Chinook Forecast Turns Rosy for Springby Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, December 18, 2001
Biologists predict next year's spring chinook run will be the second largest on record, setting the stage for another round of good sportfishing seasons on the Columbia and Willamette rivers.
The spring run also will give biologists their first indication of how much damage was done to juvenile salmon that migrated to the ocean during this year's drought, when the federal government gave hydropower generation a higher priority than fish.
A team of state, federal and tribal biologists is forecasting that 333,700 upriver spring chinook will enter the Columbia next year, the second-highest number since record-keeping began in 1938.
But 2002 should bring more than great sportfishing: It also will answer the question of how much the drought and aggressive electricity generation at Columbia River dams hurt juvenile salmon.
Conservationists, tribes and industry officials have given widely differing assessments of how much those fish were hurt by the federal government's decision to boost power generation by reducing the amount of water spilled over the dams and sending it through the turbines. The government generally spills more water over the dams when juvenile salmon are moving downriver because that provides safer passage for the fish.
Spring chinook are the largest of seven species of salmon and steelhead that return to the Columbia, and they once were a mainstay of vibrant commercial and sport fisheries. Most of the returning fish are hatchery-bred.
The first of the young salmon that left the Columbia this year will return next spring as immature adults, called jacks. Biologists say the number of returning jacks provides a reliable predictor of adult returns in the following year.
Most biologists aren't optimistic.
"The number of fish we get back will dip in 2003," said Steve King, salmon fishery manager for Oregon. "We'll see how bad it is in May of next year, when the jacks start showing up."
Although the 333,700 adult spring chinook forecast to return next year are fewer than the record 417,000 this year, biologists predict a longer sportfishing season in 2002. That's because more of the hatchery-born chinook will be marked with a clipped fin, making it easier for sport anglers to identify hatchery fish and to release unclipped wild fish.
In addition, commercial gill-netters will use a net called a tangle net, which kills fewer fish and also allows fishermen to release wild fish unharmed.
Reducing the impact on wild fish, which include endangered runs, should allow the sportfishing season to continue uninterrupted through April, King said.
Anglers and people in the sportfishing business said they're excited by the prospect of a huge number of salmon and a longer fishing season. "This year was the best fishing we've ever had," said Dan Grogan, president of Fishermen's Marine & Outdoor, which has stores in Portland and Oregon City. "Next year will be almost that good, and we'll probably get more people out fishing."
Most of the adult spring chinook returning next year -- an estimated 251,700 fish -- will be 4-year-olds. They should weigh 12 to 15 pounds when they return to fresh water, biologists said.
But the 2002 return also is expected to have a larger percentage of 5-year-old fish. They will weigh 16 to 30 pounds.
Although biologists did not predict the record-breaking runs of recent years, they attribute them to improved ocean conditions and heavy precipitation during the late 1990s in the Northwest. Ocean upwelling provided nutrients that salmon need. Snow and rain swelled rivers and gave young salmon a safer ride to the sea.
Upriver spring chinook have rebounded from a record low of 10,200 adults in 1995.
The Willamette River spring chinook run also is expected to be strong next year. The forecast is for 73,800 adults, compared with 80,000 this year, which saw the best return since 1991.
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