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Little Evidence of Last Year's 'Salmon Massacre'

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, May 17, 2002

Jack counts at Bonneville Dam have surprised harvest managers this year. The number of precocious males passing the dam is a lot higher than they had expected, said WDFW's Joe Hymer. The jacks return a year ahead of the normal run. Generally, they are a pretty good signal of next year's run strength.

After last year's drought, low flows and little spill in the hydro system, environmentalists and some fish managers called last year's migration a "salmon massacre," leading several groups to sue BPA over last year's hydro operations.

"Though, it's too early to tell, it doesn't look like last year's migration was the "death brood" that some people thought," Hymer told NW Fishletter. He said managers would know a lot more in a few weeks, when more jack counts will be available from upstream dams on the Snake and upper Columbia. Last year, most spring chinook were barged from the Snake. Most vulnerable to mortality were migrating juveniles from the upper Columbia, which had to pass as many as nine dams in the second worst water year on record.

So far, around 4,500 jacks have been counted at Bonneville, which currently tracks pretty closely with the 1999 jack count--precursor to an adult spring chinook run of nearly 180,000 fish. Even if last year's outmigration had experienced normal conditions, their return would be expected smaller than those of the last two years, since overall numbers of migrating hatchery and wild smolts were down considerably in 2001.

Meanwhile, this year's adult run finally seems to be slowing down. Just days after state and tribal harvest managers had recently downsized their forecast of the spring chinook run on the Columbia River, they bumped the number back up, from 238,000 to 293,000 fish, then up to 309,000, based on rising counts at the dams. On Monday they ratcheted their estimate down to 303,000. The run seems late this year, with only 58,000 chinook counted by April 23, when managers were still holding to their original estimate of 334,000 fish. Since then, another 180,000 fish have poured past the dam. Managers figure that the run is about 85 percent complete.

Tribal fishermen have landed nearly 32,000 chinook this spring, with about 4,600 fish left to harvest under guidelines that allow them 12 percent of the upriver run.

Managers decided to give sports fishermen another crack at the springers below Bonneville Dam, starting May 4 and continuing for four days. With fish numbers still climbing, the sporties' season was extended to May 15. Fishing was already open above Bonneville and in the lower Snake River for hatchery chinook.

April went out with a bang; over 26,000 fish were counted at the dam on the last day of the month. More than 20,000 showed up for May Day. According to PIT-tag data detections at Bonneville, many returning adults were heading for the Snake, where Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials announced April 29 they expected about 50,000 spring chinook to return. About 17,000 of those fish are estimated to be wild. With the latest surge in fish counts, Idaho may have to revise its estimate.

Bill Rudolph
Little Evidence of Last Year's 'Salmon Massacre'
NW Fishletter, May 17, 2002

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