- to assure non-tribal harvests did not surpass preset management guidelines. The same can be said for the lower 146 miles of river from Bonneville to the mouth, where fishing ended April 20, and for commercial fishers, whose last outing was April 6.
Harvests are kept at levels that are intended to limit impacts on wild portions of the Upper Columbia and Snake River “upriver” spring chinook stocks that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Upriver spring chinook are those on run toward hatcheries and tributary spawning grounds upstream of Bonneville.
Existing agreements, and an ESA harvest biological opinion, outline the allowed incidental “take” of wild fish in tribal and non-tribal fisheries. The returns to the basin are dominated by hatchery fish that are produced in large part to fuel harvests.
Early non-Indian harvests have been held to 70 percent or less of spring season allocation, which is based projections of the upriver spring chinook run size, to ensure take limits are not breached before the run strength can be re-evaluatedd. Management is also geared to make sure that the tribal share of the overall harvest guideline escapes to above Bonneville, where most of the tribal fishing takes place. The largest share of the non-Indian harvest takes place in the lower river.
Under the extension approved this week, the spring sport season in the 163.5 miles of river above Bonneville will re-open from Saturday, May 7 through Tuesday May 10 above Bonneville dam.
The extension was approved based on harvest estimates that projected a harvest of about 450 spring chinook through May 1, compared to a harvest guideline of 1,000 fish available for mainstem above Bonneville prior to a run-size update. Such updates are generally produced near the point when fishery officials estimate that 50 percent of the upriver run has passed Bonneville.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Cindy LeFleur said Wednesday that the Technical Advisory Committee would likely produce an update when the panel next meets on Monday. LeFleur chairs TAC, which produces a variety of run forecasts and updates throughout the year. The committee’s membership includes federal, state and tribal representatives.
“We’ve had good dam counts recently that give us some comfort that the run is on the way as forecast,” said Chris Kern, assistant fisheries manager of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Columbia River Program.
The number of upriver spring chinook had been, in relative terms, languishing. The total count at Bonneville’s fish ladders through April 24 was only 4,884 adult fish. That was the second lowest total through that date since at least 1970. The lowest total through that date was in 2006.
But a surge since then that included the highest daily count – 15,766 – since 2002 has boosted the overall count and the spirits of anglers and fishery managers. The big count was recorded Sunday was followed by 8,402 Monday and 9,832 Tuesday to bring the overall count to 68,752. The rally helped the 2011 run to leapfrog counts through May 3 in 2005-2009.
Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife staffs estimate that, based on the recent five-year average, which includes four late-timed years, a run would typically would be about 35 percent complete, in terms of Bonneville passage, through May 3. The preseason forecast, which will soon be updated, was for a return of 198,400 adult spring chinook to the mouth of the river. About 11,000 upriver spring have been caught so far this year in sport and commercial fisheries in the lower river.
"We haven’t done an official run update yet, but the recent dam counts are strong enough to allow anglers four more days of fishing and still remain within the current buffered harvest guideline for the area," said LeFleur the WDFW’s Columbia River policy coordinator.
The final run-size estimates in those five years ranged from 132,583 to 315,345, with the exception of an adult return of 86,247 in 2007. The big return was last year, the only year in the past five that produced a higher Bonneville count total through May 3.
The daily bag limit in this area is two adipose fin-clipped adult salmon or steelhead in combination, and up to five adipose fin-clipped jack salmon per day.
Above Bonneville Dam, fishing for hatchery-reared spring chinook salmon will be open to boat and bank anglers between the Tower Island powerlines below The Dalles Dam and the Washington/Oregon state line, 17 miles upriver from McNary Dam. Bank fishing is also allowed from Bonneville Dam upriver to the powerlines located about 6 miles below The Dalles Dam. Angling for salmon and steelhead from a boat between Bonneville Dam and the Tower Island power linesis prohibited. However, bank angling is allowed in this area.
Salmon fishing below Bonneville Dam remains closed at this time.
Harvest guidelines for spring chinook fisheries above and below Bonneville Dam are based on a projected return of 198,400 upriver fish, minus a 30 percent "buffer" to guard against overestimating the run.
LeFleur said additional fishing time may be allowed in both areas if a run update confirms that returns are large enough to allow more harvest by non-Indian fishers.
“I think this is a first step,” said the WDFW’s Guy Norman, who represented his agency at Wednesday’s joint state sport fishing hearing. He and the ODFW’s Tony Nigro said they were encouraged by the high dam counts, wish pushing toward levels that would allow more fishing and guarantee that the tribes can get their allocation.
“It appears like we’re going to have additional opportunity” for lower river anglers as well, Norman said.