Catch rates have improved for both sport and commercial fisheries but apprehension over what appears to be a late arriving, or light, spring chinook salmon run to the Columbia-Snake river system has forced state managers to pause at least until a run-size estimate can be recalculated in early May.
Oregon and Washington fishery managers met Monday and opted to forestall further commercial fishing activity on the lower Columbia (the 146 miles from Bonneville Dam down to the river mouth). And during a Thursday session they decided not to extend again the lower river sport fishery beyond this coming weekend. The fishing season had been scheduled to end April 7 but was stretched to the 13th and last week managers decided to add on another 10 days to allow fishing through this coming weekend with a closure set Monday.
Based on the preseason forecast of a return of 314,200 “upriver” spring chinook salmon to the mouth of the river, lower river anglers could be at about 88 percent of their “pre-update” harvest allocation by Monday, according to estimates by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife staff.
The guess is that 11,129 upriver fish mortalities – spring chinook bound for spawning areas and hatcheries above Bonneville – will be in hand by the end of the weekend. That is compared to the 12,700 fish allocation for the early season – a “buffered” total that represents 70 percent of the allowable lower river sport harvest for the entire season, again based on that preseason forecast. The spring season ends June 15.
The buffer is in place to help assure that harvests stay within allowable limits intended to protect portions of the run that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Wild Snake River and Upper Columbia stocks are designated for protection under the ESA.
Once 50 percent of the run has passed Bonneville, which typically occurs in early May, fishery managers can better assess the magnitude of the upriver run, and how many fish are available for harvest. Most of the returning fish, 80 percent or more by most estimates, are hatchery fish produced expressly for harvest.
Bonneville Dam counts have been lagging this year, with only 1,079 adult fish accounted for through Wednesday. Based on the recent 5-year average 6 percent of the year’s run will have passed Bonneville by April 18.
“It is too early in the run to make any conclusion regarding run size; however, passage to date is less than expected,” according to an April 19 Joint Staff Report prepared by the ODFW and WDFW for a Thursday meeting called to discuss sport fishing options. ODFW and WDFW representatives at the meeting, Steve Williams and Guy Norman, chose to stall the lower river sport season to await the early May run-size update.
Both Williams and Norman said they were encouraged by escalating catch rates both in the commercial and sport fisheries, an indication that more spawners were pouring into the river from the Pacific. Higher than normal flows and cooler than normal water temperatures are believed to be causing delays in the fishes’ upriver urges.
“Catch rates began to increase last Friday as river conditions improved,” the staff report says. “Almost 60 percent of last week’s catch occurred over the weekend (April 14-15), when the river-wide catch rate averaged 0.5 chinook kept per boat.” Fishers must release unmarked fish, most of which are presumed to be wild. A high percentage of hatchery fish are marked with a clipped adipose fin.
“Catch rates continued to escalate on Monday (April 16) and Wednesday (April 18) when catch rates exceeded one fish per boat, with effort higher than the recent weekend.”
If catch rates continue to increase and effort approaches record highs (6,000 boats), the projected kept catch could reach 10,975 and include 9,260 upriver mortalities (kept plus post-release mortalities) for a season total of 12,434, or 98 percent of the pre-update guideline.
A Sunday commercial “test” fishery in the lower river estuary yielded perhaps the most promising results yet that spring chinook are making a strong, though late, surge into the river. The catch per drift was 12.1 chinook, as opposed to a high of 3.8 in previous full fleet and test fisheries this spring.
Fishery managers selected not, however, to allow lower river commercial fishing beyond the two periods approved earlier this year. Those outings April 3 and April 10 yielded a total of 6,179 chinook. That total included an estimated 4,366 upriver mortalities, which amounts to 74 percent of the mainstem commercial fishery’s pre-update allocation.
In both cases fishery managers have said that further fisheries are possible after the run-size update.
“There have been pretty good catch rates for the length of the lower river,” Williams said. That indicates a swelling presence of fish turning into the river from the ocean.
“We’re starting to see fish materialize in the catch,” Williams said. “I’m optimistic based on what we’ve seen.”
Norman said that the “upriver proportion of the catch has also increased dramatically” in recent days, which is an indication that that segment of the run is also budding. The ODFW’s John North told those participating in Thursday’s hearing that the portion of the catch over the past week was 83 percent upriver fish, as compared to 60 percent earlier in April.
Upriver fishers again urged caution in the setting of lower river fisheries.
“Our tribes have only caught 27 salmon so far,” said Bruce Jim, who represented the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commissions four member tribes – the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama. Those four treaty tribes, for the most part, catch most of their allocation above Bonneville. Their harvest is earmarked for ceremonial and subsistence as well as commercial purposes.
“Our people are suffering,” Jim said of upriver fishing efforts that have cost much, in terms of gas and other expenses, and produced little.
“Hold back on the fishing,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt the sport fishermen to be off the river for a while. They have all year to fish.”