Fall Chinook Run Hits Big
by Bill Rudolph
The silver horde has arrived. Nearly 90,000 fall chinook were counted in a four-day span from Sept. 3 to Sept. 7 at Bonneville Dam, building quickly from daily returns that numbered in the triple digits as late as Aug. 22. By the end of last week about 138,000 falls had been tallied at the dam. Fish numbers then slowed at the beginning of this week, but went through the roof Sept. 10 when more than 26,000 falls passed the dam, then hit the moon on the 11th when nearly 46,000 went by. The fall run now totals more than 311,000 fish.
The pre-season estimate predicted 600,000 fall chinook would return to the mouth of the Columbia River. Harvest Manager Cindy LeFleur of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said managers will discuss boosting that prediction this week.
Last year's fall run of 733,000 fish to the river mouth was nearly a record and more than double the recent five-year average. It was also 11 percent higher than the pre-season prediction. In 2001, the 543,000-fish return was 89 percent higher than the pre-season prediction.
The ocean may simply be more productive these days than recent harvest models have estimated. One recreational fisher was awestruck by his recent fishing trip off the Washington coast. "There were massive schools of very large (10-12 inch) herring out there," he reported. "We dropped plug-cut herring to a depth of 50 feet, and in 30 minutes of fishing, two of us caught our limit of kings--one at 25 pounds, the other at 32 pounds.
"As the fog lifted we started seeing large areas erupting with herring on the surface--frantic schools being bombed by gulls from above and salmon from below. We fly-fished around those and managed to hook a few large coho," he said. "We chased those schools for a couple of hours. It was amazing to see all that action on the surface."
As it stands, the current estimate for the Columbia River fall run would be the fifth-largest return of fall chinook since 1948. More than 250,000 are expected to be "upriver brights"--fish headed for the Hanford Reach--which would make it the second largest return to that stretch of the Columbia since 1989.
About 100,000 hatchery fish, called "tules," are estimated to return to Bonneville Pool. Tules, ready to spawn by the time they pass the dam, have little commercial value and sell for only a few cents a pound.
But no estimates are yet available for the wild Snake River component of this year's fall chinook run, which is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act--a main reason for the hydro system's $100 million summer spill program.
In fact, a July report that updated fall runs and harvest impacts carried a footnote that said the Snake return estimates for 2001 and 2002, and the prediction for 2003, were missing "because run reconstruction analyses were not completed at the time this report was written."
NOAA Fisheries scientist Norma Jean Sands said her agency has nearly completed its work to come up with the latest estimates of wild fish. The task has been complicated by the release of hundreds of thousands of unclipped hatchery fish each year into the Snake.
Hatchery fish usually sport a clipped adipose fin that distinguishes them from wild fish. But many juvenile fish, part of the Nez Perce Tribe's supplementation program, are not marked that way, despite efforts by some agencies to get the tribe to comply.
The wild run has been low since most spawning areas were blocked by Idaho Power's Hells Canyon complex and have never reached more than about 1,000 fish since the 1970s. In 1990, the run dipped as low as 78 fish, but has rebounded since then, reaching about 900 fish in both 1998 and 1999.
NOAA Fisheries had earlier estimated that about 2,700 wild fall chinook returned to the Snake in 2001, 200 fish more than the agency's interim recovery goal. Scientists judged that most of the 8,900 fish counted at Lower Granite Dam that year were of hatchery origin. In 2002, about 12,400 fall chinook were counted at the dam, with the jury still out on the wild/hatchery makeup.
The hefty run headed for the Columbia has commercial fishermen catching more fish, but still facing low prices when they sell their catch.
One Southeast Alaska purse seiner told NW Fishletter that he caught nearly a million pounds of pink salmon this year, worth 10 cents a pound, but was throwing two to three dozen chinook alive over the side of his boat every time he hauled his net, rather than be paid only 25 cents a pound for them. The chinook were mostly headed for Canada or Lower 48 waters.
Southeast Alaska trollers, whose chinook catch is made up of about 20 percent Hanford Reach fish, were faring better, but still getting less than $1 per pound.
By the time those fish reach the Columbia, however, their commercial value plummets even more. A short gillnet fishery in early August saw upriver brights going for 75 cents a pound and tules selling for a mere 7 cents a pound. Tribal fishers will surely face even lower prices as fish condition wanes.
Harvest agreements call for a 31-percent total harvest rate on the inriver portion of the run, with tribal fishers allotted 23 percent and non-Indians splitting the rest. Ocean fisheries off Alaska, BC and the West Coast catch another 20 percent of the fall run.
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