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Slammed With Sockeye; 2012 Columbia River Return Could Exceed A Half Million Fish
Posted on Friday, June 29, 2012 (PST)

Sockeye salmon counts at the lower Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam on each of the first three days this week (Monday through Wednesday) totaled more than 11 of the annual counts – season totals – recorded since construction of the hydro project was completed in 1938.


A record daily count of 38,756 sockeye was recorded at Bonneville Monday, smashing the previous high of 30,690 fish on June 24, 2010.


That record was short-lived. The tally Tuesday at Bonneville was 41,573 sockeye. The count Wednesday dropped to 31,969 but was still higher than that June 24, 2010, daily count.


The upriver run of sockeye spawners seems to be at or just past its midpoint in terms of Bonneville passage. According to the recent 10-year average 50 percent of the sockeye run will have passed Bonneville by June 25. That midpoint has been as early as June 20 and as late as July 1.


And the peak of passage – the highest daily counts – could also have just passed. The count Thursday was 23,454, which is little more than half of Tuesday’s record but still a strong number.


Already through Wednesday 344,916 of the sleek fish, which historically weigh about 3 ½ pounds each on average, had passed over Bonneville, located at about river mile 146.


A record 462,000 sockeye were forecast in preseason to the mouth of the Columbia in 2012.


But that forecast might be light.


The spawning run timing of the fish in recent years “would suggest the sockeye run could be as many as 521,000 at Bonneville,” according to Stuart Ellis, a fishery biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and member of the Technical Advisory Team, which develops and updates run-size forecasts Columbia-Snake river basin salmon and steelhead species. TAC’s membership includes representatives of federal, state and tribal fishery management entities.


TAC met Thursday to consider fish counts and reassess run-size forecasts. The sockeye return was upgraded to 540,000 adult fish the mouth of the Columbia.


Counting activities have been frenzied in recent days with a like number of shad, and a thousand or two chinook and steelhead, dashing up the fish ladders, according the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Anne Stephenson, who supervises the counting program at Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day dams.


The Bonneville totals do not include fish caught in tribal and in non-Indian sport and commercial fisheries downstream of the dam.


The soon-to-be surpassed record sockeye return, as measured at the Columbia’s mouth at the Pacific Ocean, is 387,858 in 2010. The Bonneville Dam count that year was 386,355.


Over the past 70 or so years annual sockeye counts at Bonneville have been as small as 8,774 (1995). More recently the total yearly count in 2007 was only 24,376.


The vast majority of the returning fish are headed to the Okanogan River drainage and its Osoyoos Lake, which straddles the central Washington-British Columbia border. The 2012 preseason forecast is for a return of 431,300 sockeye spawners to the Okanogan; 28,800 to central Washington’s Wenatchee River basin; and 1,900 to the Snake River. The Wenatchee, Okanogan and Snake all feed into the Columbia.


The Snake River fish returning to central Idaho’s high country are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The upper Columbia sockeye are not ESA listed.


Expectations are high this year because a record number of 2-year-old smolts -- 8.7 million -- headed down the Okanogan toward the ocean in 2010, according to Canadian estimates. That was four times the previous high from 2003-2010.


And a total of 32,900 sockeye “jacks” from that 2010 outmigration returned in 2011 according to estimates. That’s nearly double the previous high in 2008, and a strong hint that the 4-year-old class this year would be strong. Jacks are 3-year-old fish that spent just one year in the ocean.


Returns since 2007 have been strong with counts at Bonneville ranging from more than 177,000 to that record 386,525 total in 2010. From 1988 through 2007 only two annual sockeye counts at Bonneville rose above 100,000.


Likewise the Snake River returns have experienced a bit of a revival with counts at the lower Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam ranging from 909 to 2,201 over the past four years. During the previous 22 years only four sockeye annual counts rose above 30 fish. Lower Granite is the eighth dam in the Columbia-Snake hydro system that the fish must pass on their way to Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley.


The fish swim from the Pacific Ocean about 900 river miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. Most of the Snake River fish are the product of a captive broodstock program aimed at preventing the stock from going extinct.


That run is starting to build, perhaps with somewhat later timing than the upper Columbia sockeye.


“They’ve just starting picking up over the past few days,” Ellis said of PIT-tagged detections of Snake River-bound fish that totaled 29 by midweek. Through Wednesday a total of three sockeye had been seen passing over Lower Granite’s fish ladders this year.


The Okanogan fish are starting to make progress upriver. A total of 113,994 sockeye had been counted this year through Wednesday at McNary Dam, the fourth dam they must hurdle on their way up the Columbia toward the Wenatchee and Okanogan river tributaries. The count through Wednesday at the mid-Columbia’s Priest Rapids Dam (the fifth dam between the Pacific and the Okanogan, was 10,366 and at Wells Dam the total was 254. Wells is the ninth dam, located more than 500 miles from the ocean, that the sockeye pass before turning off into the Okanogan River.


Generally favorable ocean conditions, increased hatcheries releases and improved juvenile rearing habitat and freshwater migration conditions are believed to have all contributed to the recent boost in sockeye returns. Mainstem Columbia hydro operations have also been fine-tuned to be more fish friendly and freshwater habitat improvement work is ongoing.

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