It’s not a new season until tomorrow (June 16)) but there are already signs aplenty that the summer harvest management period on the lower Columbia, as well as farther up the river system, could be a good one.
The preseason forecast is a record return of 462,000 sockeye salmon to the Columbia River mouth this year. And the first pulses of that sockeye run have been early and strong.
Passage at Bonneville Dam, located about 146 miles upstream from the river mouth, through Monday totaled 9,562 sockeye, which is the highest count at the dam through June 11 of any year since at least 1974. Sockeye dam count totals prior that year are harder to locate.
Such an early count is consistent with the forecast, according to Oregon and Washington officials. June 24 is, on average, when 50 percent of a year’s Columbia/Snake river sockeye run will have passed over Bonneville, but the date has been as late as July 1.
The forecast includes a return of 28,800 sockeye to the Wenatchee River subbasin in central Washington and 431,300 to the Okanogan. The Okanogan River flows south out of British Columbia and through Lake Osoyoos, which is the Columbia basin’s sockeye central.
Another 1,900 sockeye spawners are expected to return this year and swim up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. The Snake River fish are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The sockeye count has risen from a season’s total of 1 through May 24 to a total of 26,330 through Thursday, which is almost four times the recent 10-year average of 7,371 through June 12.
The Wednesday count of 6,863 was well over the 10-year average for that date -- 1,367 -- and that was followed by a Thursday count of 6,225.
So far, each successive daily count at Bonneville since May 24 has gotten bigger. A Monday count of 2,254 was followed by a Tuesday count of 3,280, which was also more than triple the 10-year average for that date, 950.
Sockeye runs have been on a roll. The 2011 return of 187,300 adults to the mouth of the Columbia was greater than the preseason forecast of 161,900 adults and proved to be the fourth highest return since at least 1980 and was the fourth consecutive strong return year. The record stands at 387,858 in 2010.
A reasonably high number of sockeye have also been reported caught in lower river sports fisheries targeting summer steelhead, according to Joe Hymer of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Angling targets on the lower Columbia mainstem will change Saturday when management rules again allow the retention of chinook salmon. Sport fishers could target “spring” chinook through April 22, at which point they were reined in by Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife managers to make sure impact limits on upriver stocks weren’t breached. Catch limits are imposed to hold down impacts on wild Snake River and Upper Columbia upriver spring chinook salmon that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The spring chinook season on the lower Columbia River mainstem was reopened for two days on the Memorial Day weekend, then closed again. Areas upstream of Bonneville on the Columbia and the lower Snake, as well as in tributaries, were open for chinook at various times throughout the spring.
The season was opened May 15 for sockeye in the lower Columbia downstream of Portland’s Interstate 5 bridge, and the open area will be stretched as of June 16 up the point where the river turns north and no longer makes the Oregon-Washington border.
The “summer chinook” retention season for adult (24 inches or longer), adipose fin-clipped fish also begins Saturday and runs through July 1 in the mainstem from the Astoria-Megler Bridge in the lower estuary upstream to Bonneville Dam and June 16-July 31 from Bonneville Dam upstream to the end point of the Oregon-Washington border.
Retention of adipose fin-clipped jack (12 to 24 inches long) summer chinook is allowed June 16- July 31 from the Astoria-Megler Bridge upstream to the border. The combined daily bag limit is two adults and five jacks.
The lower river summer season could be extended, depending on harvest numbers and in-season updates of the run-size estimates. The summer chinook for the most part are headed for hatcheries and spawning grounds above the Mid-Columbia’s Priest Rapids Dam. They are not listed, but catch limits are in place to assure desired escapement of upriver for fisheries there and for spawning.
The 2012 forecast of 91,200 adults to the mouth would represent the highest return since at least 1980, said a joint ODFW-WDFW staff report prepared for a Wednesday meeting of the Columbia River Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fisheries..
Based on the 2012 forecast, daily counts at Bonneville Dam are expected to average about 2,900 chinook per day during June 16-30 and then steadily decrease to 500 fish per day by the end of July. Passage is typically 50 percent complete by June 28.
Also beginning their run are upriver stocks of summer steelhead that negotiate the river from April 1 through Oct. 31. Summer steelhead passing Bonneville prior to July 1 are considered “Skamania” stock, and those passing between July 1 and Oct. 31 are classified as either Group A or Group B fish, depending on length.
Summer steelhead handled in Columbia River fisheries below Bonneville Dam are considered lower river stock during May-June and upriver stock during July-October.
A total of 380,300 upriver summer steelhead are expected to pass Bonneville Dam this year, which is similar to the 2002-2011 average of 383,700 fish. Lower river summer steelhead returns have averaged 78,500 fish over the past ten years.
Bonneville Dam passage during April 1-June 11 totals 4,336 summer steelhead, which is slightly less than expected based on the forecast and average run timing. The 50 percent passage date is around June 18 for upriver Skamania stock.
Skamania stock hatchery summer steelhead are widely planted in the lower Columbia tributaries, including the Willamette Basin. Skamania stock hatchery fish are also released annually in some tributaries upstream of Bonneville.
Group A steelhead are destined for tributaries throughout the Columbia and Snake basins, are characteristically smaller (less than 78 cm length) and spend one or two years at sea. Group B steelhead return to the Clearwater and Salmon rivers in Idaho, are generally larger (at least 78 cm length), later-timed than the Group A steelhead, and typically spend two or three years at sea, according to the fact sheet.
The Compact on Wednesday approved by tribal and non-Indian commercial fisheries to start off the summer season.
In Zone 6 – reservoirs from Bonneville Dam upstream on the Oregon-Washington border – the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm springs and Yakama tribes will be fishing with fillnets from 6 a.m. Monday through 6 p.m. Thursday both June 18-21 and June 25-28. Salmon, steelhead, shad, yellow perch, bass, walleye, catfish and carp caught in those fisheries may be sold or retained by subsistence purposes. Sturgeon caught in the fishery may not be sold.
The expected harvest during the two proposed tribal commercial openings include 9,800 chinook and 13,500 sockeye.
The Compact also improved approved an eight-hour non-tribal commercial fishery that begins at 9 p.m. Sunday in Zones 1-5 – from Bonneville down to the river mouth. The catch expectation is about 2,500 chinook and 325 white sturgeon.