Both sport and commercial fishermen continue to get a bite at the apple as fishery managers await what they still believe will be a relatively high return of upriver spring chinook salmon to the Columbia-Snake river system.
Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon on Thursday approved an eight-day extension of the spring chinook fishing season on the lower Columbia mainstem based on catch reports that show current harvest levels remain well below expectations and catch allocations, and the fact that a Tuesday commercial season indicates that more adult fish -- spawners -- indeed are present in the lower river.
The fishery was initially scheduled to close at the end of the day Friday, April 13.
Steve Williams ODFW assistant administrator for Columbia River Fisheries, reminded anglers there probably will not be another season extension until after managers can update the run forecast in mid-May.
“With fish passage at Bonneville Dam well behind expectations, we’ll be hesitant to extend the season further until we have a better idea on how the run is progressing,” he said.
The upriver spring chinook return – predicted in preseason to be 314,200 adult fish – has been slow to materialize, as has been the case in recent years. As of Wednesday a total of only 138 adults spring chinook salmon had been counted climbing up and over the fish ladders at the lower Columbia’s Bonneville. Upriver spring chinook, which typically make up the super-majority of the spring chinook spawning run, are fish that originated in tributary spawning grounds and hatcheries above Bonneville. Wild Snake River and Upper Columbia stocks are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
That April 11 cumulative count is the lowest since 2006 when the tally was 135 and 2005 when the total was 143 so far that season. The actual return to the mouth of the Columbia, which is about 146 river miles downstream, was 132,600 in 2006 and 106,900 in 2005.
But predicting the run’s size, and the timing of their surge upriver, can be tricky. Last year, only 709 upriver spring chinook adult fish had been counted at Bonneville through April 11. But the overall run size that year ultimately was judged to be 221,200.
The sport fishery had been extended from today’s planned end-of-the-day closure through next weekend. The extension through April 22 is intended to allow anglers to catch more hatchery-reared fish available for harvest. Angers can catch and keep hatchery fish, which are in large part marked with a clipped adipose fin, but must release unmarked fish, most of which are presumed to be wild, protected salmon.
During the extended fishing period, the sport fishery will be closed Tuesday, April 17, to accommodate a possible commercial fishery.
Cindy Le Fleur, Columbia River policy manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said poor river conditions continue to delay the run and make angling for difficult. That has resulted in low catch rates for anglers. A WDFW report based on April 2-8 angler surveys said that the catch rate for the period was 12.7 fish per rod, the worst catch rate for the 2000-2012 period. Last year, which also was highlighted by extremely high flows, the catch rate was 10.5. The next lowest catch rate for the 12-year period was 5.9 chinook per rod in 2009.
Fishery managers are hoping that large numbers of fish are waiting for the right conditions to make the spawning run.
A Tuesday commercial fishery might have shown hints of what’s to come. Preliminary landings reports from a six-hour fishery in the lower river (Bonneville to the mouth) were at 3,560, with 32 percent of the catch in Zone 1 (the lower river estuary). That total included both upriver and lower river spring chinook.
“That’s a good sign for fish coming into the river,” the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s John North said during a Thursday joint Oregon-Washington state hearing to discuss the sport fishery extension. He also said that NOAA Fisheries test fishing in the estuary for research purposes also showed relatively high catch rates.
"We have scheduled another meeting April 19 to further discuss the season," Le Fleur said of the sport fishery. "But we really need to start seeing higher numbers of fish make their way upriver before we can consider any additional fishing opportunities in late April."
Lower Columbia River treaty tribes, which fish for the most part above Bonneville, urged caution in testimony Monday to the Columbia River Compact and at Thursday’s sport hearing. The Compact, comprised of ODFW and WDFW officials, sets the mainstem commercial fisheries.
“We don’t want to see intense lower river fisheries that will affect our fisheries in Zone 6,” according to a statement from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission read during Thursdays hearing by Bruce Jim. “So far, we have only harvested a very small number of fish. Had the states chosen to not catch so many fish in lower river fisheries, some of those fish would surely have passed Bonneville which would have helped our early ceremonial fisheries.”
“If the upriver fish start to show up in numbers that increase our confidence that we will get a good return this year, then our concerns about the non-treaty fisheries will be reduced. But until that time, we want the states to show increased conservatism and delay any further fisheries in the Lower Columbia River,” The CRITFC statement says. CRITFC represents the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes.
The extension does not affect spring chinook fisheries under way above Bonneville Dam.
Anglers fishing downriver from the dam may retain one marked, adult hatchery chinook per day. All wild chinook salmon must be released immediately.
Through April 13, the catch of hatchery spring chinook by anglers fishing below the dam is projected to reach 2,837 fish - well below the 14,500 spring chinook available for harvest before the run forecast is updated in May. That allocation is based on the preseason forecast
Only about 1,908 of the sport catch through April 13 are expected to count toward the 12,700-fish harvest guideline for upriver fish.
The pre-season forecast of 314,200 upriver spring chinook would be the fourth-largest run on record.
Along with the eight additional fishing days in April, lower-river anglers could get another chance to catch spring chinook in May, once fishery managers update the run forecast. To guard against overestimating this year’s run, Le Fleur said the states are managing spring chinook fisheries with a 30 percent buffer until the May update.
The commercial fleet in two outings on the lower river – 12- and 6-hour fisheries have netted a total of 6,030 spring chinook salmon, including both upriver and downriver fish such as Willamette stocks, according to the states’ preliminary estimates. That catch is considerably better than 2011 when the gill-netters corralled 2,006 chinook during March 29 and April 6 fisheries, according to data posted by the ODFW.