Commercial fishers are showing some success at catching American shad this season with both traditional and “experimental” gear on the lower Columbia River despite what has been a relatively meager return of the non-native species from the Pacific Ocean.
Oregon and Washington officials report that commercial fishers had caught about 2,000 shad through June 3 in the 2S area. The fishery is scheduled annually from May 10 through June 20 on the mainstem from Washougal, Wash., up to Beacon Rock, which is four miles downstream of Bonneville Dam. That compares to a total of 2,500 shad (nearly 6,800 pounds) caught last year for the season.
Over the years the 2S fishery has yielded as many as 161,800 pounds of shad (1990) and as few as 1,400 (2009). Over the past five years the catch has dwindled significantly.
Regulations for the Area 2S shad fishery since 1996 have included gear specifications designed to minimize the handling of salmonids such as sockeye salmon and steelhead, whose presence in the river starts to build at this time of the year. Net mesh size restrictions of 5? to 6¼-inches, ten-pound mesh breaking strength, and net not to exceed 40 meshes in depth or 150 fathoms in length are required.
The shallower and shorter nets have proven to substantially reduce the handling of salmonids compared to the gear used in shad fisheries prior to 1996. Only shad may be kept and sold, and all salmon, steelhead, walleye, and sturgeon are required to be released immediately.
The 2010 2S shad catch continued the recent trend of low harvest, due to both poor market value for shad and the lower than usual returns of shad observed in the past few years.
The American shad is a native of eastern North America with a historic range from Florida to Newfoundland. And while populations there are diminished, the fish has gotten a foothold on the West Coast.
The fish were brought west in 1871 by fish culturist Seth Green at the request of the California Fish Commission. Green loaded four eight-gallon milk cans with 12,000 shad fry from a Hudson River hatchery aboard the transcontinental railroad. Stopping in Illinois, Nebraska and Utah for fresh water and cooling ice, he arrived in Sacramento with 10,000 of the young fish still alive.
Many of the fish survived and their progeny eventually sought out new range. The first recorded sighting in the Columbia was in 1876. The American shad can now be found from Baja California, Mexico, to Alaska and has even been spotted across the Bering Strait in Russia.
In recent decades shad returns to the Columbia River have risen to as high as more than 6 million fish in 2004 with 5.4 million of those fish being tallied at Bonneville Dam (river mile 146) on their way to spawning grounds upriver. Bonneville counts since 2004 have stair-stepped downward with a tally of only 1.04 million in 2010.
Counts so far this year are lagging with only 229,223 shad passing over Bonneville’s fish ladders through Thursday. Shad passage at the dam is typically 50 percent complete by about June 12, according to data compiled by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.
Most of the total passage has come over the past week with a surge of more than 44,000 on Tuesday followed by more than 30,000 both Wednesday and Thursday. A commercial fisherman testifying Thursday before the Columbia River Compact said that he caught three times as many fish Wednesday as he had Monday, which he credited to the growing number of shad in the river.
The Compact, which is made up of representatives of the ODFW and WDFW directors, agreed Thursday to extend the 2S shad fishery by four days. Several commercial fishers had requested the extension so that they could continue to feed a budding market for shad as a food fish and for its roe.
“Since shad in the Columbia are non-native and under-utilized, the agencies have encouraged the commercial industry to find viable markets for shad. Availability of shad on the market plays a role in securing buyers for future years,” according to a June 16 ODFW-WDFW fact sheet.
Steelhead and sockeye handling has been and is expected to continue to be minimal, according to the fact sheet. The states, and tribes, are charged with holding down impacts on sockeye and steelhead, which include wild fish that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, crews led by two commercial fishermen are testing purse seine gear in the pursuit of shad as another means of providing fish in the volumes desired by buyers. Bruce Crookshanks of Longview, Wash., and John McKinley of Skamokawa, Wash., this year received permits from the ODFW to test the gear, which is otherwise outlawed on the mainstem Columbia.
Through Wednesday the two purse seiners had hauled in 12,500 pounds of shad. The permits allow shad harvest with purse seines from May 16 through July 15.
ODFW staff will monitor McKinley’s Crookshanks’ fishing activities (effort, catch rates, incidental handling of non-target species such as salmon and steelhead). The data will provide information on the suitability of purse seine gear as a tool for harvesting shad in addition to obtaining information on the catch of other species during the summer time frame.
Lower Columbia treaty tribes also sought and received permission to use experimental gear this year to catch and sell shad from the mainstem Columbia above Bonneville from May 16 through July.
Yakama Nation fishermen aim over time to test purse seines, beach seines, and/or a fish wheel. A fish wheel used previously on the Fraser River in British Columbia has been obtained and is being assembled in the Stanley Rock area near Koberg State Park east of Hood River.
The fish wheel, which like purse seine allows for the capture of the fish relatively unharmed, could be deployed “any day now,” said Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission biologist Stuart Ellis.
“It’s a little doubtful a purse seine would be used this year” by YN fishermen, Ellis said, but that option will likely be explored in the future.
The Umatilla Tribes intent this year to test a drift net with comparable features to shad nets utilized in commercial drift net fisheries downstream of Bonneville Dam