Chinook Return at a Fraction
by Greg Stahl
Salmon fishing season on Upper Salmon River scrapped
It was only a month and a half ago that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced the possibility of a chinook salmon fishing season this fall along the upper reaches of the Salmon River.
That was then.
"We don't think it's going to happen," said Scott Marshall, an Idaho Fish and Game anadromous fish biologist. "We finally got our permits approved, and the run is collapsing around us, basically. It's collapsing around our expectations."
Marshall worked for three years to make the upper Salmon River fishing season a possibility. The season would have returned salmon fishing to the communities of Salmon, Challis and Stanley for the first time in 30 years.
But for some reason, spring chinook returns are at a fraction of expectations. Summer and fall chinook returns may improve, Marshall said, but spring numbers are not a good start.
Looking at the cup half full, there was good news last week when fish counters logged the highest numbers of the season on Thursday, May 5, but overall paltry returns of chinook salmon have fisheries biologists scratching their heads. This was supposed to be a good year.
In 2001, 437,000 fish were checked through Bonneville Dam--the first dam upstream from the mouth of the Columbia River--and the majority of their offspring should be returning this year. Forecasters initially anticipated as many as 254,000 fish, but recent projections ran as low as 70,000.
By early last week, only 851 fish, less than 1 percent of levels seen during 2001's record run, had passed through fish ladders at Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River. Lower Granite is the last dam the fish must pass on their return journey to Idaho.
"Right now, we're estimating that the spring run is going to come in at 25 percent to 30 percent of last year's forecasts," Marshall said. "That is going to leave some limited (fishing) opportunities."
In March, Fish and Game was singing a different tune.
"We believe the number of hatchery fish coming back this year will be large enough to allow anglers to harvest them without jeopardizing (Endangered Species Act) listed stocks," said Sharon Kiefer, Idaho Fish and Game anadromous fisheries manager.
The reason for the optimism was that forecasts, based on the returns of one-year ocean fish called jacks, were good.
"On average you get 10 to 15 spring fish per jack," Marshall said. "The problem is, it's so variable."
Marshall said there are three primary issues that determine how many salmon return to the waters of their birth to renew their life cycles: parent spawning success; the out-migration for young salmon, called smolts; and ocean conditions.
Biologists know that fish that returned in 2001 had good spawning success. That leaves out-migration and ocean conditions as possible reasons for the dismal return of spring chinook salmon. When the year's totals are in later this fall, the data necessary to more completely tell the story will be in.
With early indicators down, Idaho closed a 23-mile stretch of the Snake River on Wednesday, May 4. Indian tribes with treaty rights to salmon agreed Tuesday to suspend all gill-net fishing, including for ceremonial and subsistence purposes.
Pacific Northwest sport-fishing and tribal leaders have said the scarcity of spring chinook, especially after projections of a strong return, will be devastating for businesses and families who depend on the run.
According to one study, salmon-related commerce in 2001 added $90 million to Idaho's economy.
For the upper reaches of the Salmon River and the communities of Salmon, Challis and Stanley, the benefits of the salmon fishing economy are still in the past and, potentially, in the future.
However, the Idaho Fish and Game also closed the lower Snake River salmon season last week. The closed stretch of the Snake runs from the Southway Bridge upstream to the Heller Bar concrete boat ramp.
To minimize the impact recreational fishing might have on naturally produced salmon, Fish and Game will focus on tributary fisheries which target hatchery stocks. Seasons will remain open on the Snake River upstream from Dug Bar, the Clearwater drainage, the lower Salmon River and the Little Salmon River. The department will continue to monitor fish counts to determine whether further adjustments should be made to those seasons.
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