The Columbia River Compact on Thursday approved additional tribal and non-Indian commercial fishing time with the anticipation that a lower river logjam of fall chinook in the lower Columbia River will break loose and head upstream.
The non-tribal commercial catch of fall chinook so far this season has been much less than predicted. With five nine-hour outings on the books and another just completed early this morning on the lower Columbia (the 146 miles from Bonneville Dam down to the river mouth), the gill-net fleet will have caught an estimated 9,905 fall chinook. That would be 8,900 less than they were expected to catch during that period, according to projections made by the Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife staffs.
Five of the six fisheries were conducted in the two fishing zones closest to Bonneville to ensure a minimal impact on lower Columbia River natural tule fall chinook, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The overall fall chinook return, however, is dominated by fish headed upstream of Bonneville. The preseason forecast is for a return of 390,900 upriver bright fall chinook and 116,400 Bonneville pool hatchery tule fall chinook, both of which would be similar to the 10-year average.
But they have yet to make made a big push upriver. Through Wednesday 29,190 adult fall chinook had been counted passing Bonneville, as compared to 27,092 through that date last year and a 10-year average of 25,395. Based on a 10-year average timing curve, typically 8 percent of the bright chinook and 5 percent of the tules will have passed over Bonneville by this point in time. Fifty percent passage on average is completed by Sept. 7
Signs are good, however.
“Buoy 10 fishing took off last week” and that spiking angler success has continued this week, the WDFW’s Robin Ehlke told the Compact, which is made up of representatives of ODFW and WDFW directors. The panel sets mainstem Columbia commercial season.
Angler effort increased dramatically last week in the area from the river mouth upstream to just above Astoria, Ore., and the catch jumped even more so. During the week of Aug. 8-14, 3,502 sport fishers caught 548 chinook. Last week the number of angler trips almost quadrupled to 12,299, but the catch was almost eight times higher at 4,280 than the previous week.
Commercial fishermen based in the lower estuary said that the upriver fish are biding their time.
“We’re not going to get any large movement until we get a change in the weather,” said Jack Marinkovich. The warm days and clear days are stalling the fish, he said. And gill-netter Les Clark agreed.
“The slow fishing to this date I attribute to the dry weather,” Clark said of the relatively light commercial catch thus far in the two upstream zones.
Astoria-based Jim Wells likewise said the dam was about to burst.
“It’s been unbelievable, the sport fishing down here,” he said, adding that the catch rate right now in the lowest part of the river is world class.
“Alaska can’t compete, British Columbia can’t compete,” Wells said.
Panel members Bill Tweit of the WDFW and Steve Williams of ODFW on Thursday made decisions to expand the commercial opportunities both above Bonneville for the tribes and below the dam for the non-tribal fleet.
The Compact late last month had approved the six nine-hour outings for the non-tribal fishers, but withheld a decision on two late August fisheries. On Thursday the panel approved those two outings, one to start at 9 p.m. Sunday and the other to start Tuesday night.
The projected catch is 10,000 to 20,000 chinook. Even at the upper end of that range the total catch would remain well within an August allocation of 42,600 fall chinook. Allocations are based on the expected size of the run.
Williams, acting for the state of Oregon, approved an expansion by two hours of nightly commercial fisheries (24 nights in all) scheduled in Youngs Bay near Astoria between Sept. 19 and Oct. 28. Youngs Bay is a so-called “select area” off the mainstem.
Fishers from the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes on Monday launched the first of three scheduled 3½-day fisheries in the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day reservoirs and are also seeing a smaller catch than expected.
So the tribes requested that the fisheries scheduled during the next two weeks each be expanded by a day.
“The planned fisheries are well within the allowed harvest rate based on the preseason forecast and are expected to be low enough to allow the tribes to adjust subsequent openings if the run sizes should be less than forecast,” according to a tribal fact sheet prepared for the hearing. The Compact approved the two additional fishing days.
The tribes may sell or retain for subsistence use salmon, coho, steelhead, walleye, shad, yellow perch, bass, catfish and carp.
The tribal sales allow the public to purchase salmon and steelhead and directly from tribal fishers. Fish are available now, but the chinook run should peak in the tribal fishing areas about the second week of September.
“The tribal fall fisheries season is very important to tribal fishing families and provides an important economic benefit to communities along the river,” said Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “The fall fishery is often viewed as the backbone for the tribes’ fishing economy because of its reliability.
Common locations for over-the-bank sales include: Marine Park in Cascade Locks, Lone Pine in The Dalles, North Bonneville - one mile east of Bonneville Dam, and Columbia Point in Washington's Tri-Cities area.
Many of the fish available for sale to the public are the result of tribal and joint state/tribal programs designed to increase the abundance of salmon and steelhead in upriver areas.
The public is urged to call the salmon marketing program at (888) 289-1855 before heading up the river to find out where the day’s catch is being sold. More information is available on the salmon marketing website http://www.critfc.org/harvest.