With the prospect of breaching newly established Endangered Species Act "incidental take" limits, the states of Oregon and Washington and treaty tribes have all but ended, for now, Columbia River mainstem fish harvest activity.
The states decided Monday that the lower Columbia River will remain closed to steelhead fishing until further notice to avoid the incidental catch of protected upriver spring chinook salmon. The announcement effectively delays a fishery for hatchery steelhead scheduled to open May 16 from the Interstate 5 Bridge at Portland downriver to the Rocky Point/Tongue Point line a few miles east of Astoria.
The steelhead closure could extend as late as June 15, unless returns of upriver spring chinook begin to pick up, said Cindy LeFleur, WDFW Columbia River policy coordinator. Starting then the chinook salmon passing the dam are counted as "summer" chinook and a new fishery management period begins.
"With returns of upriver spring chinook falling far short of expectations, we need to do everything we can to conserve protected runs," she said. "At this point, that means some fisheries that have only an incidental impact on upriver chinook will be affected."
The closures were triggered by an updated spring chinook run forecast of 180,000 adult returns to the mouth of the Columbia, down from 269,300 fish initially projected by fishery managers from the states, tribes and federal agencies.
The falling upriver spring chinook forecasts have put the states and tribes in jeopardy of surpassing ESA limits on the take of listed stocks, wild Snake River spring/summer and Upper Columbia spring chinook.
If the final run tally is 180,000 adult upriver chinook, the catch in hand would represent an estimated 2.04 percent impact on upriver spring chinook for non-tribal sport and commercial mainstem fisheries.
A new harvest biological opinion approved last week by NOAA Fisheries Service says those impacts must be limited to 1.9 percent or less for returns that number 217,000 or fewer.
Non-tribal commercial and sport fisheries require that unmarked, presumably wild, listed fish, be released. But mortality is incurred because a percentage of those released chinook later die. A high percentage of hatchery fish are marked by clipping their adipose fin.
Likewise, tribal fisheries are over their ESA impact limit unless salmon passage at Bonneville Dam picks up in the coming days. Tribal impacts on the upriver chinook run are estimated to be 9.6 percent as compared to the 9.1 percent cap.
Highly successful non-Indian sport and commercial and tribal spring fisheries prompted the belief that the actual abundance of upriver chinook would come close to matching preseason forecasts.
"All of the fisheries performed above expectations," the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's John North said of high lower river sport catch rates and strong outings by the non-tribal commercial fleet.
But the counts at Bonneville have bobbed up and down, not reaching the levels needed to assure a higher final tally. The upriver spring chinook are bound for hatcheries and tributary spawning grounds above Bonneville in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
"The counts did not improve over the weekend," the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Robin Ehlke told the Columbia River Compact Monday. Ehlke is chair of the Technical Advisory Committee, a group of federal, state and tribal biologists that makes and updates salmon run forecasts. The Compact, comprised of representatives of the ODFW and WDFW directors, sets mainstem commercial fisheries.
"Right now, that might be a high estimate," Ehlke said of the new 180,000-fish forecast, which was at the upper end of possible outcomes considered by TAC.
NOAA's Enrique Patino told the Compact members Monday to "use your discretion" in setting fisheries, or allowing ongoing fisheries to continue. He said NOAA would not support actions that would allow additional take of salmon beyond the terms of the new agreement on which the harvest BiOp was based. BiOps, which judge whether activities jeopardize the survival of listed stocks, often include take provisions that allow some mortality, in this case incidental take in harvests aimed at hatchery fish.
Fisheries to-date "have, on paper, exceeded the allowable take" based on the current run forecast, Patino said.
The Compact on Monday rescinded commercial salmon fisheries at Youngs Bay, Blind Slough, Tongue Point and Deep River scheduled for this week. The fisheries are in off-channel "select areas" in the estuary where few of the upriver salmon roam. Planned fisheries there were rescinded less than an hour before they were to begin. While those fisheries primarily target chinook salmon returning to lower Columbia River tributaries, they do intercept some upriver fish, LeFleur said.
Monday's announcement follows a decision by WDFW late last week to close the last remaining spring chinook fisheries on the Snake and mid-Columbia rivers a month early. Columbia River treaty tribes also agreed to close all mainstem spring chinook fisheries, effective May 11, in response to the run shortfall.
The Compact did allow the Monday opening of the lower river commercial shad fishery. Historically, incidental release mortalities of ESA-listed wild chinook have averaged 0.3 fish per year, according to a joint staff report. State officials also allowed the opening of sport shad fishery and left open sport fishing at the select areas. Neither is judged to have had impact on the wild upriver chinook run in the past.
Anglers did well below Bonneville during fisheries from Buoy 10 upstream to Hayden Island powerlines at Portland from March 24-April 4 and from Hayden Island upstream to Bonneville Dam during March 16-April 20. Kept catch plus release mortalities totaled an estimated 19,649 upriver spring chinook.
The total catch, including stocks from lower Columbia tributaries, was 20,040 kept and 3,132 released chinook and 392 kept and 62 released steelhead from 102,972 angler trips. That is the second largest sport harvest on a record dating back to 1980, according to the state's Jan. 31, 2008 Joint Staff Report. There were 22,714 caught in 2001, a year that saw the largest upriver return on record, 437,910 adults to the mouth of the Columbia.
Little fishing opportunity was offered during the 1980s and 1990s when the upriver spring chinook populations were at a relatively low ebb. The Snake River stock was listed in 1992, the Upper Columbia stock in 1999.
Columbia River recreational fisheries in Zone 6 (Bonneville Dam to McNary Dam) kept (plus release mortalities) an estimated 1,092 upriver spring chinook. That fishery closed Sunday. Washington state recreational fisheries in the Snake River through May 6 kept 240 chinook and released 58. The Washington bank fishery at Ringold Hatchery, closed Monday with 13 kept and four released upper Columbia spring chinook.
Three mainstem commercial fishing periods (all employing tangle nets) were conducted in the area from the Hayden Island powerlines upstream to Beacon Rock on Tuesdays between April 1 and April 15 with landings totaling 5,938 chinook.
Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribal fisheries in Zone 6 resulted in an estimated catch of 17,317 upriver chinook. That total included 9,450 last week during a four-day commercial fishery that happened to coincide with the greatest fish movement across Bonneville seen so far this year.
The tribal catch includes 6,867 chinook during permitted ceremonial and subsistence fisheries and 1,000 in platform fisheries.
The largest daily chinook count at Bonneville's fish ladders this year occurred May 4 -- 9,686 chinook. A day earlier 6,340 chinook passed, one of only three daily counts that has exceeded 5,000. The tribal commercial fishery began May 5.
"We all took advantage in all of our fisheries," Steve Williams, the ODFW's director's Compact representative, said in response to testimony Monday in which commercial fishers pointed the finger of blame at anglers, and vice versa. "All of our fisheries, looking at least on paper, exceeded our impacts."
The upriver spring chinook count through May 11 at Bonneville totaled 82,027 spring chinook. Typically, passage through this date is 69 percent complete based on the 10-year average, according to a Monday ODFW-WDFW fact sheet. Dam passage during the past three years has been late, something fishery managers and fishers suspect has happened again this year. During those three years, passage was 54 percent complete on average by May 11.
Over time, 50 percent of the run has passed the dam by April 28 on average, North said. During the past three years the halfway mark has been reached as late as May 13.
While the steelhead opening date remains uncertain, LeFleur said the steelhead season will not get started later than June 16, when most spring chinook salmon have returned to hatcheries or spawning areas.
"At that point, the focus switches to summer chinook," she said. "We really hope those runs are more encouraging than this year's spring chinook returns."
"This is an unfortunate situation," LeFleur said. "Many of these fisheries were just getting started, but an updated run forecast indicates we need to take action on these spring chinook fisheries."
Sport and commercial fisheries below Bonneville Dam have been closed since mid-April, and the recreational fishery between Bonneville and McNary dams closed at the end of the day May 10.
Ongoing spring chinook fishing in tributaries to the Columbia River -- both above and below Bonneville Dam -- will remain open, because they do not affect the protected upriver fish, LeFleur said.
For updates on the lower Columbia River steelhead season, steelhead anglers can check WDFW's website (http://wdfw.wa.gov/) or call the Fishing Hotline (360-902-2500).