Early forecasts by fishery officials predict strong Columbia-Snake river salmon returns almost across the board in 2012. And in the case of sockeye and summer chinook, record runs are predicted.
The 2010 sockeye return of nearly 388,000 adult fish was the largest on record since completion in 1938 of construction of Bonneville Dam, where fish are tallied as they climb over the fish ladders.
A Technical Advisory Committee forecast completed last week predicts that late next summer as many as 462,000 sockeye salmon spawners will return to the mouth on their way to, primarily, the Okanogan River drainage and its Oosyos Lake, which straddles the central Washington-British Columbia border.
“It’s hard for me to see how we’re not going to have a big run,” said Jeff Fryer, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission researcher who prepared the sockeye forecast. The 2012 prediction is for a return of 431,300 sockeye spawners to the Okanogan; 28,800 to central Washington’s Wenatchee River basin; and 1,900 to the Snake River. The Wenatchee, Okanogan and Snake all feed into the Columbia.
A record number of 2-year-old smolts, 8.7 million, headed down the Okanogan toward the ocean in 2010, according to Canadian estimates. That was four times the previous high from 2003-2010, Fryer said.
And a total of 32,900 sockeye “jacks” from that 2010 outmigration returned last year, according to Fryer’s estimates. That’s nearly double the previous high in 2008, which returned a then-record 308,000 Okanogan 4-year-olds in 2010. Jacks are 3-year-old fish that spent just one year in the ocean. The 2012 forecast is for a return of 421,500 two-ocean Okanogan sockeye salmon.
“Ocean conditions over the past two years have been in the average range so I see no reason why we should not have record returns of Okanogan two-ocean fish this year…, according to Fryer’s sockeye forecast memorandum. Two-ocean, 4-year-old sockeye typically make up about 80 percent of the Okanogan run.
“There seems to be a pretty good relationship between jacks and the two-ocean fish,” Fryer said of using jacks from one year as a primary indictor of the number of 4-year-olds that will return the following year.
“Although in recent years I have been reluctant to forecast runs as large as my data suggests, this year I am pretty comfortable with a high forecast in the 400,000-500,000 range.
TAC felt the same way about the Upper Columbia summer chinook stock, which also returned a strong jack class this year,
“We’re predicting a record return of summer chinook” to the mouth of the Columbia,” according to CRITFC biologist Stuart Ellis, who is a TAC member. TAC, made up of federal, state and tribal fisheries experts, produces salmon and steelhead forecasts during the preseason and in-season. “It’ll be a big run.”
The 2012 forecast is for a return of 91,200 Upper Columbia summer chinook. The previous high on a record dating back to 1980 was 80,600 this past summer.
Upper Columbia River summer chinook are destined for spawning areas and hatcheries upstream of Priest Rapids Dam. Upper Columbia summer chinook are not ESA-listed, and the population is currently considered healthy.
Hatchery supplementation programs and improved natural habitat have played a significant role in what have increased Upper Columbia summer chinook abundance trends observed since 1999 according the “2011 Joint Staff Report: Stock Status and Fisheries for Spring Chinook, Summer Chinook, Sockeye, Steelhead, and Other Species, and Miscellaneous Regulations,” which is produced by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.
The average run size during the 2000s was 59,800 adults, which was three times greater than the average run size of the 1980s and four times greater than the average run size of the 1990s. Since 2002, the majority of the hatchery production has been mass-marked with an adipose fin clip. Natural-spawning populations also contribute significantly to the run.
The upper Columbia sockeye stocks (Okanogan and Wenatchee) are considered healthy populations and are not listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Historically, the Wenatchee return was similar in abundance to the Okanogan return. But since 2006, with unprecedented large returns, the Wenatchee stock has represented less than 20 percent of the upper Columbia return, according to the staff report.
A small remnant population of the Snake River sockeye returns to Redfish Lake in central Idaho after swimming up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. Production is maintained through a captive brood program and most returning adults are progeny of this program. The Snake River stock was federally-listed as endangered in November 1991.
During the 1990s the number of sockeye returning to the Snake River basin averaged 12 fish per year. During 2000-2007, Snake River sockeye returns improved, but remained severely depressed averaging less than 100 fish annually. Since 2008 the Snake River sockeye return has improved steadily, likely a result of improved passage conditions and increases in production
Sockeye salmon migrate through the lower Columbia River during June and July, with normal peak passage at Bonneville Dam around July 1.