Drastic Drop Predicted
by Joe Rojas-Burke
Biologists are at a loss to explain a steep decline
in salmon expected on the river -- from 254,000 to 100,000 or fewer
The Columbia River's prized spring chinook salmon, struck by severe and unexplained losses during migrations to sea and back, could amount to less than a third of the expected numbers this year, fishery managers said Tuesday.
The forecast calls for 70,000 to 100,000 chinook to head upriver, down from the 254,000 predicted earlier this year. As a consequence, tribes with treaty rights to salmon agreed Tuesday to suspend all gill-net fishing, including for ceremonial and subsistence purposes. Idaho called an end to its sport season on the lower Snake River. Oregon and Washington halted commercial and sport fishing last month on the Columbia.
Long-term implications are less certain. The poor showing is not as bad as the worst years of the 1990s, when spring chinook counts at Bonneville Dam dropped below 20,000. But this year's numbers have interrupted the striking resurgence of the chinook run that began in 2000, peaked in 2001 and remained strong through 2004.
"It's sobering," said Curt Melcher of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It would be nice to think that the runs we've had in recent years are not something we'll look back upon as the good old days."
Conservation groups have been quick to blame federal hydropower dams. Pat Ford of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition said the government squandered the opportunity given by high wild salmon returns of 2001 to promote salmon recovery.
Biologists aren't sure what accounts for the surprising turn for the worse.
"The hydro system is a big killer of fish -- but it's always a big killer of fish," said Stuart Ellis, fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "I don't think it's necessarily fair to blame them with killing all these missing fish."
Conditions during the outmigration of juveniles don't stand out as a probable cause. Most of the spring chinook returning this year went to sea in 2002 and 2003, when river conditions were better for young fish than in 2001, an extreme drought year.
Ocean conditions change year to year and can drastically undermine salmon survival. But biologists predicted a decent return this year based largely on the number of fish that returned prematurely last year as 3-year-olds, called "jacks."
"We had a good jack return last year, and that generally indicates good ocean survival and good downstream migration," Melcher said.
A change for the worse in ocean survival has not showed up in greatly reduced returns of Willamette River chinook, which are returning at about the rate biologists expected, Melcher said.
Even with the greatly reduced run now likely, fishing this year probably won't cut deeper into stocks of wild fish than the 2 percent managers set as an acceptable kill of threatened and endangered upriver stocks. "Right now, we're at or below our allowable impact rate," Melcher said. Oregon on Tuesday opted to allow limited fishing in "select area" bays and inlets where nearly all the fish are returning hatchery stocks.
Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the tribal fish commission, said the tribes decided to end gill-netting so that traditional dip-net fishing from platforms could continue. The tribes had expected to catch about 40,000 fish during the spring run. Hudson said expectations are now in the hundreds of fish.
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