The states of Oregon and Washington on Wednesday figured four lower Columbia River treaty tribes had a choice during this late “spring” fishing season on the mainstem Columbia River if harvests are to stay under Endangered Species Act limits.
The first choice involved approving a 24-hour gill-net fishing season late this week in mainstem reservoirs above Bonneville Dam along the states’ border, and closing platform hook and line fisheries above and, to a smaller degree, below Bonneville.
The second involved leaving the platform fisheries open, and foregoing the commercial fisheries.
After a near-full day of discussions the four tribes were split, with the Nez Perce and Umatillas wanting to stay open; while the Yakama and Warm Springs tribes said they would accept the platform closure in favor of the one-day gill-net fishery.
Both sides would have preferred that the platforms remain open to fishing and the commercial fishery be executed.
A two-hour meeting of the Columbia River Compact was held Wednesday morning. The state panel convened to allow the tribes to caucus regarding the proposal on the table to Ok a commercial fishery and close the platforms. The Compact reconvened at 3 p.m. to hear the results of the caucus and make a decision on the proposed tribal commercial fishery.
“I think the Compact’s hands are tied,” said Guy Norman, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife director’s representative on the Compact, which sets commercial fishing seasons on the mainstem Columbia for both tribal and non-tribal fishers. Steve Williams represented the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director at Wednesday’s meeting.
Both said that, given run-size estimates that have been slipping and catch in-hand to-date, it seemed unlikely that the tribes could stay within ESA impact limits with a commercial fishery being implemented and the platform fishing continuing.
In the afternoon a proposal was forwarded to the Compact that would have closing the platform fisheries at the end of the day today (Friday), and then reconvening the Compact Monday so that it could consider a reopening if the overall catch (including from a commercial fishery) remained reasonably well within limits.
The tribes this spring have primarily been catching upriver salmon and other fishes for ceremonial and subsistence purposes allowed under treaties and other agreements. That Compact on May 14 approved a request that the tribes be allowed to sell fish caught with hook and line from platforms until further notice. That decision remains in place.
For the most part spring fishing on the Columbia and Snake river mainstems and elsewhere is limited by the presence, and harvest, of upriver spring chinook salmon. Under a 10-year agreement signed by Idaho, Oregon and Washington; the tribes and the federal government, tribal and non-tribal interests are allotted harvests depending on the size of the upriver run (spring chinook headed upstream for hatcheries and spawning grounds in the three states).
The larger the anticipated run, the larger is each share of the harvest. This year, the preseason forecast was for an upriver spring chinook return to the mouth of the Columbia of 314,200 adult fish. But with counts at Bonneville Dam – one of the primary run-size measuring sticks – lagging, harvest allocations have been scaled back. The most recent estimate developed last week was 209,400.
Based on the recent forecast, the tribes ESA impact rate is 9.1 percent or 19,055 upriver spring chinook. The run includes wild, ESA-protected Snake River and Upper Columbia salmon.
But with 15,970 in hand caught from streamside platforms (4,980 upstream from Bonneville and 1,290 below the dam) and with gill nets under ceremonial permits (9,700), the tribes have just 3,085 fish to catch while staying within their ESA allocation based on the current run-size forecast. The noon Thursday through noon Friday commercial fishery proposed for this week was expected to result in the harvest of from 2,400 to 2,800; while continued platform fishing through June 15 was estimated to have a 465-fish impact.
If the run-size estimate goes up, the tribes and others would have additional fish to catch; if it goes down fewer fish would be available for harvest.
Based on the current projected return to Columbia River mouth, and subtracting downstream harvest and other mortality, fishery officials would expect 193,000 adults to climb over Bonneville. The 171,073 chinook so far this year is a bit ahead of the 10-year average – 165,126 -- through June 7.
Through this year lower Columbia (below Bonneville) sport fisheries have accounted for an estimated 10,242 upriver spring chinook mortalities (kept fish plus the estimated number that die after being released). Unmarked fish, most presumed to be wild, listed fish, must be released. That represents 88.6 percent of that fishery’s ESA impact limit.
The lower river non-tribal commercial fishery (two periods totaling 18 hours) resulted in an upriver of 4,318 fish or 94 percent of that fishery’s allocation.
In all, the non-tribal commercial and sport (including above Bonneville) impact this year is at 94.9 percent of their total allocation for the spring season. The non-tribal commercial fleet last fished the mainstem in mid-April. Anglers’ last outing was for a two-day opening over the Memorial Day weekend
To reach that 193,000, total daily counts at Bonneville through June 15 would have to total more than 2,700 daily. Wednesday’s count was 1,374 and down a bit from the previous day. Counts usually begin to climb a bit in early-to-mid-June as more summer chinook begin to join the parade of springers headed upriver.
The states tally as spring fish chinook that pass Bonneville through June 15. Chinook crossing from June 16-July 31 are counted as summer chinook and beginning Aug. 1 they are counted as fall chinook. The “summer” fishing management period begins June 16.
“We are not prepared to close the platforms,” said the Umatilla Tribes’ Kathryn Brigham. She said that to the Umatillas, catching fish for ceremonial and subsistence purposes “comes first, and commercial fishing comes last.”
In testimony to the Compact she said that something needed to be done to improve preseason run-size forecasting “so we can more accurately manage the fisheries.” The fact that the run-size is much smaller than originally forecast resulted in non-tribal fishers to get their fishing in early and capturing most of their allotment while the tribes who fish upriver will likely only catch two/thirds of their allocation because of growing concerns about ESA limits, she said.
“We’re really frustrated that we’re in this position,” she said.
The Yakama Nation’s Virgil Lewis stressed the economics of the situation, saying the tribes deserve a commercial outing.
“To us this is very very important,” Lewis said. “Many families are hurting financially. Our commercial guys are sitting on the bank waiting.”
”I thought this would benefit all four tribes,” he said.