Big Salmon Run on the Horizonby Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, February 19, 2001
This is the big one -- the largest run of spring chinook on the Columbia River since fish counts started in 1938.
"Having a run like this ... is what we all dream about," said Bruce Beamer, president of the Eastern Washington Steelhead Enhancement Foundation, a Tri-City angler advocacy group.
Fish will be so numerous -- 364,000 springers are predicted -- that many in the fractured-fish community feel chummy as spring nears.
There's likely to be a nontribal commercial fishery on the lower Columbia for the first time in more than 20 years, along with a rare tribal commercial fishery.
Even wild fish returns are expected to be abnormally high, adding to the regional euphoria.
"It's absolutely deliriously delightful," said Jim Martin, conservation director for Oregon's Pure Fishing, the nation's largest fishing tackle manufacturer.
State officials also appear grateful for the excess, if for no other reason than it gives them a break from anglers' frustrations over poor seasons.
"We're extremely excited about the large return," said Bill Tweit, Columbia River policy leader for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "With the use of selective fisheries options, we will meet our conservation goals and hope to offer the best fishing opportunities since the late 1970s."
Wallets should bulge in riverside towns as tens of thousands of anglers set out for salmon. One estimate is for anglers to spend a combined 180,000 days fishing -- and spending about $100 on related goods each day.
The big return also has eased some tensions in the fractured salmon political arena, with states and tribes reaching a landmark multi-year agreement late last week about the fishing seasons and how to handle "surplus" fish at the hatcheries.
That pact closes a period of rancor in which competing interests failed to negotiate a harvest program.
"I think it was made easier (to negotiate) with a large number of fish," said Chuck Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "There was a feeling that ... this has to be the year that we reach an agreement."
Preliminary reports were that the states get to harvest 2 percent of the run below Bonneville and tribes get 13 percent of the run above the dam. "There were years in the past when half the run would have been harvested in the river," Martin said. "Now we are just totally excited about having 2 percent."
One option for nontribal commercial fishers is to use tangle nets and fish traps -- two types of fishing gear that allow snared wild fish to be to returned to the river. The Bonneville Power Administration is paying for a large-scale test of the selective gear this spring.
Two public meetings have been scheduled in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., this week to discuss recreational and commercial fishing opportunities. For many years, "there hasn't been enough fish to go fishing for, so there wasn't anything to talk about," said Cindy LeFleur at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Now we can look at some options because we have some fish."
Harvest decisions ultimately will be based on how federally protected Snake and Upper Columbia chinook fare.
"It looks like there is no escape from the ESA stranglehold," said Martin, a former fisheries chief for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We need to make sacrifices not to impair the wild run."
With piles of surplus hatchery salmon, the states and federal government are faced with the politically ugly prospect of killing hatchery fish -- a tactic that's drawn heavy fire from Northwest residents who can't understand why they are being asked to sacrifice for salmon when agencies are clubbing them to death.
"The spirit of (the negotiations) was trying to avoid that whenever possible," Hudson said.
Another option -- one that attracts lots of support from tribes and anglers -- is to "outplant" fish that aren't needed to replenish hatcheries. That procedure involves trucking mature fish to less-populated tributaries and hoping they will spawn and rebuild runs.
For all the hype about the good times, however, few fail to notice what's likely next -- a return to dismal salmon runs. With very little water in the Columbia River system this year, young fish migrating to the ocean aren't expected to fare well.
"I am concerned about the long-term future of these fish," said Martin, who fears the big spring season will cause the public to lose track of how much wild fish have declined in recent decades.
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