Fish Run with a Fat Tailby Barry Espenson
A larger than anticipated Columbia/Snake River fall chinook salmon return -- and one that is showing a fat "tail" -- allowed fishery managers this week to expand both sport and commercial opportunities on the Columbia mainstem.
State officials decided Wednesday that the sport fishing season for chinook on the mainstem from Bonneville Dam to near the river mouth at the Rocky Point -Tongue Point line will remain open until the end of the year. The decision reverses one made just last week to close the fishery Oct. 1. Fall chinook fishing also remains open in the mainstem river above Bonneville Dam.
Representatives of the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife, meeting as the Columbia River Compact, also decided to expand this week's non-tribal commercial fishery in the mainstem waters below Bonneville. Last week officials had pondered whether or not to allow any commercial fishing this week at all on the lower river. In fact, two Sept. 23 commercial fisheries were cancelled because it was feared a September non-tribal commercial fleet's allocation of chinook would be surpassed.
The return of upriver bright fall chinook, which had been forecast in preseason at 287,000 adult fish, has repeatedly been increased in-season as counts at Bonneville hold strong. The most recent URB projection is for a return of 358,000 adults by the end of the run, said Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River harvest manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. That increased run forecast means that the tribal (a 23.04 percent impact on the URB run), sport (4.29 percent) and non-tribal commercial (3.96 percent) shares of the overall catch also grow. Columbia River fall salmon fisheries are structured to avoid excessive impacts to Snake River wild upriver-bright fall chinook, which have protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The mainstem salmon daily limit in the area continues to be six fish, only two of which may be adults. Only one of the adult salmon may be a chinook. All chum, sockeye and wild coho must be released. The area is also open for retention of hatchery steelhead.
The Technical Advisory Committee met Wednesday to review dam count information and data retrieved from tagged fish that have been harvested in the lower river and by tribal fishers in the reservoirs above Bonneville Dam. TAC, comprised of federal, state and tribal fisheries officials, advises U.S. v Oregon proceedings and also contributes to the Compact and sport fishery processes.
TAC decided to bump up the URB forecast and that of the Bonneville Pool Hatchery fall chinook run from 182,000 to 184,000. The BPH or "tule" run is primarily composed of fish originating at Spring Creek Hatchery. The URP run is dominated by wild fish from the Columbia's Hanford Reach.
The combined URB, BPH and Mid-Columbia bright fall chinook run forecast is 644,000 -- up from a preseason forecast and comparable to the upriver return of 704,000 last year. The upriver run last year included the biggest Mid-Columbia bright return on record and the URB return, 373,200, was the largest since 1987 (a record 420,660).
Through Wednesday the fall chinook count at Bonneville Dam was 546,903 -- a figure obviously that does not include upriver fall chinook that were caught as a part of the sport and commercial fisheries in the lower river.
The overall adult fall chinook return last year, including lower river runs, was 893,200 -- the largest since 1948. The latest forecast for the 2004 run is 754,000 (compared to a preseason projection of 634,900).
"We feel we have some room for additional commercial, as well as sport, fisheries," said LeFleur, who also chairs TAC.
The Compact had met a week earlier, closing the planned Sept. 23 commercial fisheries and leaving in question hoped-for fishing this week. But a Sept. 24 run update that pushed URB expectations to 345,000 adult returns allowed the setting of four non-tribal gill-net outings on Monday and Wednesday. Two of the night fisheries stretched into the early hours Tuesday and Thursday.
Wednesday's boost in the forecast to 358,000 allowed an expansion of the lower river gill-net fisheries. A five-hour nighttime fishery that was to end at 1 a.m. Thursday in the waters between Bonneville and the Longview Bridge was expanded to 30 hours -- until 7 a.m. Friday. The Compact on Wednesday also added a 24-hour gill-net fishery that began Thursday in the river below Longview Bridge.
Fisheries officials estimate the lower mainstem gill-net fleet had caught about 14,900 chinook and 9,500 coho in fisheries last week -- the first of the so-called September fishing period. They caught 11,100 chinook during August in mainstem fisheries and expect to have caught 8,300 chinook in off-channel "select areas" before those fisheries conclude.
It was estimated that Monday fisheries yielded a catch of about 2,700 more.
Fishery managers aimed to reserve impacts of about 5,600 chinook that would be incidental catch during coho-directed fisheries during October.
Sport fishers caught 16,100 chinook at Buoy 10 before that fishery was closed following the Labor Day weekend. It was estimated that the lower river sport fishery would harvest an additional 16,000 chinook through Sept. 30. The upriver mainstem projection is a catch of 2,100 chinook.
It is estimated that, for catches to-date, lower river (below Bonneville) gill-netters have incurred about 53 percent of the available non-tribal impacts while the sport harvest represents 47 percent of that 8.25 percent impact on URBs.
This year's upriver fall chinook run has defied predictions and continues to do so. Normally even in the previous two year's high returns the Bonneville counts would have tailed off to 2,000 or fewer (1,729 on Sept. 29, 2002 and 2,587 on Sept. 29, 2003). But this year that strong tail is evident with counts for the week ending Sept. 29 slowly tapering from 8,506 to 4,090.
Tribal fishers were also out on the mainstem reservoirs above Bonneville this week for a 3 ½-day fishery that was to end at 6 p.m. Thursday. Tribal gill-netters had caught about 85,000 chinook through Sept. 17 and last week's catch was estimated to be about 35,000.
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