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Chinook at 30% of Projections

by Ley Garnett
Listen Oregon Public Radio - May 10, 2005

PORTLAND, OR -- Columbia River fishery managers have lowered their estimate of the Spring Chinook Run again. Tuesday the Columbia River Compact announced the run would likely total around 80,000 fish. That's only one-third of the preseason forecast of more than 250,000. Fish biologists are struggling to figure out what happened.

There were great expectations for this season's run of Spring Chinook. It was supposed to be one of the largest in modern history. But so far only about 52,000 salmon have made it to Bonneville Dam, which would make the run below the historical average.

Robin Ehlke of Washington Fish and Wildlife says there's no clear answer to the missing fish.

Robin Ehlke: We don't for sure. We could assume that perhaps there is not one primary reason for the lack of numbers over the dam; although there could be multiple minor reasons: ocean conditions, poor out migration, river conditions that aren't conducive to passage and also sea lion activity.

Salmon runs are cyclical and Ehlke says they usually last five to ten years.

Robin Ehlke: And it now looks like we're on a downhill slope for the run sizes and a lot of times that is what happens. If you have runs that are declining you tend to over predict.

Fishery managers stopped sport fishing on the Columbia last month. They had hoped to reopen the season, but now that won't happen.

Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association says it amounts to a ten million dollar hit to the economy. She blames federal management of the dams on the Columbia River.

Liz Hamilton: It's clear that hydro management in the Columbia is not being managed in the way that helps the fish. And if you look at the tributary returns they may be down due to ocean conditions but they have not crashed as they have with this spring run.

The tributary runs include Willamette River Spring Chinook and their numbers so far are matching preseason forecasts. Hamilton points out that Willamette salmon don't have to negotiate Columbia River dams.

Liz Hamilton: There are many, many things as humans we don't have control over, but we do have control over water. And the conditions under which the majority of this run out migrated were less than the fish needed, much less that the fish needed.

It's the job of state fish biologists, like Pete Hassemer, to uncover the mystery of the missing fish.

Pete Hassemer: I'm not sure ocean productivity explains all of the decline we're seeing. This is an extremely large, extremely precipitous decline.

Hassemer is in charge of Columbia River fish for Idaho Fish and Game. He says what seems to be missing are the fish that hatched in 2000 and went out to the ocean in 2002.

Pete Hassemer: And so that's why early in the season managers were saying, well the run is just late.' Five-year old fish come in early and if they're not there then the run does appear late. So that's part of the reduction, but there seems to be a definite decline in survival over just the last couple of years.

Hassemer says once the summer and fall Chinook salmon come in, they'll know a lot more. He says if those runs are bad that would give more weight to the argument that the fish are running into problems in the Pacific Ocean. But he thinks the mystery is much more complex.

Listen to Oregon Public Radio

by Ley Garnett
Chinook at 30% of Projections
Oregon Public Radio, May 10, 2005

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