the film

Forecast Down for Columbia Chinook

by Allen Thomas, staff writer
The Columbian, December 15, 2005

An estimated 88,400 spring chinook salmon will enter the Columbia River in 2006 destined for waters upstream of Bonneville Dam, the smallest upriver run in six years

The run is forecast to include 16,500 5-year-old spring chinook and 71,900 4-year-olds, said Cindy LeFleur, chairman of the technical committee of Columbia River state, federal and tribal fishery officials. Five-year-olds are slightly larger and tend to return a bit earlier than 4-year-olds.

Spring chinook are the premier salmon of the Columbia River.

They are great table fare and earn $4 to $5 a pound for commercial fishermen. They also are highly prized by sportsmen, fueling a frenzied angling armada on the lower Columbia from Tongue Point to Bonneville Dam. Parking lots at boat ramps during spring chinook season often are full before 5 a.m.

Upper Columbia spring chinook runs were in the 13,000 to 124,000 range during the 1990s, then spiked to a peak of 438,000 in 2001.

"Prior to 2000, we'd have killed for a run of 88,400,'' said Steve Watrous of Vancouver, founder of the Columbia Pacific Anglers Association. "I guess you've got to put this in perspective.''

Upper Columbia-origin chinook are the major component of the spring run, along with fish headed for Oregon's Willamette River.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is expected to complete its forecast for the Willamette River any day, but preliminary projections are for a return similar to the 60,600 of 2005 or smaller.

Smaller runs of spring chinook also return to the Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis rivers in Washington and the Sandy River in Oregon.

Harvest management of spring chinook is complicated and often contentious.

Under federal Endangered Species Act guidelines and tribal catch-sharing agreements, non-Indians can harvest up to 2 percent of the wild upper Columbia spring chinook in the river downstream of Bonneville if the run exceeds 82,000.

If the run is less than 82,000, the non-Indian rate drops to 1.5 percent. If the run is less than 55,000, the non-Indian share is 1 percent. If the run is less than 33,000, non-Indians get 0.5 percent.

Washington and Oregon fishery managers take a very conservative approach to assure those guidelines and agreements are not exceeded.

Complicating matters in 2006, is that the prediction of 88,400 is barely above the 82,000 threshold where the non-Indian share drops, and the forecasts have been much higher than actual returns in the past two years.

Then there's the issue of how to split whatever the non-Indian share is between sport and commercial fishermen. A sport-commercial catch-sharing agreement on spring chinook expired in 2005.

The Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife commissions will decide in mid-January on a new allocation regime. For the past two springs, the allocations were 60 percent for sportsmen and 40 percent for the commercials.

Commercial fishermen have made no secret they'd like a 50-50 split, while some sport-fishing interests say they want enough spring chinook to fish into May without a closure.

In 2005, commercial fishing closed on March 31 and sport fishing downstream of Bonneville Dam on April 20 to avoid exceeding catch allocations. Sport fishing resumed on June 4 when it became apparent the run was slightly larger than earlier thought.

Among sportsmen, there's also the question whether to limit fishing to downstream of Interstate 5.

By staying below the mouth of the Willamette River at Kelley Point, the catch of upper Columbia spring chinook is diluted by Willamette fish, allowing for a larger total catch before using up the sport share.

The down side is that popular and productive fishing water between I-5 and Bonneville Dam is off-limits.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet on Jan. 6 in Salem to decide on spring chinook allocation issues.

The Washington commission will take up the topic on Jan. 13 or 14 in Olympia.

The Columbia River Compact will meet on Jan. 26 in Oregon City to set initial commercial fishing dates and sport fishing rules.

Upper Columbia Spring chinook
Year Run Size
2000 186,100
2001 437,900
2002 331,300
2003 242,600
2004 221,600
2005 106,900
2006 88,400*


Allen Thomas, staff writer
Forecast Down for Columbia Chinook
The Columbian, December 15, 2005

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation