With the upriver spring chinook season showing considerable strength, fishery managers from Washington and Oregon on May 13 decided to reopen the popular sport fishery on the lower Columbia River mainstem through June 15.
And commercial fishers got another opportunity to harvest the prized springers with the approval of a fishery that was carried out from 5 p.m. Wednesday to 5 a.m. Thursday from the Columbia’s confluence with the Willamette at Portland down to the river mouth.
Starting this past Sunday, boat and bank anglers can fish for hatchery-reared spring chinook salmon from Rocky Point/Tongue Point near Astoria, Ore., upriver to Beacon Rock. Bank fishing will also be allowed four miles farther upriver to the fishing boundary below Bonneville Dam.
Salmonid catch rates were fair to good for the re-opening weekend of spring chinook season, said Oregon and Washington fishery managers. On the lower Columbia there were 403 salmon boats, and 287 Oregon bank anglers were counted during Sunday’s survey flight.
The spring sport season had been closed April 20, and gill netters docked, until fishery managers were sure impacts during the season to-date on the upriver portion of the spring chinook run were within prescribed limits. Allocations for various fisheries are based on the percentage of upriver impacts. According to a management plan matrix, each share (tribal and non-Indian sport and commercial) becomes larger if run-size estimates increases to certain levels..
The first run-size update is done when the federal, state and tribal officials that make up the Technical Advisory Team decide half of the run has passed over Bonneville, which is located 147 river miles upstream from the mouth. Dam counts are a key deciding a run’s strength.
Upriver spring chinook are those headed for hatcheries and tributary spawning grounds above Bonneville and include wild Snake River and Upper Columbia stocks that are protected under Endangered Species Act.
TAC updated the run forecast on May 9 by saying it appeared to be on target to match the preseason estimate of 198,400 adult upriver spring chinook at the Columbia River mouth. TAC met again on May 11 after another two days of counts of nearly 10,000 adults and upgraded the estimate to 210,000. TAC met again Monday after five more days of strong counts. The members did not reach an agreement on the run-size update so they chose to present a range of 217,000 to 237,000 fish at the river mouth.
The update to a run of 217,000 pushed the non-tribal allocation up a notch, from 1.9 percent of the upriver run to 2 percent which amounts to a jump in allowed mortality (harvest plus estimated release mortality) for non-tribal sport and commercial fisheries from 19,110 to 21,700 upriver spring chiniook.
Through Tuesday the spring chinook count totaled 154,030 adult fish, which is slightly higher than the 153,437-fish 10-year average through May 17. The past 10 years have included final run-sizes that include the all-time record dating back to 1938 – 416,550 adult upriver spring chinook to the mouth – in 2001 and a low of 86,200 in 2007. Last year’s return totaled 315,300.
A remarkable tally this year at Bonneville is a count of 32,413 through May 17, which is already the second highest on record for an entire season. The top count was 66,613 in 2009, according to data compiled by the Fish Passage Center. Next highest on a record dating back to 1960, until this year, was an annual jack count of 21,259 in 2000.
The adult spring chinook are getting closer to their destination. Through Tuesday a total of 22,286 had reached Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington. Lower Granite is the eighth dam they pass on their way to tributary streams in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Counts there ranged from 2,078 to 3,700 adult fish between May 9 and this past Sunday.
The counts of course don’t include approximately 10,000 upriver fish caught in tribal and non-Indian harvests in the lower river or the nearly 2,000 salmon observed taken in the area just below Bonneville taken by preying pinnipeds.
“For the first time since 2007, we have a run update that is going to let us open a late-spring chinook season,” said Chris Kern, assistant manger of ODFW’s Columbia River Fisheries Program. “This also allows us to get an early start on fishing for summer steelhead between the I-5 Bridge and Bonneville. That area doesn’t usually open until June 16.”
Anglers can retain one hatchery-reared adult chinook salmon as part of their daily limit. All chinook not marked as hatchery fish by a clipped adipose fin must be released unharmed. Most of the unmarked fish are presumed to be of wild origin.
In areas open to spring chinook fishing, anglers may also retain sockeye salmon and hatchery steelhead.
"The fish took their time moving upriver, but they’re making up for it now," Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said of rise in the number of salmon climbing over Bonneville since late April. "This opening will give anglers another chance to catch spring chinook on the lower river."
Under the updated run forecast, anglers fishing below Bonneville Dam can catch up to 3,800 more upriver spring chinook as of last Friday, including some still available from the initial fishing season that ended April 19, according to the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife. That total of fish available for harvest is now higher, given this week’s run-size forecast increase. Representatives of the two state agencies convene to set both sport and commercial fisheries on the mainstem where the Columbia is their shared border.
The late timing of this year’s run, together with cold, turbid water conditions, held the total catch during the early fishery below the area harvest guideline.
Additional fish also became available to anglers when fishery managers lifted a 30 percent "buffer" on the pre-season forecast, designed as a safeguard against overharvesting the run. Now that the run forecast has been raised, those fish are available for harvest.
"The surge of fish that contributed to the new forecast provides a lot more certainty in setting fishing seasons on the Columbia River," LeFleur said. She said that the decision to reopen the spring chinook fishery on the lower river does not apply to waters above Bonneville Dam or to the Snake River, at least not yet. The state agencies will meet next week to decide if additional openers are warranted during the spring season, which ends June 15.
The Columbia River fishery above Bonneville Dam closed May 10 after anglers reached their catch allocation under the new run forecast. On the Snake River, spring chinook fishing will close below Ice Harbor Dam May 14 and on the rest of the river May 16. There, too, anglers are expected to reach their current catch allocation after a stretch of good fishing.
"We may consider reopening fisheries in those areas if strong returns of spring chinook salmon keep bumping up the run forecast," LeFleur said. "But that will be a separate decision."