The 2012 upriver bright fall chinook return looks to be somewhat below the preseason expectations but still well above recent 10-year average.
The Snake River portion of that “URB” is looking even better. Through Monday the adult fall chinook count at the lower Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam had reached 25,214, which would be the third highest annual total since counts began at the southeast Washington dam in 1975.
And the Snake River fall chinook count is likely to soon move up. Second place has been held by the 2011 total of 28,922. The count Monday was 1,304 fish.
“We’re predicting around 30,000 coming back this year, said Becky Johnson, Production Division director for the Nez Perce Tribe. Tribal hatchery programs have helped boost fall chinook returns, which include wild fish that are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species.
“Our fall chinook are still coming over Bonneville,” Johnson said of PIT-tagged fish that are identified as they pass up and over the dam. Bonneville, at river mile 146, is the first dam the fish encounter on their way up the Columbia and Snake rivers. Lower Granite is more than 400 miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia.
The record count is 41,815 fish in 2010, according to data compiled by the Fish Passage Center. Prior to 2010 the high count at Lower Granite was 16,628. From 1975 through 1993 annual counts hovered below 1,000, and most often were well below 1,000.
The wild fish were listed in 1991. Since the 1990s, the impacts of a variety of actions (harvest, habitat, hydrosystem and hatchery) have seemed to help lift the overall returns, which include both wild and hatchery produced fish. In recent years the wild proportion of the run has averaged about 25 percent, according to Stuart Ellis, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission biologist.
The jack counts at Lower Granite have also been strong this year. The total through Monday was 12,320, which is already the fourth highest total on record and should soon sneak up to third (12,892 in 2010).
Jacks are smaller, early maturing fish that spend only one year in the ocean before returning to spawn. Their strength is one of the primary signals of future returns, when their broodmates return to spawn after two or more years in the ocean. Fish run forecasters also use reconstructions of age group returns. As an example, a strong 4-year-old return one year signals that the next year’s 5-year-old class should also be strong.
The record jack return was in 2009, a whopping 41,285. The high jack count from 1975 through 1998 was 2,002. The past five years, including this year, are the only five annual jack counts to exceed 10,000.
The Lower Granite adult fall chinook numbers through Sept. 24 this year is more than double the recent 10-year average of 11,692 through that date, according to Columbia River Data in Real Time (DART). The jack count of 12,320 is almost double the 10-year average of 7,064.
URB fall chinook are fish destined for the Hanford Reach area and to Priest Rapids Hatchery in central Washington’s mid-Columbia region and the Snake River. Smaller URB components are destined for the Deschutes River in central Oregon and to Washington’s Yakima River.