In between summertime fishing seasons this year for chinook and sockeye salmon, steelhead and other fish stocks, tribal fishermen could well be setting their sights on American shad, a non-native species that also heads up the Columbia River system each year to spawn.
The Columbia River Compact last week approved a tribal request that commercial fishing be allowed in reservoirs above Bonneville Dam with “experimental” fishing gear such as drift gill nets, fish wheels, purse seines and beach seines.
The decision allowing the catch and sale of shad stretches from June 21 through July 31. It requires that any other fish species caught during shad fisheries be immediately returned to the water unharmed.
The tribes expressing interest have been the Umatillas and Yakamas.
A “handful” of fishermen have expressed an interest in undertaking shad harvest using so-called experimental gear, according to the Umatilla Tribes’ Preston Bronson. Such ventures, along with non-tribal harvests conducted in recent years, are intended to evaluate the use of traps and seines to “live capture” fish so that protected fish such as wild salmon and steelhead could be released.
“We’re still at the developing stages” as regards shad fisheries, Bronson said. Likewise the Yakama Nation is awaiting fishing permit applications – fishermen’s plans for deploying gear in shad fisheries.
“Right now we’re just waiting to see how those things will work out,” Bronson said late last week.
Through Thursday, 2,281,046 shad had been counted passing over the lower Columbia’s Bonneville Dam, according to data posted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam. The highest daily count of this year totaled 182,000 shad passing on June 8. Shad passage is typically 50 percent complete around June 12, according to a fact sheet compiled by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.
Counts since that high mark have generally been trending downward. Over the past week shad daily tallies at Bonneville have ranged from nearly 77,000 down to less than 36,000.
A portion of the spawning shad have moved upriver. The count at McNary Dam at river mile 292 was 284,955 through Thursday. McNary is the fourth dam upstream in the Columbia River. A total of 51,652 shad have turned off into the Snake River and been counted at Ice Harbor Dam, the first dam upstream of the Columbia confluence.
Only 28 shad had been counted through Thursday at Lower Granite Dam, the fourth hydro project upstream of the Columbia-Snake confluence, and the tally was 29 at Priest Rapids Dam, the next dam upstream of McNary on in Columbia
During the most recent five years, shad passage at Bonneville has averaged 1.6 million fish, ranging from 0.9 million to 2.6 million.
The American shad is a native of eastern North America with a historic range from Florida to Newfoundland. The fish were brought west in the 1870s and transplanted into northern California’s Sacramento River.
Many of the fish survived and spread. The first recorded sighting in the Columbia was in 1876. The American shad can now be found from Baja California, Mexico, to Alaska and has even been spotted across the Bering Strait in Russia.
In recent decades shad returns to the Columbia River have risen to as high as more than 6 million fish in 2004 with 5.4 million of those fish being tallied at Bonneville Dam (river mile 146) on their way to spawning grounds upriver. Bonneville counts since 2004 have stair-stepped downward with a tally of only 1.04 million in 2010 and only 948,000 in 2011.
The number of shad counted at Bonneville had been declining on an annual basis since that 2004 peak, but the 2012 run has been resurgent. Theories about the decline include disease issues.
The tribes say that effort in the shad fishery is typically market-driven. Several commercial shad fishers and shad buyers have requested continued experimentation of alternate gears. Since shad in the Columbia are non-native and under-utilized, the agencies have encouraged the commercial industry to find viable markets for shad. Availability of shad on the market plays a role in securing buyers for future years.
Shad catch would be dependent on effort. Steelhead and sockeye handling is expected to be minimal. Impacts to ESA-listed salmonids are expected to remain within the estimated ranges provided in the ESA consultation.
As part of ongoing commercial gear evaluations initiated in 2009, ODFW issued two experimental gear permits in 2011 to evaluate the use of purse seine gear for targeting shad. Although high river flows hampered effort, approximately 6,700 shad were harvested during late May through mid-June.
A permit issued this spring, again as part of Oregon and Washington’s ongoing tests of experimental gear, proved to be relatively successful, according to the ODFW’s John North. Catch data was not immediately available.