A good news/not-so-good news summer sockeye salmon fishing season has, for the most part, ended on the Columbia River mainstem along the Oregon-Washington border with impacts at or above limits imposed to protect, primarily, endangered Snake River fish.
The good news is that lower river anglers hauled in what is estimated to be a record sockeye harvest, and tribal fishers have harvested their full sockeye allocation in mainstem reservoirs between Bonneville and McNary dams.
The bad news is that worries about Snake River impacts have forced an end to sockeye retention at a time when thousands of unlisted Columbia River sockeye remain in the river.
Tribal commercial fishing on the mainstem above Bonneville, and a section of river immediately below the dam, was effectively ended with the closure of Indian platform and hook and line fisheries at the end of the day Thursday. The tribes requested the closure as a means of staying within close range of impact limits agreed to by the state of Oregon, Washington and Idaho and four treaty tribes that make up membership of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
“This situation points out the need for more progress on recovering Snake River sockeye,” said the Warm Springs tribes’ Bruce Jim, who on Wednesday read a statement from the four tribes to the Columbia River Compact, which sets non-Indian and tribal mainstem commercial fisheries.
“While this run has shown good progress from the single digit returns of the past to recent returns over 1,000 fish, such low numbers point out that the Columbia Basin managers have simply not done enough to address the real issues affecting these fish,” the CRITFC statement said of the Snake River run.
Under the agreement the tribes are allowed a 7 percent harvest impact on the overall Snake-Columbia river run, a measure intended to limit impacts on the protected Snake River fish. Non-tribal fishers are allowed a 1 percent impact.
The “situation” has surfaced this year because plentiful upper Columbia fish – a record sockeye run – are available, while Snake River fish are at relatively low levels.
“Maintaining low harvest rates has not and will not restore these fish without significant additional actions,” the CRITFC statement says. “If we put the kind of effort into Snake River sockeye that we have put into stocks like Snake River fall chinook, we would likely not be in this situation.”
The summer management period for the mainstem stretches from June 16 through July 31. But sport fishing on the lower river below Bonneville Dam was closed at the beginning of the month to retention of sockeye and summer chinook. It remains open for steelhead.
Sockeye retention from Bonneville, at river mile 146, up to the Highway 395 at Pasco, Wash., was closed as of June 9 as the overall catch approached Endangered Species Act impact limits. Steelhead and summer chinook sport harvest remains open in that stretch of river. Sockeye retention on the mainstem is only open upstream of the Highway 395 bridge.
“While the tribes believe this was the appropriate action, it is a difficult action as many tribal members rely on mainstem platform/hook and line fisheries for a good portion of their subsistence needs,” the tribal statement says. “We are also disappointed that there is no flexibility on sockeye harvest limits at such high overall run sizes. It is also unfortunate that we are leaving a good number of harvestable summer chinook un-caught.”
According to the 2012 Winter Joint Staff Report compiled by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife the sport sockeye catch below Bonneville in 2011 was 1,637 fish (1,293 kept and 344 released). The report said that sockeye handle and kept catch was the highest on record.
But that record was smashed this year with a projected catch of more than 4,100.
The tribes also did well with a total sockeye catch of nearly 45,000, which exceeds their allowable catch of 37,450. The harvest allocations are based on run-size estimates. The most current forecast is for a return of 535,000 sockeye this year to the mouth of the Columbia, a figure that exceeds the previous modern-day (back to 1938) record of 387,000 sockeye.
“Based on our current catch estimates, the 2012 summer season fisheries have exceeded the agreed to harvest rate limits based on the U.S. v. Oregon Management Agreement,” the July 11 CRITFC statement says. “The likely cause of this is that our fishers appear to have targeted sockeye with more small mesh gear than projected.
“This is probably due in part due to the lower than expected chinook run combined with higher than typical sockeye prices. Based on past fishery performance, this was an unforeseen event that we could not reasonably be predicted.” The much smaller sockeye can for the most part slip through larger mesh nets while the larger chinook cannot.
The latest forecast from federal, state and tribal fish managers pegs this year’s summer chinook at 54,000 adult fish to the mouth of the Columbia. That’s down a preseason forecast of 91,200 adults, which would have the highest return since at least 1980. The summer chinook mostly originate in the mid-Columbia region.