Select Area Fisheryby Barry Espenson
Lower Columbia River commercial fishermen have again been victims of a 2003 spring chinook return that defied, at least to this point, all predictions about when, where and how the salmon migration would proceed.
An unprecedented "take" of upriver chinook occurred during the first few days of what was supposed to be a commercial fishery immune to the sanctions of the Endangered Species Act. As a result Oregon and Washington state fishery managers on Thursday shut down the fishery, which was to continue that night. The Columbia River Compact, which sets mainstem commercial seasons, will meet again Monday afternoon to review the status of the spring chinook run and decide how and when the gill netting will proceed.
The fishing last week was focused within the boundaries of "select areas." The sites are areas where young hatchery spring chinook were released from rearing pens. On their return as adults, they home in on the area where they were released. The areas are off the mainstem where few of the migrating upriver fish rarely venture, at least until this year.
The strategy allows fishery managers to set targeted fisheries at the release sites where the gill netters are not expected to encounter many of the upriver fish. The wild Snake River and Upper Columbia components of the upriver run are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The preliminary harvest totals from fisheries last week at Young's Bay, Blind Slough, Tongue Point and Deep River select areas show a successful start with more than 3,000 hatchery spring chinook, and more than 300 upriver salmon, netted.
Fisheries officials had predicted an upriver impact of 0.05 percent and a catch of 12,000 over 16 nights of fishing at Blind Slough and Tongue Point, 25 at Deep River and 36 nights at Youngs Bay.
But because of the high incidences of upriver fish, the fishing from April 16 to 18 produced an the impact of 0.16 percent -- more than triple the expectation for the whole season. The impacts matched those of last year's total for the entire season when 14,000 chinook were caught. The percentage of upriver fish in the catch was as high as 22 percent and 19 percent at, respectively, Deep River and Tongue Point.
The effort was also high. Patrick Frazier of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that more than 125 fishing boats took part, including 90 at Youngs Bay alone where 2,312 hatchery fish, and an estimated 209 upriver chinook, were caught.
"It was the highest participation that we've ever seen in that fishery," Frazier said.
To protect the listed fish, a state/federal/tribal management calls for an overall impact limit of 2 percent for non-tribal fisheries in the mainstem Columbia. The sport anglers get a 1.11 percent impact below McNary Dam and commercial fishers get .59 percent. The remaining .30 is split between the sport fisheries above McNary and the select areas with the expectation that some impacts would remain as a management buffer.
Officials estimate that after a scheduled sport fishery ends Saturday (April 26), only .23 percent impact will remain.
That total includes an early mainstem commercial gill netting fishery in which impacts of 0.67 percent were compiled after only three days on the water, largely because of an unanticipated stock mix that was heavily weighted in favor of upriver fish. Historical records told managers that the stock mix is normally, in March, dominated by Willamette River fish. The result was that the commercial mainstem impacts far exceeded the industry allocation .59 percent.
The sport fishery below McNary is expected to be at 0.88 percent after Saturday (it's allocation is 1.11 percent) and the overall impact though Saturday for non-tribal fisheries is expected to be 1.73 percent.
During Thursday's compact, commercial fishers asked that the Oregon and Washington officials keep the select areas open in some form.
"It's been a nightmare as far as trying to sell fish," Steve Fick, owner of an Astoria fish processing plant, said of unexpected closures. Customers had been told that there would be a relatively continuous supply of fish through the planned six-week selective fishery. Now that supply line would be cut.
He and others such as Salmon for All's Oliver Waldman talked of the potential economic impacts, piled on in rural region that is already reeling financially.
"A lot of people didn't have jobs for the past six weeks," since the abbreviated mainstem season was closed, Fick said. The fact that the ocean troll season is set to begin May 1 means that, with a swamped market, prices will likely fall after next week leaving a lesser opportunity for profit for the river gill netters. That makes fisheries this week and next important for the fishers financially.
Fick suggest that fishing times at the select areas be shortened, and/or the fishing boundaries be further limited as means for reducing the impact and allowing at least some catch. But in the end, the Compact elected to wait until Monday when a new estimate of the run size will be calculated with another week's dam counts.
"All these things are intriguing but we really ought to be risk averse," said Bill Tweit, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's representative to the Compact. "If we screw up. we put the entire rest of the select area fishery at risk, not to mention the other fisheries" such as the sport fisheries above McNary Dam.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Steve King agreed. The upriver fish are, obviously, in the select areas. Letting more time pass would allow the run to move upriver toward hatcheries and tributary spawning grounds above Bonneville Dam.
"The consequence of another .1 or .2 percent impact" would likely be a total closure, King said. A savior would be if dam counts of the passing salmon justify another upgrade in the forecast run size.
The preseason forecast was for a return of 145,400 upriver spring chinook adults to the Columbia. Last week the run forecast was adjusted upward to an estimate that 174,000 adult upriver chinook would return. On Monday, state, tribal and federal fisheries officials pushed that estimate up again -- to 193,000.
The count at Bonneville Dam -- the first in the hydrosystem that the fish encounter -- through Wednesday was 111,306 adult spring chinook. So far 30,489 spring chinook had been caught by sport and commercial fishers on the Columbia River, for the most part below Bonneville dam. Of those, 20,089 were marked, hatchery fish that would be kept.
It is expected that sport anglers will catch another 2,000 fish through Saturday.
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