Fisheries officials on Tuesday again downgraded their estimate of the number of adult upriver spring chinook salmon that are expected to return to the mouth of the Columbia, dropping the projection from 216,500 to 209,400 fish.
In preseason estimate, federal, state and tribal experts had predicted that the 2012 return would total as many as 314,200 upriver spring chinook spawners headed for hatcheries and spawning grounds upstream of the lower Columbia’s Bonneville Dam, which is located at river mile 146. That would have been the fourth largest return since at least 1980 and 156 percent of the recent 10-year average.
But dam counts have lagged, leaving the latest run estimates at slightly less than the recent ten-year average (2001-2010) of 222,900 adult upriver spring chinook. The estimated 2011 return to the river mouth was 221,200, according to the Jan. 20 Joint Staff Report prepared by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.
State officials cancelled a Tuesday meeting scheduled to review stock status and potentially set additional sport and/or commercial fisheries in the lower river from Bonneville downstream to the river’s mouth at the Pacific Ocean. An updated run-size forecast is expected Monday (June 4), at which point Oregon and Washington, which co-manage fisheries on the Columbia where the river defines the two states’ border, could consider approving more spring fisheries.
The “spring” season on the lower Columbia can stretch through June 15, if enough fish are available under harvest management guidelines. The “summer” season begins June 16, a point in time when summer chinook become the primary target. Forecasters expect 91,200 upriver summer chinook adults to return to the mouth of the Columbia. That would represent the highest return since at least 1980, and would be 135 percent of the 10-year average (67,500 adult fish).
A total of 152,613 adult spring chinook salmon had been counted passing over Bonneville’s fish ladders this year through Monday. That passage total likely represents more than 80 percent of the number of upriver spring chinook that will cross the dam this year.
Through Wednesday a total of 155,940 upriver spring chinook had passed Bonneville, which is slightly better than the 10-year average, 150,813, through May 30.
Under the U.S. v Oregon management agreement being implemented by the states and treaty tribes, non-tribal fisheries are allowed, at a run-size of 209,400, an impact rate of up to 1.9 percent on the upriver spring chinook run, which amounts to 19,055 mortalities (kept catch plus estimated post-release mortalities). Fishers can only keep fish that have been marked at hatcheries with clipped adipose fins. Most unmarked fish are of natural origin. Wild fish include Snake River and Upper Columbia spring chinook that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Only two lower river mainstem commercial salmon fishing periods (18 hours total) have been held. The estimated upriver mortalities are 4,318 upriver spring chinook, which amounts to 94 percent of the non-tribal commercial impact limit. An additional 185 mortalities have been estimated for commercial fisheries in so-called select areas, which are off-channel sites in the lower Columbia River estuary.
The lower Columbia (Bonneville down to the river mouth) sport fishery had accounted for 9,787 upriver spring chinook mortalities before the season closed April 22. The total lower river catch for the period ending April 22 was 12,702 kept, including lower river chinook, and 2,142 released adult fish during 105,145 angler trips.
A two-day reopening over the Memorial Day weekend resulted in an additional 455 upriver chinook mortalities to bring the lower river sport total of 10,292.
When upriver recreational catch is added in, sport impacts on upriver spring chinook total 13,583.
Overall, upriver spring chinook sport harvest has resulted in a catch of 13,505 and 78 mortalities as compared to an allocation 14,148. As things stood early this week, the commercial fleet has 404 fish remaining on its allocation, based on the most recent run-size forecast, and the sport fishery has 565 fish left.
The upriver spring chinook catch in the lower Snake River in southeast Washington and along the Washington-Idaho border resulted in a higher than anticipated catch with 2,377 mortalities as compared to an allocation of 1,127 fish.
The tribal upriver spring chinook catch, conducted primarily under permits for ceremonial uses, had totaled an estimated 15,510 upriver spring chinook adults through May 26. The catch in-hand and an additional projected catch of 2,000 through June 15 would leave the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama fishers well within their harvest allocation, even if the run-size forecasts drops as low as 192,420.
Anglers may still get a few days in early June to catch spring chinook salmon if state managers decide so next week. But many are shifting their attention to the next big opener on the lower Columbia River. That begins June 16, when fishing opens for summer chinook and fishing for hatchery steelhead and sockeye expands upriver from the Interstate 5 Bridge. In addition to the anticipated big summer chinook return, a record 462,000 sockeye are predicted this year.
“This year’s fishery offers anglers a chance to catch chrome bright trophy-sized fish weighing up to 40 pounds,” Joe Hymer, a fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said of the summer chinook. “There’s a good reason why these fish are known as ‘June hogs,’ and this season will give anglers a good chance to catch some.”
The Columbia River will open to fishing for salmon and steelhead from the Megler Astoria Bridge upstream to Priest Rapids Dam. The daily limit is six fish, including two adult salmon, or two adult hatchery steelhead, or one of each.
Only sockeye salmon, adipose-clipped chinook and adipose-clipped steelhead may be retained. All sockeye count as part of the adult daily limit.
Above Bonneville Dam, the season for summer chinook and steelhead is scheduled to run through July 31. Below Bonneville, the initial season will run through July 1, but anglers may get additional time on the water if the fish come through in expected numbers, said Cindy LeFleur, WDFW Columbia River policy coordinator.
“Last year’s summer chinook run came in at 12 percent below forecast,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re on target before we start adding fishing days in the lower river.”
The same is true for spring chinook, LeFleur said. “We’d like to add a few days to the start of the summer chinook season, but we’ll have to see what the run forecast for spring chinook does between now and then,” she said.