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High Encounter Rate with Wild Fish Shuts Down Fishery

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - February 21, 2003

The spring chinook salmon returning to the Willamette and Columbia River systems turned conventional wisdom upside down this week and in the process put a damper on a much anticipated gill-net season in the lower Columbia.

The non-tribal commercial spring chinook fishery that was expected to span six days was shut down Thursday after only two days because of an unanticipated high rate of encounter with wild Columbia-Snake upriver fish.

The gill-net season in the mainstem Columbia River was to include 18 hours of fishing on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday both this week and next, but has been closed until further notice. The decision was made by the Columbia River Compact after a review of the stock composition of the first two days' catch. The Compact, which includes Oregon and Washington representatives, sets mainstem commercial seasons.

The season, in which commercial fishers were allowed to use nets with 8-inch or larger mesh, was intended to target a large return of hatchery produced Willamette River spring chinook. Based on pre-season run size expectations, less than 10 percent of the chinook encountered by the commercial boats were expected to be headed above Bonneville Dam during the third week in February. This year, however, nearly 70 percent of the chinook are part of the "upriver" run.

Historic observations are that the Willamette fish generally return to freshwater earlier than the upriver fish that are bound for hatcheries and tributaries to the Columbia and Snake rivers. The trend was expected to be particularly pronounced this year because the bulk of the Willamette run about -- 80 percent or 89,200 of the predicted 109,800 run-- was expected to be 5-year-old fish while only 34,000 of an expected 145,000 upriver run was expected to be age 5. The age 5 fish also return earlier than the younger fish in most years.

The bulk of the fish landed Monday and Wednesday were 5-year-olds, but "what's happening is that upriver fish are dominating the run," said Patrick Frazier of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We would have expected the opposite."

"The commercial fishing industry can't catch a break," he said.

Through the first two days the commercial fleet caught and kept 506 fin-clipped spring chinook, according to data that Frazier stressed is still preliminary. The fishers also released 506 unmarked fish that are either wild upriver or Willamette fish, both protected under the Endangered Species Act, or unmarked hatchery fish. If the preliminary numbers hold up, that means a 48 percent mark rate.

An agreement between the state and federal NOAA Fisheries allows a 2 percent non-Indian and 9 percent tribal impact on the upriver spring chinook. The spring chinook impact limit is split with .59 percent allotted to commercial fishers and 1.11 given to sport anglers. Three-tenths is reserved as a buffer to allow for a buffer below the impact limit and allow for special fisheries later in the season.

But, those preliminary estimates indicate that the initial two days of commercial resulted in a .299 percent upriver spring chinook impact -- half the allowable impact.

The impacts mounted quickly for a variety of reasons. The state agencies estimate a 50 percent mortality rate for chinook caught in the large mesh nets. That's despite the fact the fishers are required to put unmarked fish in "recovery boxes filled with swirling, oxygenated water -- if they are in need of revival -- and then release them back into the river. The larger mesh tends to ensnarl the salmon around the gills and suffocate them.

The Willamette mark rate is 80 percent while the upriver mark rate is only about 50 percent. The fishery managers wanted to target the Willamette run, which has a 15 percent allowable impact on the wild fish, before the upriver fish arrived in order to maximize the catch and minimize the impact. But the fish did not cooperate.

Once the stock composition shifted to include more upriver fish, the managers had intended to shift to smaller mesh tangle nets, for which they calculate a much lower mortality rate of 25 percent.

The states will conduct test fishing in cooperation with volunteer commercial fishers Tuesday, Feb. 25 and Monday, March 3 to try divine the stock composition. All fish caught will be released. When the stock compositions swings to more of a Willamette, marked fish flavor the fishery would reopen. The Compact will meet Feb. 26 and March 4 to discuss the results and make a determination about future fisheries.

The sport fishery for spring chinook on the Columbia remains open from the mouth at Buoy 10 upstream to Bonneville Dam and from the Tower Island power lines, about six miles below The Dalles Dam, upstream to McNary Dam. Bank fishing also is allowed between Bonneville Dam and the Tower Island power lines on the Oregon side. The season will stay open through May 15 if the non-Indian sport harvest limits are not reached. Additional information on gear and bag limits may be found in the 2003 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations.

It was estimated that the six-day fishery would land as many as 2,000 marked salmon at what is a prime time for sales. Fish markets and seafood restaurants anxiously await the first spring chinook of the season because the meat is highly prized for its oil content and flavor.

Barry Espenson
High Encounter Rate with Wild Fish Shuts Down Fishery
Columbia Basin Bulletin, February 21, 2003

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