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Fall Chinook Run Begins to Soar

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, September 7, 2004

The Columbia River's fall chinook run has soared the past two weeks, rising from a 500-fish day at Bonneville Dam on Aug. 11 to an early peak on Aug. 29 when daily numbers skyrocketed to more than 27,000 fish. On Sept. 3, University of Washington researchers estimated about 36 percent of the run had passed the dam, and almost doubled their pre-season prediction of the upriver run to 406,000 fish.

The traditional peak day usually occurs around the first week of September, but the fish may be running a bit late. Sept. 6 saw a 26,000-fish day at Bonneville with a 210,000 seasonal count for upriver chinook. In 2003, records were smashed when fish counters went numb tallying two 45,000-fish-plus days on Sept. 11-12, which helped set a new 610,000-fish fall run record at the dam.

However the slow start caused Columbia Basin fish managers to chop off some fishing time for lower Columbia gillnetters after the non-Indian fleet caught more upriver brights (URB) than expected in their early fishing. The fishermen landed about 5,300 chinook by Aug. 11, with URB impact estimated at 41 percent.

Harvest managers had expected the fleet to catch more than twice as many fish by then, with only 12 percent of them upriver brights. The upriver brights tend to run later than lower Columbia runs like the Bonneville Pool "tule" stock that originates from Spring Creek hatchery on the Washington shore. This year's forecast by managers calls for 406,000 brights and 229,000 tules to enter the river.

However, since small numbers of ESA-listed Snake River fall chinook are mixed in with the larger run, the harvest is heavily constrained, even though this year's overall return is expected to be the third highest since 1988. Still, about 50 percent of the falls, both listed and non-listed, are harvested by the time the listed fish reach the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers, with the catch split nearly even between ocean and inriver fisheries.

Inriver harvest has picked up since the fish have appeared in larger numbers, and tribal harvesters began set netting last week, aiming for a quota of 143,400 chinook, with about 57,000 expected to be Hanford Reach URBs With upriver brights estimated to make up nearly half of the run, non-Indian impacts to the upriver brights from inriver fishing is still limited to about 8 percent. Tribal fishermen above Bonneville Dam will be allowed about 24 percent of this year's URB run, with most headed for the productive Hanford Reach.

About 6,100 wild Snake fall chinook are expected to reach the mouth of the Columbia, which is less than one percent of the of the 634,000 fall chinook estimated to enter the river. Harvest managers assume about 32 percent of those listed fish will be caught by non-Indian and tribal harvesters, similar to their allowable harvest rates on URBs.

With another 150,000 low-value tules estimated to be part of the mix, which would make that component the third largest on record, the late-summer harvest may be a repeat of last summer, when tribal fishermen were frustrated by nets full of tules, which kept them from harvesting more of the higher-value upriver brights. In 2003, their season ended before they had reached their URB quota because they had maxed out their limit for listed wild steelhead.

Beyond the Columbia, other fisheries still have large impacts on the upriver bright stock, according to recent data released by the Pacific Salmon Commission that looked at the 2002 season. Southeast Alaska counted on the URBs for about 20 percent of 2002's 425,000-chinook fishery in that region, about the same percentage that B.C. sports and commercial fishermen depended on.

In 2002, all Columbia River fisheries accounted for about 314,000 chinook (net-162,900; ceremonial and subsistence- 59,100; sport- 88,700).

Washington and Oregon trollers and sports fishermen caught far less in the northern part of the West Coast (from Humbug Mountain to the Canadian border), about 181,000 chinook, with URBs making up about 4 percent of their fishery. But they relied on the tules from Spring Creek hatchery for nearly 44 percent of their catch in 2002.

Canadian commercials and sporties who fished off Vancouver Island also caught a lot of hatchery chinook from the Spring Creek facility. According to the salmon commission, Spring Creek chinook made up about 22 percent of their 2002 fishery.

Bill Rudolph
Fall Chinook Run Begins to Soar
NW Fishletter, September 7, 2004

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