Fall Chinook Numbers Up,
by Barry Espenson
Though they don't match up with so-called historic numbers, several chinook salmon runs this past year, and forecasts for the spring of 2000, surpass recent history.
An early prediction is that 134,000 Columbia-Snake upriver spring chinook will pass Bonneville Dam next spring, the most since 1977 when 143,000 were estimated to have passed the first dam on the Columbia River on their way to spawning grounds in tributaries and upper reaches.
And the fall chinook run that dwindled recently was "better than we expected," said Mike Matylewich of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. According to the Fish Passage Center's final report of the season, 241,661 fall chinook had passed Bonneville by Oct. 28. That amounts to 128 percent of the 1998 run and 136 percent of the past 10-year average. The run had declined to about 100 adults per day by the end of that week.
The strong fall chinook run meant a relatively bountiful harvest for tribal and non-tribal fishers. Tribal nets hauled in 76,480 chinook, 4,258 coho and 15,620 summer steelhead during five separate commercial seasons (each of three to five days) and during ceremonial and subsistence fishing.
The tribal catch totaled 23.75 percent of the upriver bright run, which was used as an indicator of the impact on listed Snake River fall chinook. The allowable impact was 25.3 percent for treaty fisheries. Matylewich said the chinook catch was about 45 percent, slightly less than the 50 percent share of the harvestable surplus given tribes under case law and treaty rights.
Non-tribal sport and commercial fishers landed 27,377 chinook this past season, bringing the total catch to 103,857.
The strong fall chinook run included counts at Snake River dams well above the 1998 count and 10-year average. A total of 6,489 adult fall chinook were counted at Ice Harbor, 150 percent of the 1998 count and 180 percent of the 10-year average.
The count at Lower Granite Dam was 3,321 adults as of Oct. 28. Matylewich called that count the highest since that uppermost of the four Lower Snake River dams was completed in 1975.
Buoying those numbers are likely returning fish from the Lyons Ferry Hatchery supplementation program. About 450,000 fall chinook yearlings have been released annually both from the hatchery below Lower Granite and at sites on the Snake and Clearwater above the dam.
A final count on how many of the 3,321 number were "wild" spawners and how many are supplementation returns won't be calculated until later this winter when PIT tag data is analyzed. The wild Snake River fall chinook run is listed as threatened. This is the second year that fish from the hatchery releases have returned in search of spawning grounds.
Representatives of Lower Columbia River treaty tribes, of the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho and of federal fish management agencies have in U.S. v Oregon negotiations produced management agreements regarding fish harvests and hatchery practices. Those negotiations are conducted with treaty rights, and potential impacts to endangered or threatened species, in mind.
A 10-year management and three-year supplemental agreements expired at the end of last year. U.S. v Oregon negotiators adopted a season-to-season approach, agreeing on harvest limits early last year for spring-summer migrants and last summer for the fall chinook. With numerous issues bogging down talks on another long-term plan, Matylewich predicted the group would again focus on short-term agreements.
"We have some time yet to talk about the spring season," Matylewich said. The spawning spring chinook salmon begin reaching Bonneville in mid-March at the earliest. Among their number are Upper Columbia River spring-run fish listed as endangered this past spring and the Snake River run, listed as threatened in 1992.
The U.S. v Oregon negotiations are guided in part by run estimates calculated by the Technical Advisory Committee's state, federal and tribal membership. The group is still refining its spring chinook forecast. Fall chinook calculations will follow later this winter.
Past agreements regarding tribal harvests have focused on escapement levels, both for the total run as counted at Bonneville and for its listed Snake River component. Non-tribal harvest numbers also hinge on forecast of the total run and its listed component, according to Pat Frazier of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Muddying the water this year for non-tribal fishers below Bonneville are Lower Columbia and Willamette run listings. Forecasts for those runs are not yet completed.
Forecasts depend in large part on the return of spring chinook jacks or 3-year-olds. They portend the status of their brood class, which normally that returns to freshwater in strength as 4-year-olds to spawn.
This past year less than 39,000 spring chinook passed Bonneville, their number included 4- and 5-year-olds from the poorest brood years on record (21,000 spawners returned in 1994 and 10,200 returned in 1995. But the 1999 return included 8,691 jacks, according to the FPC report, nearly four times the 10-year average of 2,467 jacks.
The 1999 spring chinook return was low, but much higher than initially expected. Improving ocean conditions may have been a boon to their survival, and to the survival of the 2000 run.
"Hopefully it means our water conditions are improving," Frazier said in noting four springs of better-than-expected returns.
TAC is still trying for determine what portion of that projected 134,000 spring chinook run are listed fish, Frazier said. That will ultimately determine how many fish tribal and non-tribal fishers are allowed to take.
"That's all up in the air," Matylewich said of harvest discussions.
It has been slim pickings in recent years, with poor returns limiting tribal impacts on the Snake River run to 5 percent. That has resulted in a total catch in some years of fewer 2,000 fish. All are devoted to ceremonial and subsistence purposes.
"It's been that way since the late '70s," Matylewich said.
Strong returns could push the tribal impact on listed fish to 7 percent under the old formula. The non-tribal impact limit has ranged from 1 to 3 percent depending on the size of the run, Frazier said. Those percentages could change, depending on the result of U.S. v Oregon negotiations.
"Those kind of rules don't exist right now," Frazier said. An interim agreement on the 1999 fall fishing season expires Dec. 31. The stop-gap spring 1999 agreement expired earlier this summer.
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