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Spring Chinook Return Expected To Be Large; Wild Component Predicted Above 10-Year Average
Posted on Friday, January 27, 2012 (PST)

There has been a salmon sighting.


The first two upriver spring chinook of the year were counted Wednesday crossing up and over the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam. The counts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ fish ladders included one adult fish and one early-maturing “jack,” that latter being a chinook that returned after one year in the ocean.


A day later, fishery managers and sport and commercial fishers sat in a Portland meeting room discussing how and when the harvest of the prized fish should be apportioned.


The anticipated return of 314,000 “upriver” adult spring chinook salmon to the mouth of the Columbia would be the fourth largest on a record dating back to 1938 when dam counts began. Upriver spring chinook are fish headed for tributary spawning areas and hatcheries above Bonneville Dam (located at river mile 146) in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.


Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon Thursday set sport fishing seasons for spring chinook and white sturgeon on the Columbia mainstem where the river is a shared border. The state officials also approved a plan for managing non-tribal commercial fishing this winter and spring from Bonneville Dam down to the Columbia’s mouth.


Most new fishing sport regulations adopted Thursday will take effect March 1, when fishing for spring chinook and sturgeon starts to heat up on the lower Columbia. The newly adopted season will include a 7-days-a-week boat fishery from Buoy 10 to Beacon Rock, about four miles downstream of Bonneville Dam, through April 6 with three Tuesday closures to allow, potentially, daytime commercial fisheries and reduce sport-commercial conflicts.


The new rule also includes additional opportunity beginning March 1 for bank fishing only from Beacon Rock to Bonneville Dam.


Until then, both fisheries are open on various sections of the river under rules approved last year.


The sport fishery approved Thursday is scheduled to run through April 6 if the catch stays within prescribed limits. It could also be extended if enough fish remain available for harvest within those limits.


Harvest guidelines adopted by the two states will allow anglers fishing below Bonneville Dam to catch and keep up to 14,500 hatchery-reared spring chinook before the run forecast is updated in early May. Fishery managers predict that anglers will take 105,300 salmon fishing trips to the lower river during the March 1-April 6 period.


The overall harvest guideline or allocation for all spring non-tribal sport and commercial would be up to 29,268 upriver chinook during the spring period that ends June 15 if the run comes in as predicted. The spring chinook run has in recent years reached peak numbers in late April or early May.


Upriver fish bound for rivers above the dam are expected to make up the majority of the catch, but salmon returning to the Cowlitz, Lewis, Willamette and other rivers below Bonneville also contribute to the fishery. The preseason forecast is for an overall spring chinook return to the river of 414,500 adult fish, including lower river returns to tributaries such as the Willamette, Sandy, Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis and so-called “select areas.”


The upriver run’s foundation is the Snake River spring/chinook stock. A total of 168,000 Snake River fish are expected to return to the mouth of the Columbia River. That estimate includes 39,000 wild spring/summer chinook, fish that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. That would be the fourth highest return on record, behind only the glory years of 2001-2003 when a combination of forces in freshwater and the ocean enabled wild returns ranging from 51,000 to 63,000. The overall wild count had dipped as low as 3,339 in 1995; the stock was listed in 1992.


The forecast for adult Upper Columbia spring chinook adult return is 32,600 and includes 2,800 wild fish. The overall return is 166 percent of the recent 10-year average; the wild component represents 141 percent. The Upper Columbia wild fish are listed as endangered under the ESA. The wild count slipped to a low of 255 in 1995, prompting the ESA’s most protective designation in 1999.


As in years past, only hatchery-reared spring chinook marked with a clipped adipose fin may be retained by anglers. Any unmarked, potentially wild spring chinook must be released unharmed.  


Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said this year’s spring chinook fishery looks promising, especially compared to last season.


"Not only is the run forecast well above average, but fishing conditions should be a lot better than last year when anglers had to contend with weeks of high, turbid water," LeFleur said.


Spring chinook fishing is currently open to boat and bank anglers on a daily basis from Buoy 10 near the mouth of the Columbia River upstream to the Interstate 5 bridge (river mile 106.5) at Portland.


Starting March 1, bank anglers will also be allowed to fish from Beacon Rock up to the fishing boundary below Bonneville Dam.


Above Bonneville Dam, the fishery will be open to boat and bank anglers on a daily basis from March 16 through May 2 between the Tower Island powerlines six miles below The Dalles Dam and the Washington/Oregon state line, 17 miles upriver from McNary Dam. Bank anglers can also fish from Bonneville Dam upriver to the powerlines during that time.


Starting March 1, anglers fishing downriver from Bonneville Dam may retain one marked, hatchery-reared adult spring chinook as part of their daily catch limit. Above the dam, anglers can keep two marked adult spring chinook per day effective March 16.


This year’s forecast of 314,200 upriver spring chinook is up significantly from 2011, when 198,400 upriver fish were projected to enter the Columbia River. Although last year’s run exceeded that forecast, extremely high water conditions put a damper on catch rates for much of the season.


To guard against overestimating this year’s run, the states will again manage the fisheries with a 30 percent buffer until the forecast is updated in late April or early May.


The Columbia River Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fisheries, on Thursday also approved a commercial management plan for 2012 on the lower river that could start as early as mid-February if test fishing shows the right mix of fish (relatively low presence of winter steelhead, which are also ESA protected, and reasonable numbers of salmon). Once the winter-spring season begins, managers expect to schedule commercial fisheries on Tuesdays, and possibly on Thursdays.


Under a management matrix that apportions harvest according to the size of the run, the commercial gill-net fleet would be allocated 5,900 spring chinook (kept catch plus post-release mortalities) prior to the early May run-size update. Commercial fishers must also release unmarked spring chinook. Certain mortalities are assumed among those released fish for both commercial and sport fishers.


Under the management agreement now in place non-tribal sport and commercial harvests are allowed up to a 2.2 percent impact on the upriver spring salmon given the predicted size of the run and tribal fishers are allowed 10.8 percent.


Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon have already scheduled a meeting April 5 to review the catch and determine if the lower Columbia (below Bonneville) season can be extended. If the catch to that point has not reached the initial harvest guideline, the two states will consider an immediate extension, LeFleur said.


"We’ve agreed to take a conservative approach until May, when we typically know how many fish are actually returning," Le Fleur said. "If the fish return at or above expectations, we will look toward providing additional days of fishing on the river later in the spring."


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