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Lower River Chinook Fishing Closed
as Run Counts Drop

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 30, 2004

Fears that a late-timed 2004 spring chinook salmon return may also be less numerous than expected has prompted Oregon and Washington officials to close what has been productive mainstem Columbia River fishery.

The closure, which is effective at the end of the day today (April 30), is for mainstem waters from the Interstate 5 bridge at Portland/Vancouver to the river's mouth at Buoy 10. The portion of the river from the I-5 to Bonneville Dam had been closed to sport angling last week as fishery officials attempted to hold down "impacts" to spring chinook stocks bound for locales above Bonneville. The wild Upper Columbia and Snake River portions of the upriver run are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The anglers are only allowed to keep fin-clipped hatchery fish, but a portion of the unmarked fish that are released die. Such mortalities count toward overall upriver spring chinook impact limits agreed to by the states and tribes. The limits are endorsed by NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for protecting listed salmon and steelhead stocks.

This year it was forecast 360,700 upriver spring chinook adults would return to the mouth of the Columbia River. But as the date nears when biologists would expect most of the run to have appeared, only 99,922 fish have been counted crossing Bonneville Dam through Tuesday. About 50 percent of a late-timed run will have, on average, passed Bonneville by May 1. Additionally, sport and commercial fishers have caught and kept 23,218 marked chinook this late winter and spring with an estimated 76 percent of those fish from upriver origins.

If the 360,700 forecast becomes reality, it would be the second largest on record since counts began at Bonneville in 1938. But meager counts of late are raising doubts. Counts rose as high as 12,656 on April 20 and 13,030 on April 22. But the counts had dropped to a range of from 3,000 to 5,000 daily for the five days leading to Wednesday's bi-state sport fishing hearing. Wednesday's and Thursday's counts fell even further, to 2,137 and 1,076 respectively.

"Every day that goes by that we don't get large counts. it gets harder and harder to get to that forecast," Stuart Ellis told Tim Flint of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Steve Williams of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Ellis, a Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission biologist, is vice chair of the multi-agency Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) that produces the run forecasts.

It is too early to produce a more precise run forecast based on actual dam counts. But run estimation methods that have proven successful in the past for the most part indicate that the run will be smaller than the preseason forecast.

TAC advised the sport panel that fisheries be managed to a potential run-size range of from 264,000 to the preseason estimate. A joint ODFW-WDFW staff recommendation to Flint and Williams was that the mid-point of the range -- 312,000 adult returns to the mouth of the river -- be used for management purposes.

That means that impacts incurred to-date are suddenly larger because they are based on a much smaller run size forecast. With the new calculation of a 312,000 return, the lower mainstem sport fishery is estimated to have incurred 94 percent of their allowable impacts through April 25. They are expected to incur 99.5 percent of their impacts by the time the fishery closes Friday. The fishery has been open since the beginning of January but began in earnest in April with the arrival of larger numbers of fish.

It had been hoped that the fishery could last into May. But good fishing in recent weeks, and a decrease in the run size, forced the closure to avoid breaching impact limits. The April catch rates was 0.31 salmon per angler overall, and 0.417 in the area between I-5 and Bonneville while that area was open. The sport anglers caught an estimated 30,946 salmon and kept 23,737 in the lower mainstem through April 25 during 154,009 angler trips. An estimated 76 percent of the catch was from upriver with the balance from the Willamette River or other lower Columbia tributaries.

The lower Columbia mainstem gill-net fleet caught 23,209 chinook and kept 13,546 (including 5,475 upriver chinook) during outings in March and April. Gill-netters had hoped for another mainstem outing or two, but the new management consideration -- the 312,000-fish run size -- pushed them to 100 percent of their allowable impacts.

In a rare agreement, sport and commercial fishers alike agreed that it is time to stop fishing unless the Bonneville counts pick up drastically.

"We're not interested in going over the sport impacts," said Liz Hamilton, an angler and executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

Commercial fisherman Jim Wells said an end "is probably the wisest. We'll play it a little conservatively if that's the way it has to go."

Both Flint and Williams indicated that they thought even a 312,000-fish estimate may be optimistic.

"The late run better hurry up and get here or we're going to be in a bind," Williams said. "I'm losing faith that we're in that 300,000 range."

Flint pointed out that TAC's latest work was done Monday, prior to disappointingly low counts the next two days. He said he expected the run to be at the low end of the range.

"There's a good possibility that the run size is that low or lower," Flint said the 264,000-fish bottom of the range. He expressed concern that two other ongoing fisheries -- commercial efforts at "select areas" near the river mouth and sport fishing in the mainstem reservoirs -- may have to be closed. The select area fisheries are allowed 0.1 percent of the 0.8 percent overall commercial impact limit. The upriver sport fishery gets 0.1 percent of the sport fishers' 1.2 percent allowable impact.

Flint and Williams agreed to meet again Tuesday morning with the strong possibility that the select area and upriver fisheries would be closed at the end of the following day. TAC is expected to produce a run size forecast update on Monday.

WDFW said in a press release this week that fisheries above Bonneville Dam are not affected by this week's Compact action, however fish managers are expected to close fishing on the river from Bonneville to McNary Dam effective May 6. A formal decision on that closure will be made in a Compact hearing May 4.

The ODFW said in a press release that for the mainstem Columbia River from Tower Island power lines upstream to McNary Dam and the Oregon bank between Bonneville Dam and the Tower Island power lines (about 6 miles below The Dalles Dam), the season for adipose fin-clipped spring chinook, adipose fin-clipped steelhead, and shad is open seven days a week until the allowable impacts are reached or May 15, which ever occurs first.

Also this week, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, on behalf of four Northwest treaty tribes, requested special operations at lower Columbia River dams next week to aid tribal gillnetters while they fish for spring chinook.

Representing the Nez Perce Tribe, the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of the Warms Springs Reservation, CRITFC's Kyle Martin asked the Technical Management Team this week to approve a system operational request to hold reservoir levels at three lower Columbia River dams full and steady for the two and one half day treaty fishery.

The Columbia River Compact this week approved a treaty Indian commercial salmon fishery in Zone 6 from Tuesday, May 4 to Thursday, May 6 at 6 p.m.

This could be the only request for a spring treaty fishery, Martin said, although he added that the tribes have not ruled out a mid-May fishery as well as continued platform fishing. "There may be little time to do the fishing and that's why it's advantageous to have the best possible conditions and stable pools," Martin said.

"The Corps always tries to keep the Bonneville pool as steady as possible (for the treaty fishery) because that is where most of the fishing occurs," said Cindy Henriksen of the Corps.

She added that the Corps is holding a minimum tailwater elevation at The Dalles Dam for tests and that will also work well for keeping that reservoir elevation as steady as possible and well within the three foot fluctuations allowed at the dam. John Day Dam is operating at an elevation between 262.5 feet to 264 feet in accordance with the 2000 NOAA Fisheries biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System, Henriksen said.

The SOR asks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold the Bonneville Dam pool steady within one foot of full, which is an elevation between 76.5 feet and 75.5 feet during the fishery. The fishery is from 6 a.m. May 4 to 6 p.m. May 6. The SOR also asks the Corps to hold The Dalles Dam pool within one foot at an elevation between 159.5 feet and 158.5 feet and to hold the John Day Dam pool within one foot at an elevation between 264.5 feet and 263.5 feet.

Pool fluctuations at Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day dams during the tribal fishery can cause several problems, according to the SOR. Fluctuations tend to increase currents that sweep debris into nets and can tear nets from their anchors. Rapid drops in reservoir elevation can entangle nets and cause boat access difficulties. Fluctuations can impact "tribal incomes, food resources and cultural practices," the SOR said.

CBB Staff
Lower River Chinook Fishing Closed as Run Counts Drop
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 30, 2004

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