Preliminary Forecast Showsby Barry Espenson
A first, and admittedly cursory, estimate of next summer's Columbia River fall chinook return would indicate that numbers will again be strong, though not necessarily in the league with those of recent years.
The preliminary 2003 return data shows that nearly 900,000 fall chinook returned from the Pacific Ocean to spawn -- the largest return since 1948. The "outlook for 2004" is a return of about 500,000 adult fish, according to preliminary estimates produced this week by Oregon and Washington Fish and wildlife department staffs. They stressed that the estimates are preliminary.
"The actual forecast will be in February" when state, tribal and federal fisheries experts have had time to analyze more detailed information from the 2003 return, said Cindy LeFleur, the WDFW's Columbia River harvest manager and chairman of the multi-agency Technical Advisory Team that advises the U.S. v Oregon hatchery/harvest discussions.
"We do have some jack information but we don't have age composition for the rest of the return," LeFleur said. The estimates are based in large part on counts of "jacks" -- immature salmon that return to the river after only one year in the ocean. Large numbers of jacks, for example, would likely portend proportionately large returns of their broodmates after two, three, four years in saltwater.
Between now and February the fishery officials will have a better idea of the age composition of the various stocks that made up the 2003 return. That will give them a better idea of how many 3, 4, 5-year olds, etc. to expect to return next year from the various brood years.
Regardless, the immediate future for fall chinook looks bright. In 2002 733,100 fall chinook adults return to the river. That was the largest since 1988, tripled the 1991-1995 average of 241,400 and more than doubled the recent five-year average of 338,200. A 2004 run of 500,000 would still beat those averages, which have been pulled up considerably in recent years.
And the fish could pull off surprises. They defied past trends this past summer when the 900,000 adults showed up instead of the 595,000 projected in the preseason forecast.
There was only an "average" return of upriver bright fall chinook jacks this year, leading to the prediction that the return next year would be near the recent 10-year average of 190,000. That component of the run totaled 380,000 this past summer. That's the second largest number recorded since 1964 -- the year when officials began counting separately brights and other fall chinook stocks bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds on the mainstem above Bonneville Dam. Natural reproduction is found most notably in the Columbia's Hanford Reach, the Snake, Deschutes and Yakima rivers.
The Bonneville Pool hatchery stock -- so-called tules -- recorded their largest return since 1964 with 190,000 adults in 2003. Again there was a "solid" return of jacks so the 2004 run is expected to be strong, though somewhat less that the recent three-year average of 159,000, according to the preliminary ODFW/WDFW estimates. The fish are the product of the Spring Creek hatchery.
The 2003 return of "Mid-Columbia bright" stock was nearly 100,000, the second largest on record. The preliminary estimates are for a strong but more modest return in the range of the recent five-year average -- 62,000.
The lower Columbia River hatchery run experienced a below average return of jacks in 2003, which in led in part of a preliminary forecast for 2004 of a run of less than 100,000. The adult return in 2003 of 190,000 adults was the highest since a 1998 return of 310,000 fish.
The lower river wild fall chinook return in 2004 is expected to be similar to returns in 2000 and 2001 -- 13,000 adults. The 2003 return as 20,000 and the 2002 count was 25,000.
The early bird predictions also say that the coho jack returns this year were only about two-thirds that of 2002, which signaled a modest 700,000 fish return during 2003.
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