Big Spring Chinook Run Forecast for Columbiaby Allen Thomas
The Columbian, December 12, 2007
Here's the number salmon anglers have been waiting to learn: a whopping 269,300 spring chinook - the third-best run in recent times - are forecast to enter the Columbia River headed for waters upstream of Bonneville Dam.
Ironically, Oregon is predicting only 34,000 spring chinook will return to the Willamette River. That would be the worst run since the 1990s.
A group of state, federal and tribal biologists completed the upper Columbia forecast this week. Both sport and commercial harvest levels are determined largely by the upper Columbia and Willamette forecasts, plus the relationship between the two.
The 2007 count of spring chinook jacks at Bonneville Dam was the second-highest on record. A forecast in the 300,000 range was anticipated by many Columbia River anglers.
Jacks are 3-year-old spring chinook, and are used to forecast the next year's number of 4-year-olds. This year's 4-year-olds are used to predict next year's 5-year-olds.
Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said the 2008 forecast calls for 255,500 4-year-old chinook, but just 13,800 spring chinook age 5.
"We were thinking in the 300,000 range, and if we had a more typical age-composition relationship, say 50,000 age-5 fish, we'd be there,'' Ellis said. "It turns out we're looking at a modest number of 5-year-olds next year.''
The forecast is made using jack numbers at a variety of locations scattered throughout the mid- and upper Columbia and Snake basins.
"People need to be realistic,'' Ellis said. "These assessments are a pre-season and early-season planning tool. With spring chinook, there's a significant chance of the forecast being over or under the actual return. The odds are the return will be some other number. Everybody needs to be ready for fisheries to be added or subtracted at what's perceived as the last-minute.''
The early look at chinook forecasts along the Washington and British Columbia coasts are not great, he said.
"Potentially, there are other indications that survival in the ocean is not as rosy as the jack counts would lead us to believe,'' Ellis said.
A strong upper Columbia run and a weak Willamette run is the flip-flop of what is typical. Non-Indian commercial fishing, traditionally limited to downstream of the mouth of the Willamette River at Kelley Point, potentially might be restricted to upstream of the Willamette in order to just catch upper Columbia chinook.
John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said there are too few Willamette spring chinook for a commercial fishery targeted on Willamette fish.
Oregon's Willamette River plan calls for subtracting the 15 percent wild fish component from the 34,000 forecast, North said, leaving about 29,000 hatchery chinook. Of those, 20,000 are needed to pass Willamette Falls for spawning needs and 3,000 for the Clackamas River.
That leaves 6,000 harvestable Willamette-origin spring chinook.
At the 6,000 level, the Oregon plan allocates them all to sport fishing, except less than 1 percent can be used for incidental catch in the winter gillnet season and in off-channel spring chinook seasons, like at Youngs Bay at Astoria.
"There aren't enough spring chinook to run an uninterrupted Willamette and mainstem (of the Columbia) sport fishery seven days a week,'' North said.
Larry Snyder, president of the Vancouver Wildlife League, said he fears that sport fishing downstream of Interstate 5 might close by mid-March, then be restricted to upstream of Interstate 5.
"The thought of not fishing in the Columbia below I-5 is disquieting,'' Snyder said. "To force everybody above I-5, or I-205, or wherever they draw the line, I see it as bad news. I don't seen a plus side at all.''
Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association said her group is waiting to see how the state fish and wildlife commissions split the catch between sportsmen and commercials.
"This industry is hurting,'' she said. "The spring season is like snow at Thanksgiving for the ski industry. It sets the tone for the whole year.''
Les Clark of the Northwest Gillnetters Association said the decline of the Willamette spring chinook run is puzzling, and wondered if too many fish are being intercepted in British Columbia and Alaskan waters.
There is enough room upstream of I-5 to accommodate the entire commercial fleet, he said.
"We used to fish up there,'' Clark said. "Some guys will need to user shallower gear.''
The commercial season will need to be later than the late February and March time frame that's normal downstream of Kelley Point, he said.
"When we start seeing some good numbers at the (Bonneville) dam, then we should fish,'' Clark said. "If there are fish around, it won't take us too long.''
What's next: The sport-commercial allocation agreement for upper Columbia spring chinook expires on Dec. 31. The two state fish and wildlife commissions tentatively are slated to be briefed on the issue jointly on Jan. 10. The Washington commission will meet Jan. 11 and 12 at the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay, and will take public testimony on the allocation issue. Washington's commissioners will make their allocation decision Feb. 1-2 in Olympia. Oregon's commissioners will make their decision Feb. 8 in Salem. A joint state hearing in mid-February will adopt specific sport and commercial fishing regulations.
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