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Spring-Chinook Forecast is High

by Mark Jewell, Associated Press
The Seattle Times, April 8, 2000

SPOKANE - Fish-friendly conditions in the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia and Snake rivers are expected to boost the number of returning spring chinook salmon this year to the highest level since 1977.

Biologists forecast 134,000 hatchery-bred and wild spring chinook will make it past the Bonneville Dam on their way to spawning areas on both rivers, said Chris Pettit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Vancouver office yesterday.

"This is a banner year," Pettit said. "They seem to have really survived well."

Early spring chinook counts last month at the dam 30 miles east of Portland were far higher than expected, so the preseason forecast could prove too conservative, Pettit said. Counting of spring chinook at Bonneville ends May 31.

The 138,400 spring chinook counted in 1977 - the highest total since runs totaled more than 200,000 in the early '70s - could be eclipsed, he said. Runs in the 1990s averaged 63,400.

This year's numbers are being closely watched amid the debate over the possible breaching of four lower Snake River dams in southeastern Washington. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering that step and other salmon-restoration options including modifying the dams and increasing barging and trucking of fish around the structures.

Advocates of breaching - removing the dams' earthen portions and allowing water to flow past the concrete remainder - noted yesterday that biologists do not know how many of this year's returning spring chinook are hatchery bred, rather than the wild fish protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

Pettit estimated that less than 15 percent of this spring's returning chinook are wild. Most are four to five years old and about 15 pounds.

Rob Masonis, from the Seattle regional office of the conservation group American Rivers, said this year's predicted run still will fall far short of runs prior to the 1970s.

"I think the fact remains that the stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act are in such desperate shape that it would be foolish and a mistake to say, `Oh, we've got good numbers this year, so we don't need to do the things the scientists say we need to do to improve these runs,' " said Masonis, whose Washington, D.C.-based group supports breaching.

A breaching opponent said this year's forecast indicates programs to make dams more fish friendly without breaching them and improved hatchery fish survival are bearing fruit.

"It's hard to make a case as to why we have to take these draconian measures such as dam breaching . . . when we start seeing healthy runs come back," said Bruce Lovelin, of the Columbia River Alliance, a river-industries group in Portland.

Pettit attributes this year's surging spring chinook run to a cyclical cooling of Pacific Ocean waters off the Northwest coast that began in 1998. The cool-down produced an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that provided more food for salmon.

Lynn Hatcher, tribal fish program manager for central Washington's Yakama Nation, predicted the conditions could be short-lived.

"We'll probably get two good years - this year and next - and then see a natural decline, followed by another eventual increase," he said.

Mark Jewell, Associated Press
Spring-Chinook Forecast is High
Seattle Times, April 8, 2000

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