Salmon savants – those charged with predicting adult fish returns -- are having to go back to the drawing board these days with the spawners stalling, teasing, tantalizing and most recently…overwhelming counters on the lower Columbia River.
Wednesday’s upriver spring chinook salmon count at Bonneville Dam was 18,436, the fifth largest daily count since at least 1970, and perhaps as far back as 1938, according to Stuart Ellis, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission biologist.
The high daily counts were just over 27,000 and 19,000 in mid-April 2001; and 25,000 and 21,000 toward the end of April 2002. Those years produced the highest upriver spring chinook count on record, 416,500 adult spawners in 2001, and the third highest, 295,100, in 2002.
Wednesday’s count follows one of 12,000 Tuesday, and more than 9,000 Monday after counts had been really spare through the first part of the season.
The Thursday count did fall off, however, with 7,200 counted at Bonneville to bring the season’s adult spring chinook count to 89,063.
The “upriver” spring chinook are stocks that are headed for hatcheries and spawning grounds above Bonneville, which is located at about river mile 146. They include wild stocks from the Upper Columbia and Snake River that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The 2011 upriver spring chinook return to the Columbia River mouth totaled 221,200 adult. That return included 127,500 (31,600 wild) adult Snake River spring/summer chinook and 16,500 (2,200 wild) adult upper Columbia spring Chinook. The remainder of the run was destined for tributaries in the mid-Columbia.
The 2011 upriver spring chinook return was very similar to the 198,400 fish forecasted. The aggregate return was similar to (99 percent) the recent ten-year average (2001-2010) of 222,900 adults, and the sixth highest since at least 1980, according to Jan. 20’s Joint State Staff Report prepared by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.
The Snake River spring/summer return was 108 percent of the 10-year average and also the sixth highest return since at least 1980. The Snake River wild component was 98 percent of average and the sixth highest return since 1980. The upper Columbia spring chinook return was only 71 percent of the recent 10-year average and much less than the return observed just one year prior.
Through Saturday, counts of “upriver” spring chinook salmon passing over the lower Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam were abysmal – with fewer than 40,000 cumulatively seen passing through the fish ladders. Even in recent years of early timed runs, the upriver run has usually reached its 50 percent passage point by May 6.
The preseason forecast, based in large part on last year’s second highest ever return of “jacks,” was for an overall return of 314,200 adult upriver spring chinook – the fourth largest since 1980 -- to the mouth of the Columbia River.
Nearly 51,000 spring chinook jacks – early returning fish that have spent only one year in the ocean – were counted at Bonneville last year. High jack counts have generally portended high returns when older broodmates return to begin their spawning run a year or two after the jacks of their class.
The record high jack count was 66,600 in 2009, which was a foreshadowing of a return of 315,300 adult spring chinook spawners to the mouth of the Columbia in 2010. That was the third highest return in recent history.
“Peaking this late… this is something new,” Ellis said of a trend that started about eight years ago and seems to be settling in.
The U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee met Monday to review the status of the upriver spring chinook run and decided that the run will not meet the preseason forecast of 314,200 at the river mouth and that the run is late timed.
The recent 5-year and 10-year average dates by which 50 percent of the run has passed Bonneville is May 7 and May 6. That’s more than a week later than the prior average of April 29. TAC, made up of federal, state and tribal officials, annually makes salmon and steelhead return forecasts and updates those predictions as the season progresses. For upriver runs those forecasts rely in large part on dam passage counts.
The total upriver chinook catch in all treaty Indian fisheries through May 6 is 8,487 fish, all in subsistence fisheries. A final upriver run size of 109,000 would be needed to keep that catch total within “impact” limits ( 8.3 percent) through May 6 on upriver fish agreed to under a long-term harvest management agreement between the states and tribes.
The projected tribal catch estimate of upriver spring chinook from treaty Indian fisheries through May 11 totals 11,000 fish. A final upriver run size of 132,500 would be required to remain within impact limitations for fisheries projected through May 11.
So far this season two non-tribal, mainstem commercial salmon fishing periods (18 hours combined) have been implemented on the lower Columbia (below Bonneville Dam). Landings include 6,179 chinook. Upriver chinook mortalities total 4,318 fish, compared to the 5,900 or 73 percent of the allocation, based on the preseason run-size forecast, for the fisheries.
The lower Columbia River recreational fishery was open through Sunday April 22 with an estimated catch of 11,826 “kept” adult fish from 106,400 angler trips. Anglers could keep hatchery fish marked with a clipped adipose fin but must release unmarked, potentially wild, chinook.
Fishery officials estimate that the upriver chinook impact, which includes kept fish and release mortalities of upriver fish, is estimated at 8,922 fish, or 70 percent of the 12,700 available based on preseason forecast. The harvest allocations will be adjusted based on run-size forecast updates, the first of which is likely to occur next week.
The recreational fishery from Bonneville Dam upstream to the Oregon/Washington border was open March 16 through May 6. The catch totaled 591 kept and 174 released with upriver chinook mortalities estimated to be 608 compared to the 1,700 available under the pre-update allocation.
The recreational fisheries on the Snake River (Washington waters) opened below Ice Harbor Dam on April 20 and in three areas between Little Goose Dam and Clarkston, Wash., on April 25. Catch estimates through May 6 totaled 79 upriver chinook. Catch projections through May 13 are for an additional 405 upriver mortalities (kept plus released) for a total of 484 compared to the 1,362 available pre-update.
The current season total upriver catch (kept and release mortalities) in all non-treaty fisheries is 14,056 fish. A final upriver run size of 154,500 (as calculated at the river mouth before freshwater fisheries cause impacts) would be required to remain within catch balance and impact limitations for completed fisheries.