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Fall Chinook Forecast Tops 800,000;
Second Highest Since 1948

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 19, 2003

An unprecedented wave of fall chinook salmon washing over Bonneville Dam during the past week have prompted fishery officials to push up their estimates of the overall 2003 return to the Columbia River to the second highest total since 1948.

The new estimated developed Wednesday by the federal/state/tribal Technical Advisory Committee is for a 2003 fall chinook salmon return to the river of 813,300. The largest return since 1948 was a run of 871,000 adult fall chinook in 1987. Last year's count was 733,100.

This year's run was proceeding along at a modest pace toward matching a preseason prediction of 595,000 adult returns. But suddenly, the number of fall chinook swimming toward points beyond Bonneville mushroomed. The daily counts on Sept. 11-14 -- 45,884, 45,579, 41,564 and 39,642 -- all were higher than the previous record daily count, a 39,400 total on Sept. 12, 1987.

The pace of passage has since slackened -- with 28,862-fish count at Bonneville on Monday, 17,991 passing Tuesday, and 12,578 tallied Wednesday. But the total had already reached 484,900 adult fish through Tuesday. That compares to the recent (1997-2001) average count through Sept. 16 of 207,300.

Fish counters were additionally bombarded as cooling air and water temperature apparently jarred steelhead into migration action. The highest upriver summer steelhead count of the year 8,045 -- was recorded Saturday at Bonneville along with nearly 8,000 coho for a total of more than 57,000 adult salmonids. Friday's (Sept. 12) combined fall chinook, coho and steelhead count was also more than 57,000. Sunday's coho count was the highest so far this season with 8,028 passing Bonneville.

The upriver fall chinook forecast was increased greatly across the board. TAC now predicts that 372,000 upriver "brights" will enter the Columbia River's mouth with the vast majority of them bound for Hanford Reach spawning grounds. That prediction jumped from the 258,400-adult preseason forecast and a 263,600 estimate made just last week.

TAC also increased the Mid-Columbia bright fall chinook forecast to 112,000, up from 86,600 preseason and the 88,700 estimate made Sept. 11. The new forecast has 181,000 Bonneville pool hatchery fall chinook, called "tules," returning. The preseason forecast and Sept. 11 forecast was for a return of 101,900.

The fall chinook count through Sept. 16 was comprised of 69 percent brights and 31 percent tules. Historically, 81 percent of the annual upriver bright run, and 89 percent of the tule return, will have passed Bonneville Dam by Sept. 16. The forecasts for lower Columbia stocks are unchanged: 116,900 lower river hatchery fish, 23,400 lower river wild chinook, 1,800 lower river brights and 6,200 select area brights.

The Columbia River Compact met Wednesday to hear the updated run-size information and consider additional non-Indian commercial gill-net fisheries. The Compact's Steve King and Bill Tweit approved a 48-hour fishing period that began at 6 p.m. Wednesday and ends at 6 tonight (Sept. 19) and a 24-hour fishery that begins at 6 p.m. Sunday. The fisheries are open in the lower Columbia mainstem from Beacon Rock below Bonneville to the mouth. The fishers can keep and sell salmon and sturgeon, but not steelhead. Tweit and King represent, respectively, the Washington and Oregon department of fish and wildlife directors.

The Compact, which sets Columbia mainstem commercial seasons, last week approved a tribal fishery in the mainstem pools above Bonneville that began Tuesday morning and ends at 6 tonight. The lower Columbia treaty tribes can catch and sell chinook, coho, steelhead, walleye, carp and shad, but can only keep sturgeon for subsistence purposes.

The tribes had caught 28,662 fall chinook through a fishery that ended Sept. 5. Catch totals for fisheries carried out during the past two weeks were not yet available. The Compact met this morning to consider additional tribal and non-Indian fisheries.

The non-Indian gill-net fleet had through Monday caught more than 17,600 fall chinook, 2,300 coho and 2,200 sturgeon. The bulk of those fish were caught during a pair of August fisheries.

The non-Indian fishers only caught 2,245 chinook and 2,045 during a 16-hour fishery Monday, in large part because much of the fleet stayed home to protest low prices being paid by wholesale fish buyers for coho. Only 39 fish "deliveries" were tallied following the fishery, as compared to 699 deliveries during two August fisheries that netted more than 15,000 chinook.

This week's non-Indian gill-net fishery was intentionally made brief by the Compact in anticipation of the huge numbers of fish passing upriver. It was feared that a big gill-net effort in the lower river would take too big of a bite out of the fleet's allowed impact on the upriver bright run. Non-Indian fishers are allowed an overall impact of 8.25 percent on the upriver bright run, a limit set to Snake River fall chinook that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Sport fishers get 52 percent of non-tribal impacts and the gill-netters get 48 percent.

With the new forecast, the non-tribal fishers would have to catch 102,900 chinook to reach the 8.25 percent impact limit. The sport impacts are expected to include 28,000 in the lower Columbia mainstem fishery, 16,800 at Buoy 10 near the river's mouth and 2,500 in the reservoirs above Bonneville.

The gill netters still are more than 20,000 chinook below their impact limit for September, with fishery managers allotting another 4,800 in chinook catches in the lower river during October. But commercial fishers were grumbling Wednesday that too little fishing was allowed in August, when fish were in prime shape for marketing. The allocation of the allowable harvest over the course of the fall season is decided during wintertime "North of Falcon" fishing negotiations.

"We're late on this big run of fish," said Gary Soderstrom, a commercial fisher and president of the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union. He said the quality of the fish is dropping rapidly as time elapses and the salmon near the end of their spawning run.

"We should get every minute we can right now," Soderstrom said.

"We look at this proposal as one week late," said Les Clark of the Northwest Gill-netters Association.

"We're probably not going to get our impacts again this year," said Clark, who noted that that more than 80 percent of the runs have passed Bonneville and out of non-tribal commercial fishing waters.

The gill netters testifying Wednesday argued for more predictability in the states' management of fisheries during the August-to-October season. That allows them to better establish and hold markets for the fish.

"This (11th-hour decision-making) keeps pushing them back to the farmed fish," Bruce Cruikshanks said of the wholesale markets. He said the fisheries set early in the season were too conservative. Chris Heuker agreed.

"We need to catch them, then we need to sell them," Heuker said of the difficulty of marketing late-season fish because of overall reduced quality or condition of the fish.

Jim Wells urged the states next year to consider test fisheries, using a small number of nets, to better gauge the progress of the run in the lower river. The prime tools used now are the counts at Bonneville.

More coho are likely on the way. The WDFW's Joe Hymer report that in Marine Area 1, which includes the north Oregon coast and area off the mouth of the Columbia, anglers last week averaged 1.3 salmon per rod. The catch was 91 percent coho with the balance chinook. Through Sunday Sept. 14, more than 100,000 coho had been caught. An estimated 89.7 percent of the coho quota for the area had been taken through last weekend.

Coho catches at Buoy 10 have been reported to range from one-half to a fish per rod. Chinook catches have dropped way off in recent days, Hymer reported.

In the Lower Columbia below Bonneville Dam, the WDFW sampled more than 1,900 anglers with 1,000 adult chinook kept. Boat anglers averaged nearly 0.6 adult chinook kept per rod while bank anglers averaged one per every four rods.

The wealth of fish is slowly moving up river with angler success growing in the Bonneville pool, the Hanford Reach and elsewhere.

The sharp increase in fall chinook dam counts prompted the WDFW to announce Wednesday that the salmon daily limit is increased to include up to four adults in the Hanford Reach. The rule change is effective from Sept. 19 through Dec. 31in the area from the Hwy. 395 bridge at Pasco to Old Hanford town site wooden powerline towers) and from Sept. 19 through Oct. 22 in the area from the Old Hanford town site to Priest Rapids Dam.

The adult fall chinook count at McNary Dam -- the last dam the fish pass before reaching the reach -- through Sept. 16 had already reached 83,000 with six weeks of counting still to come. In 1987, the largest fall chinook run prior to this year, 57,000 adult chinook were counted at McNary through Sept. 16 and the total Bonneville Dam count was 337,000. The final count at McNary should easily exceed 200,000 adult chinook, WDFW officials predict.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
Fall Chinook Forecast Tops 800,000; Second Highest Since 1948
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 9, 2003

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