Big Fish Numbers, Big Harvest;by Barry Espenson
A good news/bad news scenario for lower Columbia River mainstem gill netters has become heavily weighted on the good news side this late summer and fall with the demand, the price and the catch growing beyond expectations in recent weeks.
Beleaguered commercial fishing interests continue to grumble about fishery management they say is too conservative and plays favorites with the recreational fishers. But they're complaining with measured breathe while hauling in the largest fall chinook catch since 1989.
"We've been fishing very hard," Salmon for All executive director Oliver Waldman told members of the Columbia River Compact during its Thursday meeting in Astoria, Ore. The Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fishing seasons, is made up of representatives of the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife department directors. Tim Flint sat in for WDFW this week and Steve King sat in for ODFW.
The non-tribal commercial fishers are expected to catch 68,000 fall chinook in fisheries that string out through October. The next best total since 1989 was 45,000 last year.
This year's chinook total includes 15,300 in fisheries concluded in August, another 31,100 caught from Sept. 15-25 and 9,600 expected at select area fisheries near the river mouth. Hatchery coho and chinook salmon complete their rearing in net pens in the select areas before being released. They are netted as they hone in on the select areas as returning adults.
The commercial gill netters are expected to catch 201,000 coho, 90,000 in the mainstem and a whopping 111,704 at the select areas. That select area coho catch is a record.
Fish processor Steve Fick told the Compact that lower river gill netters are now selling their catch at prices 100 to 140 percent higher than last year. The price jump in recent weeks is caused by a variety of factors, Fick said. The Canadian coho catch was below standards this year so buyers from that country have joined the competition for Columbia River fish. Exports to Europe are up as well because a weak U.S. dollar has made American products more affordable overseas, he said.
And finally, a months-long string of negative happenings and reports about farm fish and the farm fishing industry have served to reduce both the demand and the supply for its product. Farmed fish produced cheaply and in great quantity has in recent years served to drive down the price commercial fishers get for their catch.
Gill netter Les Clark said those factors, as well as a couple new buyers in the region, have helped push up prices. He said fishers were receiving as much as $1.08 per pound for chinook and 64 cents per pound for coho. The prices were less than half that a month ago.
Clark, however, scalded the Compact for not giving fishermen enough time on the water to harvest what is proving to be an overwhelming surplus return of coho and fall chinook to lower river hatcheries. Actual tallies to-date at hatcheries prompted the Technical Advisory Committee to upgrade its prediction of the "Lower River Hatchery" fall chinook return from the 140,000 to 150,000.
The total return to the river mouth is now estimated to be 914,800 adults -- the largest return since at least 1942. That year's run estimate was 979,000 fall chinook returns, though the calculation included subadults or jacks. The 1941 count was nearly 1.2 million fall chinook. This year, more than 45,000 jacks have been tallied at Bonneville Dam.
"More of these fish need to be harvested," said Clark, who urged the Compact to open the mainstem fishery for five days each week during the last three weeks of October.
"This is not a conservation issue," Clark said. Most of the Compacts decisions are made with the goal of keeping within particular guidelines regarding the harvest of protected fish. Among those considerations are limits on "upriver bright" fall chinook harvest -- 8.25 percent for non-tribal sport and commercial harvests. The latest prediction is that that impact will total 8.08 percent with three days per week of fishing in October.
The bright impact is in place to control impacts on Snake River fall chinook brights, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The vast majority of the upriver bright run has already passed upstream. The bulk of the remaining catch will be from the late-run coho stocks. The late fall seasons are also managed to limit impacts to federally listed chum salmon and Oregon-listed late stock coho.
The Compact ultimately decided to approve three day per week fisheries, but agreed to meet again on Oct. 20 to consider adding another day of fishing in each of the final two weeks of fishing in October. King said that would allow fisheries officials to evaluate impacts to that date, and better assess the salmon's migration status. Flint concurred.
"I'm not interested in pushing right up to the limits of the ESA impacts," Flint said.
Frances Clark said that cautious early management of commercial fisheries has prevented the gill netters from getting their share of the upriver bright impacts. The reigning management agreement allows sport fishers 52 percent of the impact and commercial fishers 48 percent. That goal is already inequitable, she said, but the reality is worse with the sport fishers now estimated to have harvested 61 percent of the impacts.
"Again this year, the sports will go over their impacts and the gill netters will leave impacts on the table," Frances Clark said.
King said he still considered the fall season to be a success, despite the fact that sport fishers will get more than the share they were allotted in the guiding management agreement. He pointed out that the commercial fishers still are hauling in more fish than they have been able to in years.
"They (sport anglers) are going to get the majority of the upriver bright impacts. There's nothing we can do about it," King said.
The treaty tribes involved in fisheries in the reservoirs above Bonneville notified the Compact that they intended to end their commercial salmon efforts, both gill netting and platform fishing, when the previously approved fishing period ends Saturday. Stuart Ellis of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission staff told the Compact, in written testimony, that the tribes were near their impact limit for "B" steelhead. The tribes are allowed a 15 percent impact on the B run. The naturally spawning Snake River steelhead run, of which the Idaho-bound B run are a part, is also ESA listed.
The tribes expect to have caught 131,330 chinook by the time their commercial fisheries end, including 52,100 upriver brights -- a 13.7 percent impact. The management agreement between the states and tribes allows Indian fishers a 23.04 percent impact on the bright chinook -- which are for the most part bound for Hanford Reach spawning grounds.
The tribes reported a catch of 15,800 steelhead of which about 1,000 will be B steelhead.
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